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It’s not often that the rest of us get to look down our noses at Ferrari owners, and sadly, with the arrival of the new and genuinely gorgeous Portofino four-seat convertible, that time is over.
Previously, it was possible to openly mock people in this car’s predecessor, the California, for buying a 'cheap' Ferrari, or even an ugly, soft one, if you were feeling particularly cruel.
Launched a decade ago, the 'Cali' was seen as a desperate attempt to woo America, and global, poseurs to the brand. The kind of people who loved the idea of a Ferrari, but were intimidated by the reality.
No one would argue this big-butted, bulbous vehicle was the prettiest thing ever to come out of Italy - even Silvio Berlusconi is more attractive - but Ferrari can claim to have had the last laugh.
Dropping its prices and creating a new, easy-to-live-with entry model was the prancing panacea it was looking for, with 70 per cent of California buyers being new to the brand.
The success of its replacement, the Portofino, which is more Italian in style and title, seems almost assured, because it will still be accessible - in relative terms, at a sniff under $400,000 - but now it is something its predecessor (even after a design makeover in 2014) never was; stunningly beautiful.
But is it as good to drive as it looks? We flew to Bari, in southern Italy, to find out.
|Ferrari Portofino 2018: Base|
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How does one assess value with a brand like Ferrari? Frankly, people almost want to pay too much for a car like this, because buying one is often more about flashing your wealth than a particular passion for Italian engineering, particularly at this entry-level point.
This ability to get away with gouging its customers has made Ferrari one of the most profitable companies in the world. According to Bloomberg, its adjusted earnings (before interest, taxes, deprecation and amortisation) were 29.5 per cent of its total sales in the first quarter of 2017.
Only Apple, with its 31.6 per cent profit margin, and fashion brand Hermes International, at 36.5 per cent, can beat that.
So, value is relative, but what buyers are getting for the $399,888 asking price in Australia is more than just a car, and the ability to be stung, repeatedly, for expensive options.
The spec for our cars, which will arrive in July, isn’t set yet, but you can expect to pay extra for everything from carbon-fibre trim to seat heaters and even the nifty 'Passenger Screen', which puts a digital dash and touchscreen in front of your co-pilot. Apple CarPlay is standard, however.
Okay, shout me down if you will, but I just can’t see how they could have made a car of this size and shape, with two-plus-two seating and a folding hard top, more beautiful than it is.
It’s such a huge step forward from the heavy-handed California that the only features they seem to share are the Ferrari badge and four round wheels.
It looks stunning from behind, roof up or down, and its vents and scoops and swoops are all perfectly proportioned and, if the engineers are to be believed, practical as well.
That big scallop in front of the doors helps suck air through the headlight surrounds, which is used to cool the brakes and reduce drag, for example.
Huge effort was also made to reduce the weight of this car (it shaves 80kg off the California T), through the use of everything from magnesium seats to an all-new aluminium underbody, which not only aids air flow and downforce, but adds structural rigidity.
Sure, it looks pretty in pictures, but in the metal it really is something to behold. Ferrari doesn’t always get it right, and this isn’t quite as wondrous as a 458, but considering it’s a GT and not a super car, it’s pretty damn impressive, whether it’s in coupe mode or convertible. The interior is also properly expensive in both look and feel.
Considering the company’s own customer research shows that California owners use the rear seats in their cars on 30 per cent of journeys, it’s quite surprising that the Portofino comes with effectively no padding at all for the spines of those small enough to slot into the back.
Apparently there’s 5cm more legroom than there used to be back there, but it’s still never going to be enough for a human adult (there are two ISOFIX points).
This is, of course, a '2+2' rather than a four-seater, and effectively that back seat is an area for storing the bags you won’t be able to fit in the boot when the roof is down. Ferrari claims you can get three wheeled travel cases back there, but they’d have to be small ones.
On the plus side, the front seats are very comfortable and I was fine for headroom, but taller colleagues did look squeezed with the roof up.
Yes, there are two cupholders for your coffee, and a nicely lined storage tray for your phone, and the central 10.25-inch touchscreen is lovely to look at and to use.
While Ferrari says it started with an entirely clean piece of paper for the Portofino, someone had clearly written “no new engine block for you” on said piece.
It may not be entirely new, but the award-winning 3.9-litre V8 does get all new pistons and conrods, new software, improved twin-scroll turbochargers, new air intakes and exhaust.
The result is, as you’d expect, more power than ever, at a whopping 441kW/760Nm, and the ability to rev to a newly stratospheric 7500rpm. Ferrari says this is class leading, and we’d tend to believe them.
Shifts from the also unchanged seven-speed, 'F1' gearbox have been improved as well, apparently, and they do feel absurdly sharp.
The raw performance numbers are anything but soft, too, at 3.3 seconds for the 0-100km/h dash, or 10.8 for the 0-200km/h blast.
That 80kg weight saving comes in handy for fuel economy as well, with a claimed combined cycle figure of 10.7 litres per 100km and emissions of 245g of CO2 per km.
Good luck ever getting near that 10.7 figure in the real world, however, because the performance is simply too tempting.
Apparently there are some people who buy Ferraris despite the noise they make, rather than because of it. They probably wire their houses with Bang & Olufsen stereos and never turn the volume above three. Honestly, being rich is wasted on rich people.
To satisfy the kind of customers who commute daily in their Portofinos and don’t want to go deaf, it comes with an electric bypass valve that means it’s “quite moderate” at idle, and in 'Comfort' mode it is designed to be quiet for “city environments and long trips”.
In practice, it seems slightly schitzo in this mode, switching between utter silence and a donkey braying in a disturbing fashion.
Strangely, even in 'Sport' mode it has start-stop, which - if you know Ferrari’s reliability history - is also a worry. Every time you stop you think you might have broken down.
On the plus side, more of the V8’s glorious noise is unleashed in Sport, but you still have to belt it a bit to get it to properly sing. Some of my colleagues just hated the sound in general, claiming that the switch to turbocharging has ruined the Ferrari scream the way Axl Rose ruined AC/DC.
Personally, I could put up with it, because at anything above 5000rpm it still makes your ears cry tears of joy.
In driving terms, the Portofino is a big leap ahead of the California in pace, punch and poise. The chassis feels tauter, the new 'E-Diff 3', borrowed from the awesome 812 Superfast, allows you to get your power down out of corners and the car is, as you would hope, occasionally terrifying if you provoke it.
Ferrari, funny folk they are, decided to launch the car in southern Italy because they thought it might be warmer in mid-winter. It wasn’t, and they also discovered, too late, that the roads in the Bari region are made from a particular kind of sandy stone that has all the grip qualities of ice with diesel poured on it.
This meant that any kind of enthusiasm in or near a roundabout would lead to slip at both ends as all that power scrabbled for purchase. Hilarious from the passenger seat, this was less joyful when driving.
There is, however, one large and possibly contentious failing with this car. Ferrari’s engineers, a passionate bunch, insist they moved to electronic power steering with the Portofino because it is simply better than hydraulic systems.
One also admitted to me that they are now operating in a world where people’s first experience of driving is usually on a PlayStation, and thus they want lightness instead of weighting.
In a GT car like this, and one that many owners will use every day, it is perhaps unrealistic to expect the kind of meaty, manly and marvellous steering you’ll find in a Ferrari 488.
Personally, though, the EPS set-up for the Portofino is just too light, too disconnected and too damaging to the sense of oneness between human and machine you expect to feel when driving a Ferrari fast.
It’s as if almost everything about the experience is fantastic, but a piece is missing. Like a Big Mac without the special sauce, or champagne without alcohol content.
Will it bother the people who actually buy this car, rather than whinging old motoring journos? Probably not, to be fair.
Ferrari doesn’t like to spend money, so it doesn’t give cars to Euro NCAP for testing, which means no star rating. You are protected by many, many clever stability and traction-control systems, and four airbags - one front and one side for driver and passenger. AEB? Not likely. The sensors wouldn’t look nice.
Frankly, though, is safety relevant when you'd be so upset if you crashed a Ferrari you'd probably feel like dying anyway.
We'll have no jokes about Italian reliability, thanks very much, because Portofino owners will have nothing to worry about, thanks to the company's Kia-bettering seven-year 'Genuine Maintenance' program.
Owners who buy from an authorised Ferrari dealer get complimentary scheduled maintenance for the first seven years of the car's life.
"Genuine Maintenance is Ferrari’s exclusive program that helps to ensure that its vehicles are maintained to the highest level for maximum performance and safety. The program is unique – this is the first time a vehicle manufacturer offers such coverage worldwide and is evidence of the attention Ferrari gives to its clients," Ferrari tells us.
And if you sell the car within seven years, the next owner benefits from whatever coverage is left. Generous. The program includes original parts, labour, engine oil and brake fluid.
It's not often that you'll see the words 'value for money' and 'Ferrari' in the same sentence, but you just have.
The Ferrari Portofino comes with a ready-made market of well-heeled types who are desperate to spend lots of money on a car, and to attach themselves to one of the world’s most admired luxury brands. And this is now the most affordable way to do so.
Being a bit rubbish, and quite unattractive, didn’t halt the success of the California, so the fact that the Portofino is so much better looking, quicker and better to drive means it should be a smash hit for Ferrari.
Indeed, it deserves to be, it’s just a slight shame about the steering.
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