• Now fleeter of hoof / Ferrari’s Handling Speciale package sharpens California T / #2016 / #Ferrari-California-T / #Ferrari-California / #Ferrari

    Words Jethro Bovingdon / Photography Aston Parrot

    The California T (the first turbocharged Ferrari road car since the F40) makes up 30% of all Ferrari sales. Crucially, 50% of California customers are new to the Prancing Horse badge. Many go on to buy a more extreme mid-engined car such as the 488GTB, or take a giant stride up to Ferrari’s V12-engined GT cars. In other words, the accountants love it.

    Its 553bhp 3.9-litre twin-turbo V8 makes it seriously fast yet, to those of us who equate the name with pin-sharp drivers’ cars and magnificent GTs, the California T can feel like a facsimile of the real thing rather than an authentic part of the family.

    The new Handling Speciale package looks to address that. It’s a £5568 option on top of the £155,230 list price and creates, we’re told, a much more exciting yet wholly civilised GT. Spring rates are up 16% at the front, 19% at the rear, the magnetorheological dampers are retuned, there’s a louder, sharper exhaust note, faster shifts for the seven-speed dual-clutch ’box, and the stability and traction control systems have been recalibrated.

    Firmer it might be but the ride remains more than acceptable when mooching. The exhaust note is well-judged, too: naughty enough but not embarrassingly loud, although there’s a shade more boom to it than in the standard car. The drivetrain has real quality though, with incredible throttle response for a turbocharged car.

    Up in the hills – real Ferrari country – the engine and ’box impress further. Upshifts are 30% faster and feel so much more precise, while downshifts are improved by a scarcely believable 40%. They feel pretty much instantaneous.

    Ferrari limits the V8’s massive torque, slowly revealing its true might as you click through the ratios and finally arrive at the full 557lb ft in seventh gear. It seems an odd deceit but actually it’s a stroke of genius, ensuring superb traction and a soaring normally aspirated style of delivery. For all that, the California T HS remains very much a GT rather than a blue-blooded sports car.

    Despite eye-popping performance, excellent brakes and a crackling soundtrack, the chassis is relatively soft. The balance is great but body control is less convincing and, in comparison to cars such as the cheaper Porsche 911 Turbo S Cabriolet or Audi R8 (the Spider is coming), the HS just isn’t as locked down, as focused or as exciting. That wouldn’t be a problem if the HS had the elegance and majesty of a 250GT SWB California Spider, but it’s way short of that.

    So it remains a car for Ferrari’s accountants to enjoy and for those who wouldn’t know a California Spider if it ran them over but quite fancy a Mercedes SL-type car with a Ferrari badge. More committed drivers should keep saving for an F12 or slum it in an R8 Spider or 911 Turbo S Cabriolet instead.