“But, how is the engine?”
Giancarlo Ferrari grins.
No relation by the way — around Modena everyone is Ferrari. It’s like Smith. This engine designer’s next check on the calendar is Geneva, to premiere the 488 Pista, the one that makes 185 horsepower per litre. Giancarlo knows engines.
Just as I’m out the door after a rainy drive all over rutted southern Italian roads, he has little patience for my mutterings on the chassis, the electric steering, the tug on the downshifts. But, how is the engine?
Internal combustion is still in the heart of Maranello, true to Enzo’s words — “Aerodynamics are for those who can’t build engines.” Giancarlo came over to the company’s road side of the business from the F1 Scuderia, and Ferrari’s idea of a gran turismo cruiser isn’t the magnum opus one Italian engine guy hopes for.
So I have to let him down gently: “Well, you see, the thing is… I still remember the 430 Scuderia.”
Giancarlo smiles. Previously at dinner, his talk turned to the Aston Martin DB11, the first generation Multipla, the Lamborghini Urus, and the Fiat Panda 4x4. This is just a car guy, and in this car guys are united.
And there’s the gist of it — the 3.9-litre twin-turbocharged V8 in the front of the new Ferrari Portofino is fantastic, soured only by the wistful memory of Ferrari’s naturally aspirated engines that revved to nine thousand.
On its own, in this class, there’s little to touch it. For the California’s replacement, 10 years later, Ferrari decided to change everything including the name to signify the strides made. So the 2018 Portofino looks miles better than before, with a lighter roof that now pops down in 14 seconds at up to 40kph, and drives like no GT should. It’s too stiff and harsh for that, straddling the supercar segment rather than Maranello’s own benchmarks.
The company says they see most competition coming from the Mercedes-AMG SL, the Bentley Continental GT, and the Aston Martin DB11 (not to mention the Porsche 911 Turbo Cabriolet), but really the Portofino is too instant in its response and verging on the side of brutal in Sport mode with the kick in the back from every downshift.
Even the shift paddles behind the wheel suggest the demographic has been skewed here — they are fixed, long, and sprung so that every time you shift you can feel the function taking place here. They’re gears, changing, cogs, metal on metal, and you can feel that here. That’s not what GTs do, that’s what proper sportscars do.
And when a car’s powertrain is good enough to actually invite the driver to use the shift paddles manually, you know that something great is happening. Normally in this job these flappy paddles end up in auto, especially when you have flimsy ones that may as well adjust the volume for all you know.
It doesn’t take long, then, to get into a fast rhythm behind the wheel of the new Portofino, banking on bags of torque to play with just two or three gears and cover ground way too quickly. The electric steering may not provide much road feel, but it’s direct and instantaneous and only the squared-off bottom gets in the way of the flow.
Perhaps it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the Portofino comes overqualified for the GT segment. Ferrari has here a two-wheel drive car with 600 horsepower and 760Nm of torque. With improvements like a new stiffer, lighter body, 35 per cent increased rigidity, and an E-diff coupled to generous electronics, it’s far too easy to apply this power to the road, and only greasy surfaces will get you into trouble while the rest of the time the car proves docile, responsive, and understeery when you overdo it.
We’re not talking about 488 levels of involvement at all — the engine has sharper response than the old car, with a totally new intake and exhaust system although it still only makes a noise, for example, and somehow there’s an underlying contradiction here, between the very concept of the Portofino and its execution. You’re just not used to a front-engined 2+2 convertible riding so firmly and purposefully. But it’s all a part of the Ferrari experience — the company says over a third of annual sales were accounted for by the California, with 70 per cent of buyers coming fresh into the brand. Those things got driven too, with 85 per cent of owners citing daily or regular use, and nearly a third of them utilising the rear seats once in a while.
As a 2+2 with a useable boot and a neater interior than the California complete with a proper infotainment system on a 10.2in screen, Giancarlo, diplomatically, calls the Portofino the most rational a Ferrari can get. At least until the Chinese start signing deposit cheques for that SUV.
The Portofino also gets carbon ceramic brakes as standard equipment, and seeing as the weight was dropped over the old car (80kg less in total, mostly from the chassis and the interior with 20 per cent lighter new seats) there was no need to go up in size so the disc and even wheel and tyre dimensions remain. Despite the carbon ceramics you normally associate with grabby reactions, the Portofino is fine around town and the middle pedal shoves back nicely when you’re on it.
And the throttle pedal, well that one’s just fine — the Portofino picks up and goes a fair bit, with zero to 100kph in three and a half seconds, but after that it really goes, particularly if you ignore presumptions and rev this turbocharged V8 well past 7,000rpm.
If you think you’re getting a GT you’ll also be happy to know the wind deflector is now 30 per cent more useful, and that those new seats are 18-way electrically adjustable. Otherwise all this Nappa leather in here, and all the plastic, it won’t hold up so well to your pet cheetah.
And in case you’re shopping for a true GT experience you should shop elsewhere — the Portofino may be reasonably useable and great to drive but you’ll want to take the Bentayga or G63 on your longer trips unless you know the road is smooth all the way.
As an introduction to the Ferrari brand, this is a good first impression.
I wonder how much used Scuderias are going for…