Tour de force 2019 Ferrari Portofino vs. 2019 Aston Martin DB11 Volante. The Ferrari Portofino is a technological leap forward from the California T it replaces. But Aston Martin has also upped its grand-touring drop-top game with its new DB11 V8 Volante. So which is best? Text and photography by Steve Sutcliffe.
Ferrari Portofino & AM DB11 Volante Two turbocharged V8 convertible GT cars, but which one hits the sweetest spot?
As a replacement for the ten-year old California, which became the California T in 2014, the 199mph, $166,180 Portofino is the most useable Ferrari money can buy, says Ferrari. So although it’s not the most dramatic car made in Maranello right now, it is the most practical, boasting more rear-seat space than the California, a bigger boot, a redesigned cabin, more equipment, more performance and a new chassis. The Portofino, therefore, should be a Ferrari you can drive 365 days a year.
Thanks to an extensive weight-saving regime that includes everything from a lighter V8 engine to seat frames fashioned from magnesium, it’s also lighter than the California T by an impressive 65kg. Up front there’s a development of the electric power-steering system first used in the 812 Superfast, while at the rear there’s a third-generation E-Diff, whereas the California made do with a more conventional, less effective mechanical differential.
The Portofino’s engine is a thoroughly revised version of the California T’s 3.9-litre, twin-turbo, 90-degree V8. It produces 591bhp at 7500rpm and 560lb ft of torque between 3000 and 5250rpm, and emits ‘just’ 245g/km of CO2. All out, the Portofino has a top speed just one mile an hour shy of the magic 200mph, and thanks to a launch-control system it can hit 62mph from rest in a mere 3.5 seconds. Zero to 124mph (200kph) takes 10.8 seconds, so although it’s a useable Ferrari, it remains an extremely rapid one. As with all Ferraris nowadays, the gearbox is dual-clutch – this one with seven forward ratios – and has column-mounted paddles. Shifts are said to be faster and smoother than before, depending on where you set the manettino switch.
The Portofino’s engine and raw performance are undeniably impressive on paper, but it’s actually the chassis, steering and suspension that have come in for the biggest rethink – mainly in an attempt to make the car as capable as possible on the move, but also as easy to drive at the same time. One does not, claims Ferrari, require the same skill set to drive the Portofino quickly as one would with the rest of the range.
As such, the manettino is simplified to offer just three settings: Comfort, Sport and ESC off. The new electronic differential generates much more traction than before, that much becomes clear the very first time you summon full throttle in a low gear, at which point the Portofino squats ever so slightly and just goes. But the diff also aids stability at all speeds, while the electric power-steering system has been set up to be as precise as is normal in a modern Ferrari but also lighter in feel and thus more manageable every day (in theory).
The dampers are also electronic and change in calibration depending on the selected mode. However, you can also select Ferrari’s now common – and highly effective – ‘bumpy road’ setting, no matter where the manettino is set. This then puts the dampers in a more comfortable setting while keeping the more urgent responses from the drivetrain if Sport or ESC Off are selected, which is a useful addition. The 20-inch Pirelli P Zero tyres are bespoke to the Portofino but don’t feature a Corsa compound or tread. The Portofino isn’t that kind of car, says Ferrari, even though its kerb weight is an impressive 1664kg, making it not that much heavier – or slower – than a 488 Spider (1525kg, 3.0sec to 62mph, 203mph all-out).
First impressions when you climb aboard, drop the folding metal roof and press the magic red button that ignites the engine are all good – all excellent, in fact. The roof glides into the rear bodywork in near silence in just 14 seconds, and the new seats feel great, providing excellent support in all the right places without feeling like they’d be uncomfortable on a long journey. And the new cabin design is genuinely stunning. There’s a huge sense of quality to the interior, yet the controls look and feel intuitive, so you find yourself deeply impressed, not baffled. To begin with, then, the Portofino presses all the right buttons.
It’s also very quick, you soon discover, once you get moving and find a road that’s long and quiet enough on which to let rip. There’s almost no lag from the twin-turbo V8 engine and, therefore, instant response when you deploy the throttle. And it sounds pretty spectacular at full beans, too, with an engaging rasp from the V8 to accompany the onslaught of acceleration. Plus, the dual-clutch gearbox works an absolute treat in both directions, and seemingly in any of the manettino settings.
Yet overall there’s something curiously lacking in the Portofino’s dynamic repertoire. The steering, in particular, feels too light in any of its settings, and is therefore too distant in both its feel and response. At the same time there’s also a strange absence of feel beneath your backside when you aim the car towards a corner.
You can sense the electronics doing their thing pretty much all the time on the move, providing the car with a surprisingly decent ride quality, eradicating kickback through the steering over rough roads, and keeping the body eerily flat even through quick corners taken at proper speeds. But at the same time the suspension feels overdigitised in the way it reacts to whatever the tyres encounter, be that in a straight line or when cornering. Throw the Portofino hard into a bend, for example, and the absence of body roll is impressive in one way, yes, but also weirdly unnatural in another. And the fact that the steering also remains ultra-light at all times doesn’t help much, either, even though the fundamental grip levels on offer are impressive. It makes it feel a little bit like you are playing a computer game, rather than driving an actual car.
It’s all a bit too easy ultimately, as a result of which the depth of absolute satisfaction – the sort you get from a 488 every second of every journey – is shallower than I, personally, would like. Ferrari says this is exactly how the Portofino should be perceived because it’s a car you can use every day, but I’m not totally convinced, even if there is more room in the rear, much more efficient air con and a retractable hard-top that is quite brilliantly engineered.
The brake pedal on our test car also has far too much travel in it for my liking, so even though the outright stopping power is excellent, feel through the pedal is not.
Conclusion? Even from an everyday Ferrari there should surely be a bit more touchy-feely stuff going on in your hands and beneath your backside to make the picture complete? If there was, the Portofino would be another genuinely great car from Ferrari, because so much else about it is so excellent. But as it stands it’s an extremely capable Ferrari, but not a great one. Whereas the similarly priced Aston Martin DB11 Volante is a truly great Aston Martin. Read on and you’ll discover why.
TECHNICAL DATA FILE SPECIFICATIONS 2019 Ferrari Portofino
Engine V8, 3855cc, twin-turbo
Max Power 591bhp @ 7500rpm / DIN
Max Torque 560lb ft @ 3000-5250rpm / DIN
Transmission Seven-speed dual clutch, rear-drive, electronically controlled LSD Front
Suspension Double wishbones, coil springs, adaptive dampers, anti-roll bar Rear suspension Multi-link, coil springs, adaptive dampers, anti-roll bar
Brakes Carbon-ceramic discs, 390mm front, 360mm rear
Wheels 8 x 20in front, 10 x 20in rear
Tyres 245/35 ZR20 front, 285/35 ZR20 rear
0-62mph 3.5sec (claimed)
Top speed 199mph (claimed)
Basic price $166,180
Drive-My rating 4.0
‘It feels a little bit like you are playing a computer game. It’s all a bit too easy’
Left: Portofino’s ride is good, but steering lacks feel. Above right: interior an evolution; manettino has only three settings. Below: 591bhp V8 sounds spectacular
Everyone knows that when you remove the roof of a perfectly good coupe and replace it with a piece of cloth, you take away the car’s torsional strength, and its chassis and suspension therefore become far harder to tune. At the same time you also lose luggage space and add weight, while the styling becomes much more challenging to perfect. So for the average team of car designers and engineers, the open-top car is a right old pain. Yet the Volante has been a staple for Aston Martin since the company first applied the name (which means ‘flying’ in Italian) to a convertible car in 1965. This is why the firm has pulled out all the stops to make its latest – the $161,900 DB11 Volante – as good to drive as it is to look at, and a fair bit roomier, stiffer and more practical than its immediate predecessor, too.
Curiously, unlike that predecessor, the DB9 Volante, Aston says it has ‘no plans to fit the DB11 Volante with a V12 engine’. Which means you get the 90-degree, 4-litre twin-turbo V8, like it or not. Fortunately, having experienced it in the V8 DB11 coupe, we know we rather like this motor – and so should most Volante buyers given how strong it is as a powerplant and how well Aston has tuned it to feel bespoke, even though it’s essentially the same engine you get in most 63-badged Mercedes-AMGs.
Power is 503bhp at 6000rpm, while maximum torque of 498lb ft is developed as a flat peak between 2000 and 5000rpm. The Volante weighs 110kg more than the V8 coupe (and about the same as the V12 coupe, intriguingly), so it’s not quite as rapid in a straight line. Aston claims 4.1sec to 62mph (a tenth behind the V8 coupe), 8.8sec to 100mph and a top speed of 187mph, so despite its extra weight it’s still well beyond the right side of brisk.
The gearbox is the same eight-speed ZF automatic with paddle-shifters that’s used in the coupe, with the same shift-by-wire control system and mapping that’s been tuned by Aston to deliver different responses depending on which drive mode is selected. As with the coupe DB11s, there are three different modes to choose from for both the drivetrain and chassis – GT, Sport and Sport+ for each – so nine different combinations in all.
With the GT modes selected, the Volante feels calm, sounds reasonably serene and rides a touch more firmly than you might expect, but without any serious intrusions from below. In Sport/ Sport it feels more alive generally, although you can still keep the chassis in GT and put the drivetrain in Sport, or vice versa, which is a nice touch. In full Sport+ it feels – and sounds – like a much more aggressive animal, the mapping for the gearbox, throttle, transmission, exhaust and dampers all shifting to another level.
It makes the Volante feel quite a lot like a full-on sports car, with much sharper chassis responses and a thundering series of crackles and bangs on the overrun to accompany your every move. The new hood – which can be raised or lowered in 20 seconds at road speeds up to 31mph – stores much more neatly into the rear bodywork than those of previous Volantes. This has allowed the designers to really accentuate the lower-than-normal rear-deck styling, and the result is a car that looks good from all angles, but especially dead-on from the rear. There’s also more room in the boot and the rear seats. In fact the latter are spacious enough to feature Isofix attachments for the first time ever in a Volante.
Without going into exhaustive detail about how Aston’s engineers have conjured such strong results from the Volante’s chassis, essentially there is extra bracing at both the front and back ends, plus significantly stiffer springs and dampers all round. And as a collective these mods have made the Volante the sweetest, I believe, of all three versions of DB11 on the move.
The steering, in particular, is quite lovely, with a sharper response on turn-in and a nice consistent sense of weight midcorner. It’s not just the way it steers that distinguishes the Volante, however, because there’s something about the way it goes down the road generally that feels more cohesive, more right, than any other DB11. From the way it rides, to the way it sounds, to the way it goes, even to the way it changes gear, the Volante has an extra degree of polish that is seriously impressive given it’s the DB11 without a fixed roof.
And despite its 1870kg weight, it’s also properly quick. Quicker than its 0-62mph time would suggest. The torque flow from the twin-turbo V8 is strong even at 2000rpm, and at 4500rpm it feels seriously fast in any of the first six gears, particularly in Sport+. Predictably, the Volante’s wide range of dynamic personalities are best enjoyed with the hood down, when wind noise is impressively well suppressed, although you need the wind deflector in place much above 50mph. But even with the hood up, the Volante can flip its personality and play the refined, smooth-driving mileeater perfectly well. Apart from the restricted vision through the letterbox of a rear window, with the roof up it essentially feels like a coupe. That’s how well the hood has been engineered.
I’m still not convinced that the cabin feels like $160k’s worth in certain respects – the plastic air vents, sourced from a fairly lowend Mercedes, being the most obvious example – even if there is a new heated steering wheel and a quality touchscreen infotainment system. But beyond this the Volante is an absolute belter of a car, one that drives even better than it looks.
Given a choice between it and the Portofino, I’d go for the Aston. That’s how good the Volante has become.
TECHNICAL DATA FILE SPECIFICATIONS 2019 Aston Martin DB11 Volante
Engine V8, 3982cc, twin-turbo
Max Power 503bhp @ 6000rpm / DIN
Max Torque 498lb ft @ 2000-5000rpm / DIN
Transmission Eight-speed auto, rear-wheel drive, torque-vectoring limited-slip differential
Front suspension Double wishbones, coil springs, adaptive dampers, anti-roll bar
Rear suspension Multi-link, coil springs, adaptive dampers, anti-roll bar
Brakes Ventilated discs, 400mm front, 360mm rear
Wheels 9 x 20in front, 11 x 20in rear
Tyres 255/40 ZR20 front, 295/35 ZR20 rear
Weight 1870kg Power-to-weight 273bhp/ton
0-62mph 4.1sec (claimed)
Top speed 187mph (claimed)
Basic price $161,900
Drive-My rating 4.5
Above left: Volante is sweetest of the DB11 range on the road. Top: inside could be better for $160k. Above: twin-turbo V8 feels bespoke, despite its Mercedes origins.
‘The way it goes down a road feels more cohesive, more right, than any other DB11’
Below: despite its considerable weight, the Volante feels properly quick, especially in Sport+ mode.