Ferrari SF90 Stradale review: Maranello’s first-ever PHEV driven in Malaysia

By daryl, 18 March 2021

OVERVIEW – What is it? 

This is the future of Italian supercars. While Lamborghini tries to get people talking about the Sian’s supercapacitor technology, Ferrari is embracing the long game that is electrification with what is, straight up, a plug-in hybrid supercar. The SF90 Stradale is the very first PHEV to roll out of the red brick walls of Maranello. And there’s just something about the dedication and finesse Ferrari has put into the circuitry of its new poster boy which suggests that there’s a pot of rechargeable gold hiding just around the corner. 

Electrification isn’t uncharted territory for the Prancing Horse after all. LaFerrari marked the company’s entry into road-going hybrid tech, much of which is derived from the brand’s exploits on the Formula One circuit. And the SF90, which is actually a commemorative abbreviation for Scuderia Ferrari’s 90th anniversary, picks up where the frontman of the holy trinity left off, minus the production limit and elitist air of unobtainability that comes with it.  

Like the crimson Formula One machines piloted by Charles Leclerc and Carlos Sainz, the SF90 packs an MGU-K (motor generator unit, kinetic) in the rear which harnesses energy dissipated from the brakes in a fashion that’s pretty similar to KERS (kinetic energy recovery system). But that’s not all there is to the SF90 Stradale’s flashy electric bits. Two independent motors for each front wheel, which make up a fully-electric front axle supplement the car with about 160 horses. And it’s perfectly capable of charioting the 1.6-tonne supercar all on its own for up to 25km, up to speeds of 135kph (more on that later). 

Combined with the MGU-K, the SF90 Stradale’s total electric output adds up to 162kW or 220PS (216bhp). But the piece-de-resistance remains the four-litre V8 engine bolted beneath the mid-section, just behind the driver. With 780PS (770bhp) on tap, the re-bored version of the F8 Tributo’s 3.9-litre mill is the most powerful eight-cylinder engine ever fitted to a Ferrari. It is hooked up to the same eight-speed DCT – Ferrari calls this an ‘F1 gearbox – fitted to the Roma, which drives the rear wheels. So, the SF90 should be as good as any V8-powered, mid-engined Ferrari that precedes it. But that’s an oversimplification of what it’s engineered to be.  

With all systems go, the SF90 is an all-wheel drive (e4WD as per the brochure) scalpel built to shave lap times using the earth-moving 1,000PS (986bhp) at its disposal. With great power comes great acceleration; 0-100kph is done in 2.5 seconds, 0-200 in 6.7. The numbers paint a picture of something that’s right up the alley of a serial track-goer or retired racing driver with deep pockets. But ‘Stradale’ literally means street in Italian. And you’d be surprised by how adept the car is at tackling the Klang Valley’s melange of sweeping corners and speed bumps, even if you’ve had the privilege of driving as many road-going track heroes on Malaysian tarmac as we have.  

DRIVING – What is it like on the road?

The first 20km we charted on the traffic-riddled lanes of the Federal Highway and Damansara-Puchong Expressway (LDP) behind the wheel of the SF90 Stradale were shockingly civil and serene, such is its composure as a full-fledged EV. With the MGU-K focused on recovering energy from braking and deceleration, the only motors driving the Ferrari in eDrive mode are the ones powering the front wheels. And while the thought of a front-wheel drive (FWD) Prancing Horse feels somewhat sacrilegious, we’d be lying through our teeth if we didn’t admit to being hugely impressed by how easy it is to weave in and out of traffic in this setup, while sat on the wrong side of the road at that (our tester’s LHD, but more on that later). 

Electric propulsion soldiers on as the SF90’s prime mover in Hybrid mode for as long as its 7.9kWh battery is sufficiently charged. Some of the synthesised sound effects the car plays while the V8 stays asleep are borderline tacky, or mildly entertaining if we’re being kind. They certainly help illustrate the stark contrast between the engine switching on and off, even if the SF90 isn’t the most vocal supercar we’ve ever driven. Sure, you get the full-bodied bass of a bona fide Ferrari V8 from inside the cockpit. But the exhaust note is a little underwhelming from the outside by the standards of a 986bhp machine packing Ferrari’s most powerful production V8; we reckon a Merc-AMG C63 will put on a better show as far as sheer decibels are concerned. 

That said, the F154 mill still gave us quite a rude shock when it broke the electric silence for the very first time while we were at the wheel. Get used to it and the transitions between power supplies are impressively quick and smooth – you can practically switch the engine on and off like a switch by changing the driving modes – which is quite a feat coming from a supercar manufacturer that has never built a PHEV before. Even with petrol flowing through its veins, the SF90 retains its manners pretty well for as long as we stayed civil with our throttle inputs. There are some dynamic differences that you can actually feel, whether it’s the rear digging into the road a little bit more or that there’s actually a gearbox managing power delivery. But the DCT will happily shift to seventh as early as 65kph as a true ‘Eco-Warrior of the Year’ would if you can keep your enthusiasm at bay. 

SF90 RAC-e
SF90 V8

Doing so is as challenging as ordering a salad in a steakhouse, especially with the temptation of all 986 horses presenting itself in a single button that is’ Qualify’ mode, the sportiest setting which sits right above ‘Performance’. Just like the Formula One cars it tips its proverbial hat to, the SF90 is at its peak in Saturday’s settings. If the battery is low, engaging this mode puts the onboard recharging measures into overdrive. And once the ‘cooldown lap’ is over, the near-instantaneous electric torque up front pulls the SF90 Stradale into a blur in a split second as the rear-biased thrust of the glorious V8 – which accounts for 78 percent of the car’s combined output – slingshots the car into the horizon and keeps going until the digital speedo displays 340kph, on paper at least. 

On top of giving the SF90 a boost in the low range, the electric front axle, which Ferrari predictably RAC-e (rotational axis control-electric) also facilitates torque vectoring between the front wheels for ‘faster corner exits and increased stability’. The lowercase ‘e’ also makes its way into the eSSC (electric side slip control) and eTC (electric traction control) systems that help keep the car planted through the corners. We could probably use a day in Sepang to really give these features a proper workout. But you don’t need an F1-grade circuit to come to the consensus that the SF90 Stradale is a mind-bendingly fast hunk of metal that’s incredibly skilled at managing its hybrid power and the dizzying speeds that ensue. 

ON THE INSIDE – Layout, finish and space

The first thing that gets you upon entering the SF90 is how its start button, which has been refashioned as a little a touch pad above the centre spoke, is completely starved of haptic feedback; the controls on your microwave probably have more ‘feel’ to them. Ferrari’s new digital interface looks great in pictures. But there’s certainly room for improvement in terms of how the departure from analogue dials and buttons could have been executed. We’re not protesting the use of an LCD screen for the instrument cluster. After all, when was the last time you saw an F1 car with analogue dials? But reflections are a problem under the glare of a hot and cloudless Malaysian afternoon. And getting the wing mirrors right using the unintuitive touchpad is quite a chore too. 

The touch-sensitive controls on the steering wheel are also prone to being grazed by the edges of our palms while turning – not ideal for a system that also incorporates turn indicators on the wheel. Luckily, those buttons continue to be of the analogue variety, as is the Manettino – correction, eManettino – knob. The new control panel for the transmission panel is a novel touch, but first-time Ferrari drivers might be stumped, especially when none of the toggles say ‘D’ – drive is still engaged via the upshift paddle mounted on the steering rack. That may sound like one too thing too many to mount on the wheel, but the idea is for the driver to have little reason to look and reach elsewhere, just like in the cockpit of a Formula One car. 

We’re not trying to take anything away from how well the SF90 Stradale’s cabin is designed as a modern-day interpretation of what a Ferrari cockpit should look like. It definitely has its sublime qualities. But perhaps some of the ergonomic quirks felt a bit more jarring on the move from where we were sat: the seat that rightfully belongs to the passenger. That said, even though it’s LHD, all-round visibility was never an issue in the Euro-spec SF90 – it’s as good as it gets for a two-seater of such svelte proportions. Navigating through PJ’s notorious traffic was a surprisingly effortless affair despite the initial disorientation. Getting in and out is relatively easy too once you’ve adjusted to the ride height. 

As far as shopping is concerned, Ferrari has managed to carve out a 74-litre ‘frunk’ that sits right ahead of the RAC-e module; a backpack and a couple of small, loose items should fit in there just fine. There’s even a narrow shelf behind the seats where you can slot an umbrella or two. It’s not a whole lot of space to talk about, such is the nature of a sports car packing two separate sources of propulsion. But Ferrari customers can probably afford to have the help tag along in a BMW X5 to deal with any kids and extra luggage that want to tag along for a road trip. 

OWNING – Running costs and reliability

Nobody expects Ferraris to be cheap. But when you’re talking about one with nearly a thousand horses, a landmark model being the brand’s first PHEV at that, then some serious money is needed to secure one even though production isn’t limited and purchase isn’t by invite only. In Malaysia, the starting figure for the SF90 Stradale is RM1,908,000. That’s before factoring in duties, taxes, insurance and customisation costs. On the bright side, a fuel economy average of 6.1 litres per 100km (claimed) means you’ll be getting the most fuel-efficient car Maranello has ever built in return. But you’d need to chalk up a lot of miles for the savings to actually matter, not that it’s something the average Ferrari buyer is too concerned about. 

Should you choose to drive it regularly – you really could with the flexible electric powertrain – Ferrari’s extended seven-year maintenance program covers routine services and original spares, all dealt with exclusively through local distributor Naza Italia. Service intervals are every 20,000km or 12 months, whichever comes first, with no stipulated mileage cap for all seven years of manufacturer coverage. You do get what you pay for after all. 

And if there’s change to spare, the SF90 Stradale can be equipped with the optional Assetto Fiorano package which is said to cost in the ballpark of RM300k before duties. For that amount of dough, the car will be factory-fitted with GT racing-derived Multimatic shock absorbers, a bunch of carbon fibre components – think door panels, springs, exhaust and such – that shave 30kg off the kerb weight, a carbon rear spoiler that generates 390kg of downforce at 250kph and Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2 tyres. There’s also that bold racing stripe that runs down the middle of the car, which is probably an acquired taste. But if you’re looking to make a statement, surely all the way is the only way to go, right? 

SF90 lights
SF90 frunk

VERDICT – Final thoughts and pick of the range

Ferrari’s most powerful series production supercar is also its most important engineering milestone. That such weight is delivered in a package that’s so easy to drive and even easier to love is simply spectacular; a truly artful display of automotive mastery on so many levels.

There are Ferraris, collectors’ Ferraris, race-ready Ferraris, one-off Ferraris… and then there’s the SF90 Stradale, sitting comfortably in its own stratosphere, not necessarily as the most accomplished supercar to bear the Cavallino Rampante, but arguably the most  significant. The eventual transition from fossil fuels to the stuff that comes out of the holes in our walls will likely be the biggest development in mass mobility since horse carriages were replaced by the motorcar. And having tested the conductive waters of electrification with LaFerrari, Maranello has now proven its readiness for and its ability to adapt its legendary engineering to the impending tidal shift. 

The SF90 Stradale, then, marks a turning point for the brand and a breakthrough for the industry that transcends the barriers of cash and class that cocooned almost every Prancing Horse and rivalling product that preceded it. Its successful reinvention of the supercar is a victory for all to revel in. And it will be interesting to see how the others respond.   

Sure, some very Ferrari/supercar things like the unadulterated roar of a naturally-aspirated V12 engine and the emotional thrill attached to such analogue quantities will be missed and likely never reproduced. We still have things like the 812 GTS to fill that void, for another few years at least. Either way, there's really no reason to stay anchored to the past now that we know how the future tastes like. Nostalgia will always have its place, but there's only so much it can do to limit the flow of something as intrinsically and excitingly electric as the SF90 Stradale. 

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