Ferrari’s new plug-in V6 is every bit the sportscar you hoped it would be. And then some.
SEVILLE, SPAIN — At every Ferrari launch you pray for the weather gods to smile on you, but once in a while they laugh instead. So it was with the media drive for the 296 GTB, and so much for sunny Spain.
Torrential rain isn’t exactly the best setting for getting acquainted with any new Ferrari, but you can see why the 296 GTB gave the rain gods the perfect chance to howl uproariously at me. Under the see-through engine cover, down below the sculptural turbo heat shield, a colossal amount of horsepower lurks. 830 hp, to be exact, and all of it for the rear wheels only.
Ferrari says the 296 GTB has no direct predecessor, owing to the fact that it has a V6 engine, the brand’s first. But has also stopped taking fresh orders for the F8 Tributo, the only other mid-engined car in its lineup, so make of that what you will.
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To be sure, the 296 GTB makes a clean visual break from the F8. Instead, it has similar styling treatment to the SF90, duck-billed nose, coquettish lamps and all. It’s strikingly low-slung at the front end, but the lines rise as you move rearwards, undulating along the way to form a voluptuous tail section that exudes power and mass, without being itself massive.
There are shades of a legendary racing car here, the 250 LM (yours at auction for eight figures), from the way the air intakes form a tube-like section at the rear haunches to the vertical rear screen. No surprise there, for Ferrari’s styling chief Flavio Manzoni seems to draw plenty of inspiration from the 1960s, between his latest cars’ smooth, clean lines and the skinny ties in his own wardrobe.
Yet, if the visuals have their throwback elements, there’s no shortage of the cutting-edge about the 296 GT’s shapely form. Air intakes near the headlights feed cooling air to the front brakes, for instance. A rear wing pops up (the car decides when) to add 100kg of downforce (which pushes the car to the road for stability), although you have to be going at least 250km/h at the time. There’s a roof wing that, although slender and subtle, accounts for 10 percent of the rear downforce by itself.
With any berlinetta from Ferrari’s sportscar line-up, the traditional elements of the story are rear wheel drive, a two-seat cabin and a mid-engine layout. Enzo Ferrari used to believe otherwise, but slinging the engine behind the driver is the best way to do things, putting more weight on the driven wheels for extra traction when exiting corners, and centralising the mass so the car enters them more sharply in the first place.
But the 296 GTB goes off-script here, as Ferrari itself steps into a new act in which emissions are the central villain of the piece.
This is a car that embodies Ferrari’s attempt to stay not just relevant, but desired. In a world suddenly grown hostile to fossil fuels, even the most famous name in motor racing has to evolve or die, and this is what that adaptation looks like.
And so the V6 engine has a sidekick in the form of a 167 horsepower electric motor, which feeds and is in turn fed by a 7.45kWh lithium-ion pack that can also be juiced up by a wallbox charger. That’s right, the 296 GTB is a Ferrari you can plonk into a parking spot reserved for EVs without fear of condemnation.
How the motor and V6 split their task is down to how you jab at the touch-sensitive panel on the steering wheel that Ferrari dubs the e-manettino. To unlock the full 830 horsepower you have to engage Qualifying mode, which leans on the battery hard so that electrons lend maximum support to the engine.
One notch below that is Performance mode, which has the engine running permanently and aims to keep the battery at 95 percent so the motor has a goodly supply of energy to draw on. You get “not less” than 790 horsepower in this mode, Ferrari told me.
Most of the time you’ll be in Hybrid mode, which is essentially the Ferrari-as-Prius setting, but if you really want to do the green thing, choose eDrive for up to 25km of silent, emissions-free motoring.
Electric drive is a weird experience in a Ferrari, I’ll say that much. For one thing, it’s hugely at odds with the 296 GTB’s racy interior, with its bucket seats and cockpit-like layout. Or maybe not — the driver area looks like a transplant from the SF90, also a plug-in hybrid.
If you’re all-in on the digital, you’ll love the cockpit for the way pretty much everything is now controlled by touch sensitive switches on the steering wheel, plus two small panels on either side of it for the air-con, wing mirrors, reverse camera, nose lifter and so on, with the driver display housing every bit of info. I’ll admit to hating it, chiefly because it made me feel my age. I didn’t dare futz with it and risk deactivating the navigation system. I couldn’t even figure out how to recycle the cabin air.
Switching the car on no longer involves stabbing an evocative start button the colour of blood and having an engine burst to life. Instead, you press a haptic panel that merely boots up the car. If you can find theatre in that, it’ll be a private experience, unless you count the low whirr that is the only way an outsider can tell if the 296 GTB is running. Much more pleasing, at least aesthetically, is the transmission controller, which is entirely electronic while recalling the Ferrari gearshift gates of old.
Anyway, there’s no making the world spin backwards, so I might as well get used to all this digital stuff. Also in need of getting used to is the idea of a Ferrari noiseless on the move, which made more than a couple of Spanish villagers scratch their heads when we passed through.
By no means is the cabin as well-insulated from road and wind noise as your average Tesla, so even in eDrive the 296 GTB isn’t a silent experience, but it’s surprisingly calming to tool around in a super coupe without the engine running. The acceleration is languid, so you don’t feel as if you’re sitting on top of a missile about to be launched, and there’s no noise so you don’t feel as if you’re inviting half the world to gawk at you. In this, picking your nose would have a reasonable chance of going unwitnessed.
The experience was a nice balm anyway, because my first hour in the Ferrari was a matter of white knuckles and solidly clenched buttocks. Narrow, greasy roads plus long sections of motorway in heavy rain obliged running the car in Wet mode, and even then it showed a disturbing readiness to steal its way past 200km/h with a bit of weight on the right pedal. Not the kind of speed you want to be doing if you happen upon a bit of standing water.
Mind you, the Ferrari is one of those cars that feels cheerfully stable no matter how high the numbers on the speedo climb. It’s simply built for them, I guess, generating an amazing 340kg of downforce at 250km/h. What’s less expected is how comfortably it glides over pitted tarmac and battered country roads, the body staying utterly level while the wheels undoubtedly jounce rapidly underneath it. The dampers, whose firmness is adjusted by a magnetic fluid that can alter its viscosity, are supreme.
Eventually, the rain had the decency to fade away. Buttocks unclenched and my grip on the wheel loosened up, not merely because patches of dry tarmac began to appear, but mostly due to the fact that the 296 GTB is, for all the brute force channelled through its rear tyres, is an amazingly easy car to get to grips with.
Coming to that realisation requires you to get used to the scalpel sharp steering. It makes the Ferrari’s front end dive into corners like a hungry hawk on a field mouse, but it’s also fast enough to help you save the odd wiggle, such as when you’ve decided to switch from Wet to Race mode and trod on the accelerator too enthusiastically on a still-damp road.
It is, it goes without saying, a ridiculously fast car. 200km/h takes just 7.3 seconds from standstill. [PULL-OUT QUOTE] Yet, the 296 GTB isn’t explosively or unevenly quick. Instead, the power is impossibly linear, doled out by the hybrid drivetrain in a steady flow as the revs climb and what begins as an urgent rush to the horizon turns into a violent charge.
What a sound from the exhaust when it happens, too. The engineers went on endlessly during the technical briefing about the voice they gave the new V6, and having heard it I can understand why. It doesn’t have the F8 Tributo’s rasp or bark, and instead emits a smooth, distinctive bass-heavy tone that’s full bodied at low revs, rising to a cultured howl that makes the small hairs stand. At the factory they’ve nicknamed it the “piccolo V12”, and for good reason. Apart from the 812 Superfast, which has an actual V12, the 296 GTB is now the best-sounding Ferrari on sale.
Between the ultra-quick steering and the “little V12”, there’s no shortage of pure excitement, and I won’t lie, some of it is tinged with fear when you’re on a skinny bit of road. Like many of the modern Ferraris, the 296 GTB is a wide car, and it feels like it. It’s broader than a Mercedes S-Class (though the F8 was, apparently, broader still). Yet, there’s a deftness to the handling that makes it feel every bit like the lean athlete it is. Despite the addition of the plug-in hardware, including a battery pack that weighs 73kg by itself, the 296 GTB weighs 1,470kg, only 35kg more than the F8 Tributo.
Sometimes it accelerates furiously enough to make you feel as if you’re merely along for the ride, but then the brakes have titanic stopping power, so there’s always a sense of control if you stay alert to what’s happening. There’s a sense of balance, too, with neither end of the car fidgeting to get away from you.
A few fast corners later, you’re full of newfound confidence in the Ferrari’s abilities, more so than in your own, if you’re honest with yourself. Mind you, if you’re willing to trade some of the car’s daily drivability for some extra sharpness, there’s the Assetto Fiorano version to consider.
Either way, the new Ferrari is ultimately an easy car to sum up. It’s stupendously fast, of course, but also supremely balanced in terms of its abilities: all set to make the slog through rush hour traffic on Shenton Way an unruffled affair, but just as ready to bolster your confidence in being able to handle 830 horsepower.
It was kind of the weather gods to let me find that out eventually. But the 296 GTB is such a fascinating addition to the Ferrari line-up, there’s every chance that they wanted to see what it could do in the dry, too.
Words Leow Ju-Len
Photos Lorenzo Marccino