Ferrari Portofino review: an Italian rapscallion with more brawn than breeding

Andrew English
The allure of a Ferrari convertible isn't strong enough for us to overlook this car's minor handling imperfections

Too soft, too slow and too much of a hairdresser’s car, the poor Ferrari California had a tough time at its launch in 2008. Not that a 193mph, 454bhp V8 sports car with a folding hardtop is anything less than super-serious, but for the punched-leather-gloves cadre of the motoring press if it doesn’t drive like a racing car, it isn’t good enough to carry the cavallino rampante motif.

My beef was that it wasn’t Pininfarina’s finest work. You could see what they were aiming at – a 21st-century revamp of those elegant Fifties sports cars like Scaglietti's 250 GT California, with an endless bonnet and a snarling bark. Instead we got a stooped silhouette thanks to the folded-up hardtop, along with an exhaust note that sounded like an electric razor.

The Ferrari Portofino – pictures, prices and specs

It wasn't a bad drive. Its slightly excessive body roll was effectively cured for the lighter and stiffer California T in 2014 and you could always select the 'Handling Speciale' Pack. And for an expensive car launched a fortnight after Lehman Brothers imploded, it's done its job pretty well; it accounts for around a third of Ferrari's total sales, which last year numbered 8,398 vehicles.

While the stated aim of attracting more women to the brand hasn't been particularly successful, over 70 per cent of California customers were buying a Ferrari for the first time. And these newcomers are a different breed – California customers use their cars 150 per cent more than typical Ferrari owners, normally driving their cars every day. And 30 per cent of them even use the tiny rear seats.

A Ferrari cuts a striking presence in any landscape

"Same sex, but a different type of customer," says Nicola Boari, head of Ferrari product marketing. "We had to learn new things."

And those 'new things' have gone into its replacement, the Portofino, which Ferrari is yet again launching into a turbulent economy. The 10,000-kilometre name change is a careful one – Portofino, the Italian Riviera village where the sine qua non is a large yacht and a gorgeous pouting companion, has a sort-of monied class. Its pastel rainbow houses were inspiration for Clough Williams-Ellis's Portmeirion.

"California is such an iconic name," says Boari. "Trying to stay close wasn't a good thing. Portofino is discreet, it's not as splashy as Monte Carlo."

Ferrari pictures gallery motoring cars

The Portofino is built along the same lines as the California. There's a front-mounted bi-turbo V8, with a rear seven-speed dual-clutch transaxle in an aluminium-intensive two-plus-two sports body with a folding hardtop. But it's bigger, better, stronger and longer.

Actually not much bigger (16mm longer and 28mm wider) since dealers said the California was just about right. It's lighter by 80kg, thanks mainly to improved body construction and interior, and stiffer thanks to more integral parts and aluminium pans under the floors instead of plastic.

New, thinner and lighter front seats have freed 5cm of rear leg room and there's an all-new interior with more modern controls, a touchscreen and better air-con and satnav, which were all criticisms of the old car. To be fair it's very hard for small manufacturers to keep up in the software race; Portofino accepts Apple CarPlay (not Android Auto) but it'll cost you £2,400.

Andrew English enjoys both the Italian countryside and the interior of the Ferrari

The engine, oh the engine. It was one of the nicest and most powerful units when it was in the California T but here in Portofino it punches out another 39bhp. Ferrari has squeezed more oomph from the eight cylinders using better air intakes and a big-bore exhaust with electronic valves in the silencers, which pull the air through more effectively at different engine speeds as well as enhancing the noise.

So that starting boom, so dreaded by neighbours, is mercifully quiet, and the engine quickly settles into a rasping, dangerous-sounding idle. Letting it warm, you get a chance to look round the cabin, which seems to be quite crowded with screens, buttons, dials and levers, though familiarity makes them simpler if no less finickity in operation.

The driver gets a big central analogue rev counter in yellow, flanked by small screens; a digital speedo on the right and ancillaries on the left. The steering wheel has a lot to do, with various buttons and dials for the lights, indicators, driving mode and damping setup and the starter. This is not all an unbridled success, particularly the indicators which feel horribly clunky.

What you see at the wheel of the Portofino

That said, the centre touchscreen is clear, with good graphics and a fast-acting satnav. The front seats are comfortable but not very supportive and putting anything other than the smallest children into those rear seats would be akin to sending them up chimneys in the 18th century. Talking of small, there's also a minute pedal box, which has overhanging dash trim and plastic to scarily trap the top of a large foot as it moves from throttle to brake.

Pull the right-hand fixed-position paddle and the 'box engages first and the clutches grumble as you pull away. At very low speeds and when manoeuvring, it feels unwieldy, with poor views of the body's extremes, a fair amount of driveline shunt and noisy rear suspension over bumps, not helped by a bad rattle in the passenger door of our car.

Go a bit faster though and the magnetic fluid-enhanced dampers allow the 20in Pirelli P Zeros to sail over Italy's most ruptured Tarmac and the driveline calms down, too, even trickling along at 30mph in sixth at barely 1,000rpm.

Not a bad scenario. Can you hear this photograph?

Ferrari test driver Fabrizio Toschi says that round the company's track at Fiorano, the Portofino is only about two seconds off the more powerful 488 sports coupé. Ferraris don't shriek any more and the big blown V8 rasps like a trombone in a strip-club band; strident and loud. Similarly, downchanges, even in Comfort mode, are like firecrackers going off behind you.

The whole car feels as taut as a new set of Spanx with barely a twist or shake from the body. Only a strange vibration from the steering column betrayed its lack of roof, though the handling is marginally improved when the roof is in place, which can now be done on the move.

Ferrari Portofino composite

That tiny pedal box notwithstanding, you can place the car exactly where you'll want it a kilometre away with just a squeeze of the throttle. And if this twin-turbo V8 isn't quite as responsive as a supercharged engine, it's darn close. Think about where you want to be and you are there; it's like a time machine and it's a tribute to the stability systems and electronically controlled differential that it's as calm at three times the speed limit as it is half it. Make no mistake, this is a very impressive job.

I'm not sure about the steering, though, which hasn't the finesse or on-centre feel as a Jaguar, and secretes an artificiality which leaves you having to trust the front-end grip when you turn in at high speed. Front-engined, rear-drive cars are all about the driving experience and here the new electrically powered rack doesn't quite live up to the rest of the machine, though Toschi says the South Italian roads did the car no favours in that regard.

And the carbon-ceramic brakes, while supremely powerful, are inconsistent at low speeds and the pedal lacks an initial bite, which is fine for the race track but not so great on the road.

The Portofino is an improvement on the California

And does it look better? Your decision, but without the rising rake on the door tops and a clever two-tone upholstery/paint on the hump, it looks less like the last of the Plantagenets than its predecessor, but I do wish this car had a softtop and a low, elegant rear deck. That said, with that long coupé-like hardtop erected, it looks terrific.

Fast and expensive at £166,180 (about £11,000 more than the outgoing California T), the Portofino has mopped up most of the serious criticisms of the old car, with the addition of extraordinary high-speed stability, better electronics and more outright power.

I'm still not sure it's a purist's Ferrari, but with the company about to make an SUV for Pete's sake, we'd better get on and love this car.

And that's really not very hard to do.

Ferrari Portofino specification

As tested: 3,855cc, 90-degree turbocharged V8 with seven-speed dual-clutch transmission, rear-wheel drive via an electronically controlled limited-slip differential

Price/on sale: from £166,180/now - first deliveries in July.

Power/torque: 592bhp @ 7,500rpm, 560lb ft @ 3,000rpm

Top speed: 199mph

Acceleration: 0-62mph in 3.5sec

Fuel economy: 26.4mpg (EU Combined), mpg on test

CO2 emissions: 245g/km

VED band: 226 - 255 £1,700 first year then £140 plus £310 for the first five years

Length: 4,586mm

Width: 1,938mm (ex-door mirrors)

Height: 1,318mm

Wheelbase: 2,670mm

Fuel tank capacity: 80 litres

Weight: 1,664kg

Load volume: 292 litres

Ferrari Portofino – verdict

An excellent rework of the California, with more power, a better ride quality and a more useable interior. For the moment, this is probably the most practical Ferrari, while still insanely fast and frankly quite a looker. Though it would be so much better with a proper soft top.

Telegraph rating: Four out of five stars

Ferrari Portofino – rivals

Maserati GranCabrio MCfrom £116,385

Looks better than the Ferrari with the top down, but this is much more of a gran turismo. It's bellowing 454bhp, 4.7-litre V8 (which Ferrari builds) adds to its undoubted presence and the cabin is a proper two-plus-two. but dynamically is lacks sharpness and the boot is small.

Jaguar F-Type SVR 5.0 V8 cabriofrom £118,165

Good looking, yes, but Ian Callum’s work hasn’t saved this car in the sales stakes, where it moulders between two price brackets. The coupé is the better car but both, cut down from the larger XK, are too heavy and in 575bhp V8 form, unwieldy and rambunctious.

BMW i8 Convertiblefrom £124,730

Cheaper and arguably far more impressive for younger buyers, this carbon and aluminium hybrid has track-stopping looks and a fair turn of speed from its 1.5-litre drivetrain. Handling lacks sparkle, but it's safe, fun and amazingly economical.

Chevrolet Corvette ZR1from £130,000

From Bowling Green, Kentucky, this supercharged super 'vette sports a 755bhp/715lb ft 6.2-litre V8 capable of humongeous performance; 0-60mph in about 3sec. Comfy, easy to drive, good looking; the classic American supercar, though only available in left hand drive. One supplier is the American Car Centre on 020 7384 3044.

Bentley Speed 6eno prices yet

Adrian Hallmark is back at Bentley with the task of getting it back into the black and making a success of this dazzling all-electric sports tourer which debuted as a concept at Geneva last year. The EXP12 Speed 6e would share underpinnings with Porsche's Mission E.

Porsche 911 Turbo S Cabriofrom £156,381

The smart money choice, but ubiquitous and the fabric roof doesn't do the looks any favours and four wheel drive, which great at getting you to the ski lodge but its weight dulls the handling a little. The 572bhp flat six is almost instantaneous in response, it's super fast and residuals tend to remain high.

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