Test drive: Ferrari Portofino

Beautiful, yes. Virginal? Not quite so. Saying farewell to the California has led to better things

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The Ferrari Portofino gets its name from a seaside Italian town that, we’re told, is “very beautiful”. We Googled it and, well, yes, it does look spectacular. That’s one parallel between the carmaker’s California replacement and its namesake, and probably it’s only one, because comfort and more powerful are not usual descriptions for a fishing village, aren’t they? And those are the other two phrases Ferrari uses to describe the Portofino.

I have a hunch Ferrari is really trying to draw the distinction between the California and the new Portofino. The brand’s fans never really warmed up to the former – it was diluted, as some would say, and seemed too far from the company’s usual products.

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Ferrari would disagree, of course. Company execs say more than 70 percent of the buyers of the 11,000-plus California units sold were new to the brand. This is important as buyers are not all buying a Prancing Horse to hopefully someday get the chance to buy a limited edition model. A lot more are simply interested in the prestige of owning one.

So, while existing owners are upgrading to the Berlinettas and mid-engine supercars, there has to be something for these ‘new customers’ to feed on. It’s important to note that when it was first introduced in 2009, the California and its friendlier design (sporty, yet not too shouty) was the only front-engine model that didn’t seem too intense – it did not have a giant V12 (at that time the only other FR was the 612 Scaglietti). It was also the only two-door model from Ferrari that was more suitable for those new to the ‘supercar’ realm.

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So, now, the Portofino. Ferrari has amped everything up to please Ferrari fans, but still kept it grounded enough for the new ones. The company’s award-winning engine-of-the-year for 2016 and 2017 has been tweaked, its 3.9-litre twin turbo V8 now producing 600PS (591bhp), or as Ferrari puts it: 156PS per litre. Torque also goes up from the California’s 755Nm to 760Nm; it all goes to the rear wheels from the 7-speed DCT. Changes include new piston and con rods, reduced hydraulic power losses via a new variable oil pump, and a single cast turbo manifold.

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Our morning media drive in Dubai (first of its kind for Ferrari outside Europe) had our Italian instructor telling the gang the engine promises ‘zero turbo lag’. The problem was the Emirates practises strict speed limits, and so did our lead car driver who was not an Emirati. So the chance to prove this instant throttle response was severely limited. In the instances where I could, ‘zero lag’ was probably a claim too optimistic, but the Portofino is as close to it as anything else. With the 7-speed DCT ever eager to reach the final ratio – I saw 130kph with just 2,100rpm of load – the first hassle is to get into the proper gear first. But, yes, the response is razor sharp.

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The Portofino is Ferrari’s first grand tourer that comes with electric steering and it’s a pretty good unit too. On the desert highway leading to the Oman border, the steering felt almost too light, thus requiring a bit more attention in getting the car to track straight. It was just right at the corners, however, and the roadster feel of having a very mobile front end is something I always enjoy.

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My car came with a secondary digital meter which informs the passenger on driving data such as speed, RPM and gear. It’s not important when you think about it, but it’s something in the options list that buyers should tick anyway. It keeps the passenger entertained, if nothing else.

Of course, this display is nothing compared to what the driver has on display. While it’s true Ferrari hasn’t quite adapted to a fully digital meter panel, the only analogue one is for RPM located smack in the centre. This is flanked by a pair of displays, the right one for speed, the left showing much more: from temperature (oil, radiator), to oil pressure, battery charge, tyre pressure, trip data, turbo boost, and other settings. It also shows fuel level. However, try as I did, I couldn’t find fuel consumption data.  The company claims an average of 10.7L/100km which is not near to what I calculated.

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To be fair, my drive had a lot of idling and the occasional high revving. Yes, for the simple reason of hearing that V8, apparently yet another quality to which the company gave emphasis. There’s no button to push and manually control the exhaust valve, though. Everything is automatic. If you want the braaaapp you need to work the throttle hard. Not that anyone would need much motivation to do so.

The speed limit ‘issue’ was a big hindrance to getting to know the Portofino. There were parts of the road which clearly could have provided a good amount of challenge, particularly the mountain roads that led to Hatta. For what it’s worth, there’s civility in the way it drives which you can find in more and more modern supercars. Again, useful for new Ferrari drivers, and what must be an appreciated quality anyhow even for those comfortable in more tense settings.

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In any case, there’s the manettino rotary switch to liven things up. The revs get more excitable and the dampers harden. This is when the party starts, although it seems the Portofino is still clearly a GT through and through as it never really gets too edgy. Body control is good; it’s just that the squat and nosedives are still very present, while quick lateral load changes reveal some looseness mid-corner. Nothing too dramatic, but like I said, those road manners are good things to have during high-speed long distance driving that grand tourers are made for.

One would think that the Dubai locals would be desensitised to sportscars in general, but that’s not true, given how much attention our Portofino got. People were rubber-necking, hands equally quick raise their mobile phone cameras. True, this is a looker. Its best pose comes from the rear three-quarter and side profile, with silver and (of course) red being the best colours. The California’s rear-heavy look is gone, replaced by this svelte build.

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Despite the foldable hard-top, would you believe no one else stowed it away during the drive? Why? Would the yellow orb in the sky be a good enough answer? Thankfully, I managed to, if only very briefly, taking advantage of the slow evening rush hour traffic that allowed me to operate the folding mechanism. Instantly, the attention and recognition received from other motorists was greater and certainly felt unfiltered. For the next batch of Ferrari owners the company hope to impress, this is perhaps a positive. If not, just push that button to fix the roof back and enjoy the drive. With a bit of luck, at proper Ferrari-appropriate speeds.

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[8/10]

Ahmad Zulizwan
Author: Ahmad Zulizwan
Take it to the track, please.

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