They say you're never more than a metre away from a rat in London. So, I've flown to Maranello where, far more pleasantly, you're surrounded by Ferraris. I fling open the balcony doors at the Maranello Palace Hotel and my quaint room is filled by the raucous soundtrack of V8 and V12 Fezzas thundering up and down the secluded roads. It's an incredible noise, which rises to a crescendo right outside my quarters. My ears are twitching with delight. Upon peering to my right, my eyes almost pop out of my head.
The view is not of the luscious hills. It's much better. It's the imposing sight of the home of the Prancing Horse. The famous old factory is just a stone's throw away, making this hotel the perfect stay for a Ferrarista. But, if you're not a lover of the brand, worry not, for Ferrari has been catering to a whole new audience since the 2008 debut of the California.
It was the first Fezza with a mid-front mounted V8, dual clutch tranny and a retractable hard-top. Now, the sheer beauty of this GT has never been in question. Its performance, however, has. Some felt it to be a bit softly sprung. Others thought it a tad overweight. There's certainly no getting away from the fact it's the slowest Ferrari in the stable. Not that hitting 0-100kph in four seconds is slow.
In the three or so years it's been around, over 8,000 units have found happy homes worldwide — 70 per cent to new customers to the brand. It's been a massive success. But Ferrari doesn't measure progress by sales figures. No. How good a car is, is denoted by weight reduction and an increase in horsepower, and this California has benefited from both. The fire in its belly has been stoked by 30bhp, it's lost 30kg and it has gained the Handling Speciale pack. So, is it a vastly different animal? I'm about to find out.
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I flick the up-shift paddle to engage first and I'm on my way. Five minutes later, I've decided that I'm going to move here and marry this 490bhp beauty. The sound of that 4.3-litre naturally aspirated V8 is making me tingle with pleasure. A tiny dab of the loud pedal and the glorious note emanating from the exhausts leaves me with a very silly grin. I look like a teenage girl who just met Usher. This revised version is already leaving a lasting impression. I'm out on the hills here where the roads do not only resemble asphalt spaghetti but when I look over my shoulder I see a drop of at least 1,000 feet. Driving here isn't like playing on the Playstation; there's no reset button if you crash and burn... But the sun's out and I've got the roof down, so all's well with the world and my Ferrari.
Nothing I've driven in recent memory has received so much attention. There seem to be more old folk here than young but they know a nice car when they see it and the California is getting lots of wobbly thumbs up. It has been around for a while but hasn't aged a day. That the exterior has been left untouched, barring an optional silver paint for the grille, bonnet scoop and side vents, speaks volumes about its timeless looks. But time catches up in other ways. We become older and inevitably slower. Ferraris, on the other hand, become faster. Under its curvaceous body, all manner of work has gone into giving this car a second lease of life.
Its aluminium spaceframe has received major attention and is 60 per cent new. Twelve different types of aluminium alloys have been used when previously there were eight. It's helped to reduce the California's weight by a whopping 30kg but it has the same torsional stiffness as before.
During a visit to the Scaglietti plant, I'm told that in future, Ferrari will be using new construction techniques such as riveting and bonding instead of traditional techniques such as welding and this, the boffins say, will help reduce weight further still. There are two areas in particular that have received serious work. The previous California's steel engine cradle acted a bit like a boat anchor so it's been ditched in place of one built from aluminium castings. Six kilograms saved right there, while three have been shaved off the rocker panels. It now tips the scales at 1,735kg and as a result, sprints off the line two-tenths of a second faster than before, reaching 100kph in 3.8 seconds. That's blisteringly quick. Its 47:53 front:rear weight distribution doesn't seem affected at all when you drop the top and unlike most convertibles, there is little scuttle and shake to be detected.
It's been lovingly crafted. But I do wish that the A-pillar was less tree-like in width, but most of the strength of the body and chassis relies on it so you just have to get used to it obstructing your view a little.
That 8,000rpm-hitting V8 has gained a one-way reed valve in the crank which lets blow-by gas and oil escape and reduces pumping losses. There's also a new exhaust manifold that reduces back pressure, new pistons and ECU tweak. Next, and perhaps most pertinently, is the Handling Speciale pack. Tick this option on the spec sheet and you get a new steering rack, which is nine per cent quicker, taking 2.3 turns lock to lock compared to the standard rack's 2.5, 15 per cent stiffer front and 11 per cent stiffer rear springs and revised magnetorheological SCM dampers.
The Manettino on the steering allows you to select between Comfort, Sport or CST modes. I'm told if I set mine to the latter then subsequently wreck the car, I'd have to buy it… So, with my tail between my legs, I leave it in Sport which is where most would usually want it.
This quickens transmission shifts, stiffens the steering and sharpens the throttle response. Having had a quick blast around the plant in a model without the handling pack, I can absolutely feel the difference. The steering impresses me the most and brings the California to life, but I'm sure the springs are a lot stiffer than the numbers suggest.
There is far less body roll than before, it feels taut and its reflexes have been sharpened no end. It's nowhere near as firm as the 458 but it's been transformed into a much sportier and far better handling ride. With the Manettino in Comfort and tranny in auto, things settle down to the point where you'd forget you're in a Ferrari. This defies the point of having one so back it goes in Sport and a quick couple of flicks of the paddle shifter later, it becomes a different car again.
The extra power adds plenty of urgency throughout the rev range and much of that is down to its tremendous dual-clutch automatic. The previously available six-speed manual is no longer with us because just two were sold. And I don't mean two per cent. Not that you'd miss a row-your-own because this F1 tranny is sublime.
This is the car we should have been presented with back in 2008. It's been tweaked in all the right places making it a genuinely quick supercar with much improved handling. It's now far more involving to drive and a properly polished performer. Its Brembos inspire plenty of confidence meaning braking late becomes the norm even on the twistiest of tracks. I gave them a serious workout yet they never suffered any fade.
The interior is top-class too; the beige, hand-fitted leather and chrome details look and feel top-notch, apart for the tacky sat-nav. But, it doesn't detract from what is a great car. The test drive is over all too soon and I head back to the fabled gates of Ferrari HQ. I park, fold the roof, kill the engine and listen as the California begins to tick itself cool. It would be wasted on limp-wristed girls or boys looking for something to just coast in. It's been tweaked to drive hard but still oozes enough class for when you want to take it easy. It was a brilliant show off and that hasn't changed. But now, it's backing up those sultry looks with phenomenal power and rock-steady handling. It's the Ferrari I'd most like to have. It's as able on the track as it is off it and you can run one on a daily basis without a hitch, if you gloss over the tiny back seats.
Three 911's, an Aventador and a Veyron fly by on the Shaikh Zayed Road the day I return to the UAE. I'm inches away from every supercar under the sun and I don't have to worry about nasty rodents either.
But I'm back at my desk and I've rejoined the rat race. It is going to bea while before I allow the memory of Italy and all of its Ferraris to fade from my