Road test: Ferrari California T with Handling Speciale pack

  • Parkers heads to Italy to test California T's new optional extra pack
  • Tweaks to suspension, exhaust and gearbox enhance driver enjoyment
  • At £5,568 it looks cheap against a £155,230 list price; makes GT car even better

In our minds, the Ferrari California T represents the best Ferrari for road use in the UK, and among the most impressive for an extended road trip. As the entry point into the firm’s range – around half of all sales go to customers new to the brand - it’s accessible yet exciting, but if anything it was a little too soft for the keener drivers among us, especially when compared with the likes of the Mercedes-AMG SL63, this car’s most direct rival.

Priced at £155,230 before the inevitable optional extras, it’ll also appeal to customers of Porsche’s 911 Turbo S Cabriolet (an impressively fast and capable driver’s car) and the soon-to-be-launched drop-top version of the Audi R8 (called the Spyder), a machine that impressed us hugely both on the road and the race track in Coupe form.

A sportier version of a turbocharged V8 GT?

That’s where the Handling Speciale package comes in. It costs £5,568 and is designed to make the California T a more engaging performance car. Its main benefit is widening the gap between Comfort and Sport modes on the firm’s manettino switch – the race-inspired jelly bean-shaped control on the steering wheel (pictured below) whose only other setting is to switch off all of the electrical safety nets.

It’s to appeal to those 20 percent or so of buyers who value driver feedback yet want to retain the easy-going nature of the first modern turbocharged Ferrari; a car that isn’t too wide for our roads, isn’t too highly strung to drive in traffic and even has some semblance of usable boot space, unlike the Jaguar F-Type Convertible. It’s a cabriolet for long distances, so there’s a delicate balance to be struck: too hard and it won’t be a GT any longer. Too soft and no-one will bother.

What’s the new Ferrari California HS like to drive?

It’s louder and sounds better, thanks to the inclusion of a sports exhaust. It’s firmer because the suspension has been stiffened, thus improving the handling. It’s lower, and it’s more desirable.

The pack’s name starts with Handling, and that’s something this company does almost without rival, so you can expect it won’t deal too well with potholes. That said, there’s still a compliance there that makes it bearable day-to-day, even on our shamefully poor road surfaces.

Though a touch choppy, motorway driving isn’t at all uncomfortable in Comfort mode, despite the fact that it’s 16 percent stiffer than the regular California T at the front end and 19 percent at the rear. The magnetorheological dampers are filled with a type of fluid that reacts to magnetic fields, meaning you can stiffen the suspension for flatter cornering but less bump resilience – they're included in the HS pack as standard, or available separately for £3,168. Here they've had their controlling software reconfigured, promising a more stable poise and faster-reacting body control.

We can report the changes have made a marked impact on this Ferrari’s driveability. In Sport mode especially, it feels a lot more controlled and eager to change direction, but it’s still not the intimidating razor-sharp monster you might expect. This is no 458 Speciale, for example. It’s still very much a car to use every day.

Its super-fast steering feels wonderful in a way you sense other car makers shy away from. It’s instantly recognisable as a Ferrari set-up – light and arrow-sharp – and makes the car feel even smaller than its footprint suggests. The suspension changes have helped here too, offering more communication about what’s happening under the front tyres and allowing you to bring the adjustable rear end into play with the throttle if you’re feeling frisky.

Unintimidating and easy to drive

We’re pleased to report the ‘bumpy road’ button still features on the steering wheel, which allows the driver to set the car to Sport mode but retain softer suspension - ideal for the UK, in other words.

The other chassis tweaks are limited to a remapped traction control system to get the power down better on the exit of corners – something we felt still cut in a little too heavy-handedly, even in Sport mode. We’d have preferred more slip, but conversely it’s testament to the user-friendly nature of the California T that if you switch all the electronic nannying off, it’s not going to try and kill you on every bend.

There’s a huge amount of grip on offer from the Pirelli tyres, but keen drivers can still apply power to make the rear end swing around predictably enough. It’s not intimidating to say the least, which is great news considering this company is also responsible for the lunatic 458 Speciale – a car that almost always feels too big and fast for road driving in the UK, let alone if you’re mad enough to start switching off the safety nets.

Carbon-ceramic brakes (which should last the average road driver 65,000 miles between pad replacement) are standard and mind-bogglingly effective with their huge stopping power: they never fade even after hard use, yet remain progressive and docile at lower speeds. You don’t end up headbutting the steering wheel in traffic jams, which is more than can be said for certain rival ceramic brakes we've tried.

Gearbox tweaks but engine left alone

The Cali HS uses the same gearbox, but its software has been redone following learnings from the firm’s five-star F12berlinetta and 488 models, so changes can happen far quicker (up to 30 percent, in fact) than before.

The shift action is brilliant at low speeds, making this an easy car to drive in city centres (helped too by the surprisingly small turning circle) but click the manettino round to its Sport or further to switch everything off and it rifles through the gears with ferocity. It’s at its best in manual mode, using the fixed shifters on the steering column to select the next of the seven available ratios.

While the flat-crank V8 turbocharged engine itself remains untouched, it does sound more interesting. The exhaust system has been redesigned for a more purposeful noise; but it’s not just louder when you push the engine start button. It’s noisier over the majority of the rev range.

Just don’t expect the same sonorous crescendo enjoyed in non-turbocharged Ferraris, because this is a different, somewhat more industrial sound, best enjoyed with the roof off so you can take in the whooshes of the twin-turbocharger set-up along with the crackles and bangs this Ferrari makes between periods of hard acceleration.

How can I spot a California with the Handling Speciale kit?

You’ll have to look closely to identify a Handling Speciale California T.

Matt black tailipipes, a corresponding shade for the front grille and dedicated plaques for the interior are the only hints that this is something more than your ‘average’ drop-top V8 Ferrari. In that respect it’s a connoisseur’s choice, as well as a driver’s.

Verdict

Deliveries for the California T with the Handling Speciale package begin in September 2016, but if you’ve already got a car without it, unfortunately you can’t retro-fit.

Time to look at swapping into a newer model? We’d give it some very serious thought. It’s a very well-judged upgrade to an already stellar machine, adding an enthusiast-centric element to one of the most flexible and accessible cars in the Ferrari line-up without alienating its core following.