When you’ve been making sports cars for as long as Ferrari has, you’re likely to have become quite good at it. However, the company’s pedigree in modern drop-top grand tourers is less convincing.
The task was to reconcile opposing requirements by creating a car with the dynamism and excitement of a Ferrari, but also the versatility, refinement and convenience of a car you’d use daily. However, the California’s story didn’t pan out well. Time to take a fresh swing at it, then.
The Portofino is all-new and underneath, the body is 35 per cent more rigid, the suspension has been stiffened, its magnetorhelogical adaptive dampers retuned and its steering system both quickened and switched over from hydraulic power assistance to electromechanical.
Under the bonnet, the 3.9-litre, 90-degree, flat-plane-crank, twin-turbo V8 adds 29kW of peak power. And while Ferrari may only have liberated 5Nm of additional torque here, given that it has also saved 80kg in the car’s kerb weight, this thing isn’t hanging about.
The Portofino’s exhaust, meanwhile, has an electronically controlled bypass valve, making it louder or quieter depending on the drive mode you’ve selected. It remains quietish in Comfort mode, but makes a lovely sound if you engage Sport mode.
The engine revs to a tremulous 7500rpm, it has a huge swell of mid-range torque, and it responds crisply at all times, feeling progressive in its power delivery for a highly stressed turbo. It’s very Ferrari. But is it very grand tourer? Perhaps not.
The gearbox, too, gives further impetus to the sense that the car’s identity is slightly muddled, and permanently at odds with itself.
The twin-clutch unit is at its best when you’re shifting gears manually using the column-mounted paddles. But it’s unconvincing when you just leave it in Auto mode, often timing its shifts with frustrating hesitancy, feeling a touch clumsy on step-off and when manoeuvring, and refusing to creep as you lift off the brake pedal.
In typical Ferrari convention, the Portofino has three driving modes which configure its powertrain, dampers, steering and stability control – but it also has a separate ‘bumpy road’ suspension override button so that you can have most of the systems set for optimum driver engagement, but the dampers set to soft.
Suffice to say, the car has a regular need for that ‘bumpy road’ button. Frankly, it needs it too regularly for a car that ought to be supple and fluent-riding as well as eye-wideningly taut and poised.
The Portofino’s ride too easily becomes jittery and restless on a vaguely undulating surface in Sport mode. It calms down a bit when you dial down the suspension, but never quite avoids a clunk or fidget for long enough to successfully create the easy long-striding aura of a proper GT. There’s a touch of body shudder, too, over sharper lumps and bumps.
The handling also helps to rob it of the breadth of ability needed to make it suited to any journey; relaxing, at times, as well as exciting. The new electric steering’s very direct and while it has weight, doesn’t manage that weight cleverly enough to give you something to push against as the front wheels bite. Away from that there’s better news.
Ferrari’s habitually effective lateral body control and incredible handling response is in evidence in the way you can so readily flick the Portofino into fast corners. The car’s on-throttle handling balance has plainly been taken to new heights by that active diff.
There’s no need for owners to worry: the stability controls work well to make the car feel incisive, but obedient when they’re active, and there’s plenty of fun to be had with them on. But Ferrari’s remarkable side slip control oversteer-tamer isn’t fitted here – and without it, you never feel sufficiently at ease with the car’s steering pace, or have the confidence you’d need in the predictability of the rear axle, to be inclined to get stuck into that final layer of the driving experience.
However, that’s not my biggest disappointment. There is certainly quite a lot of added alertness and attitude about this car’s dynamic character, and for a great many owners it may very well feel like the authentic Ferrari roller-coaster-ride that the California perhaps failed to serve up.
More MOTOR reviews
In some ways this is a more versatile, better luxury sports car than a California, too. If someone asked me to drive 300km on normal roads, and in uninterested fashion, in one or the other, I don’t think I’d pick the new boy. And that’s not much of an invitation to go on tour.
2018 FERRARI PORTOFINO SPECS:
Engine: V8, 3855cc, twin-turbocharged, petrol
Power: 441kW @ 7500rpm
Torque: 760Nm @ 3000-5250rpm
0-100km/h: 3.5sec (claimed)
Price: $410,000 (estimated)
Like: Pace from the boosted V8; hard-top design
Dislike: Confused character; is it a step forward?
Star Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars