Ferrari California Handling Speciale review (2012 onwards)
What - Ferrari California Handling Speciale
Date - April 2012
Where - Maranello, Italy
Price - from £156,436
Available - Now
Key rivals - Aston Martin Virage Volante, Mercedes SL 63 AMG
Summary - The Handling Speciale option adds more focus to the California driving experience, but the uprated regular model has far broader appeal.
We like - Fabulous performance, faster and more direct steering, quality of the interior
We don't like - Suspension too firm for regular UK road use, list price just a tease for the actual price you'll end up paying.
There are those who reckon the California is, well, a bit soft. Designed with female drivers in mind, with its folding hard top that may only rarely be opened up, it's an expression of the ultimate West Coast cruiser.
That's an understandable point of view, but one we've never subscribed to. Sure, the cheapest Ferrari can be driven around in automatic mode with as little fuss as an Audi TT. But when you dig into the lexicon of hidden attributes, it's as stimulating as a Ferrari should be, a thrilling machine that offers increasingly greater rewards the more you ask of it.
And yet. The success of California has largely been down to attracting new buyers into the brand. 70% have never owned a Ferrari before, and there's little doubt that the California's superficially benign character has its attractions.
Three years down the line it's a time for a makeover, and Ferrari has gone somewhat overboard. There's an extra 30hp, taking to peak figure to a heady 490hp, but the chassis alterations are not far short of a complete redesign.
Physically it looks much the same, but every chassis part has been reconsidered, 60% of them are new, and a host of new technical aluminium alloys are employed. It seems an amazing expense when sales of old and new versions combined are unlikely to top 16,000 in total. And the weight saving is a mere 30kg.
Concurrently Ferrari launches the Handling Speciale option. It's aimed at that other 30% of buyers, serial Ferrari owners who want a more dynamic drive at the expense of ride comfort. A California track day car? Seems like a curious idea.
You could drive around in the California all day, every day, without tapping into more than a third of its potential, or even realising it exists. The seven-speed double-clutch transition has a user-friendly Auto mode, and with the Manettino switch on the steering wheel set to Comfort, all is sweetness and light.
Dig deeper, though, and there's explosive performance for the asking. Switching the Manettino to Sport sharpens up the responses and then it's a matter of pressing the throttle as hard as you dare.
The California gets illegally fast in blink of an eyelid. 62mph is reached in 3.8 seconds, the top speed is 194mph. Obviously it's no pussycat, but then there's never any doubt from the cacophonous roar of the V8. This is a simply thrilling car to drive.
It's hard to conclude much about the extra horsepower, lower weight and resultant improvements in power-to-weight ratio. With the numbers of the original car already so impressive, the small extra dose is hard to detect on the wet roads in the hills around the Ferrari factory.
More apparent is the boost in torque in the mid-range, giving the California more thrust from 3,000 rpm, and thus a punchy, easier manner when driving fast but not flat out.
It's fun leaving the drive in Sport Auto and then playing with the paddle shifts at the corners or when overtaking. After a bit it defaults back to automatic mode, but even then if you are driving hard the downshifts come quickly one after another when you are braking for a bend. It's very satisfying.
Ride and handling
The options when you buy a Ferrari are myriad, one reason why the base price of £152k is so highly optimistic. The Handling Speciale pack is £4,320 extra, which includes the Magneride dual mode 'SCM' shock absorber system. However, a £200,000 Ferrari California is just a few button presses away on the configurator.
In Handling Speciale form the front and rear springs are stiffened by 15% and 11% respectively, the steering is 9% faster and the new computer logic to the SCM suspension control cuts down on body roll in the corners.
It's a sort of GT3 to the 911, and although not that extreme, there's an undoubted logic to the idea. If you want to take your California on a track day, then you'll want this chassis.
If you don't, then steer clear. It's much firmer than the numbers suggest, and transmits bumps at unexpected times, like at high speed when it's unsettling on less-than-smooth roads. The faster steering is the one point that works well at any time.
The Magneride suspension always has been a nice option, varying damping levels according to your driving style, and it suits the California very well indeed. We'd go for that every time.
There are no changes here, so the luscious leather interior, with multi-way adjustable leather seats, electric steering column adjust and red button on the steering wheel to start the engine, remain.
There are a couple of 'seats' behind, though coats are more likely than people here. Boot space is reasonable and access not too bad with the roof down, though the framework does cause an obstruction.
It's not quiet. There's a new, free-flowing exhaust manifold to help gain that extra 30hp, and my feeling is that the California is noisier because of this. Certainly there's a low frequency drone unbecoming of a grand touring car. But Ferrari says, no, it's no different to the previous model.
The folding aluminium roof does a cycle in 14 seconds, though it has neither the ability to open or close on the move nor a power close button for the boot lid - quite an omission at this high end of the market.
Economy and safety
Ferrari showed off the bare chassis of the California at its Carrozzeria Scaglietti plant in Modena, placing great emphasis on its strength and security in an accident. On a more prosaic level there is the usual bunch of airbags for occupant protection.
The fuel economy is unchanged at 21.5mpg, but CO2 has been squeezed down just below the 300g/km level. There's also Ferrari's HELE - High Emotion Low Emission - option for around £1,000 that offers a further slight improvement on both figures.
The MSN Cars verdict
We'd probably give the regular California five stars but this Handling Speciale model is too focused on an extreme condition that we reckon doesn't exist - the California as an aggressive roadster.
There are other Ferraris that play this trick better, so enjoy the California for what it does best, mixing comfort and touring ability with the ability to thrill when you dig a little deeper.
Need to know
Engines, petrol 4.3 V8
Power hp 490
Torque, lb ft 372
0-62 mph, secs 3.8
Top speed, mph 194
Mpg combined 21.5
CO2, g/km / Tax 299/35%