Ferrari would never admit its California was a car marketed at women.
Back when it was launched in 2008, just four per cent of the Italian manufacturer’s customers were female. With the California, a softer sports car with a folding metal roof and lower price tag, it said it intended to reach an audience it hadn’t reached before. It just wouldn’t say who.
If it was intended to appeal to a female audience, it failed, apparently. But it did succeed in being a sales success, going on to account for around a third of worldwide sales and helping overall Ferrari production numbers to nearly 10,000 a year. It seems there was an appetite for a car that portrayed Ferrari’s flash image without the compromises offered by more hardcore models within the range.
The California was updated in 2014 when it became the turbocharged California T, and then the firm revealed a replacement in the form of the Portofino at last year’s Frankfurt Motor Show. Lighter and more powerful than its predecessor, the Portofino also looks the part thanks to GTC4-style lights and a wide, aggressive grille and bumper design.
It’d have been too obvious for Ferrari to hold the press launch for the Portofino in the Riviera fishing town it’s named after. It was considered, marketing chiefs admit, but the north of Italy would have been too cold for mollycoddled journalists to drop the roof. Narrow roads would have led to kerbed wheels, too.
Instead, I flew out to the city of Bari, on the ‘heel’ of Italy alongside the Adriatic Sea, to spend some time in the entry-level Ferrari. I say ‘entry-level’: the California-replacement starts at £166,180. And that’s before you go to town on options.
First impressions? It feels special. And that’s exactly what a Ferrari – any Ferrari – should do. From the prancing horse on the steering wheel to the optional passenger display, its interior is very different to an Audi R8 Spyder, for example. Finding a comfortable driving position is easy thanks to adjustable electric seats, although passengers in the rear will have to give up any ideas of comfort if they want a ride in a Ferrari.
Start the 3.9-litre V8 engine – situated up front – and it makes a lot of noise, but it’s not a particularly pleasant sound. Even with Ferrari’s Manettino dial left in ‘Comfort’ mode, it sounds quite flatulent at low revs. It’ll turn heads, but not always for the reason you want it to.
Increase the revs and things start to sound better, although you really need to be out of town to be able to do that. The performance is incredible: it’ll force you back in your seat as you forget any thoughts about this not being a proper Ferrari. It feels much sharper in the bends than the California, too, without being intimidating. In fact, it’s very easy to drive this car fast without being afraid of reaching the limits of your talent. It’s like driving the new Fiat 124 Spider, but multiplied by 10.
There’s a lot of love for Ferrari in Italy. Everywhere I drove the Portofino, it attracted beeps of the horn and waves from pedestrians. But they’re not the only ones who like the Portofino – so do I. It’s got its flaws – some of the interior materials are questionable, for example – and, overall, you’d probably be better off buying a Porsche 911.
But choosing a Ferrari has never been about making a sensible decision. If you want a Portofino, get one. Just don’t expect such a positive reaction from Joe Public when you’re driving it through London.