2010 Ferrari California: Recalibrated performance

An exotic car you can live with
by: JONATHAN HOUSE, The newest Ferrari turns heads with its ground-breaking styling and distinctive exhaust sounds.

No cars draw attention to themselves like Ferraris - especially the blood red ones.

With their exotic styling and constantly snarling exhausts, the Italian sports cars demand to be noticed and the 2010 California I recently tested was no exception. People on the street stopped and stared, cars on the freeway swung in for closer looks, and a couple of police cars lingered in the rear view mirror for awfully long times.

Which made it very hard to push the car anywhere near its performance limits. When everyone is watching you all the time, it's better to look cool than hotheaded.

Forget for the moment that the newest Ferrari costs more than your first house. Denting it means a lot more than trying to explain what happened to your insurance agent. It also means everyone you know will hear about it.

And of course, it didn't help that it rained the entire time I had the car.

All of which is meant to explain why I don't know whether the 2010 Ferrari California will go from zero to 60 in less than four seconds, as advertised. Or whether it really will hit 220 miles per hour on the speedometer.

Based on a few admittedly cautious fast starts and freeway runs, I'd say the answer to both questions is 'probably.' Accelerating hard away from a dead stop is a religious experience. And the momentum is just starting to build as the speedometer needle sweeps past the legal speed limit.

Regardless of how fast the California is driven, the view from the cockpit is pure exotica. The leather-wrapped interior is sumptuous, the gauges are large and easy to read, and the high-back seats are supportive, even though they seem designed more for skinny Italian supermodels than real people.

So why have some Ferrari enthusiasts reacted to the California with such disdain? Although the car has yet to reach American showrooms, a number of early reviews have questioned whether it is a real Ferrari. Some complain that the V8 is mounted in the front instead of behind the driver, while others call the wide rear end unsightly. A few also note that what appear to be four large chrome exhaust tips are just heat extractors.

To which I say, yes, of course the California is not intended to be a supercar like the 458 Italia or 430 Scuderia. Both those swoopy rear-engine Ferraris have more power and are even faster than the California. They are also harder to drive on public roads, especially considering their limited rear visibility.

With the California, Ferrari is obviously trying for something different - a high performance car you can actually live with on a day-to-day basis. The first clue is the price. Although the $197,000 base price is clearly out of the reach of 99.9 percent of us, the California is the least-expensive Ferrari on the market, meaning it is aimed at a broader market than the most exclusive ones.

Another clue is the back seat. Yes, it's not very large. But it has one, meaning the designers intended that the California can be used for family trips.

The suspension also offers a comfort setting. The choice is made by a switch on the steering wheel that include a sport mode and allows the driver to switch off the traction control, something I did not do because of the wet weather.

And then there is the available automatic transmission. Although Ferraris are famous for their gated manuals, even those who never learned to shift for themselves can drive the California.

Finally, the retractable hardtop is simplicity itself. It goes up and down in about 14 seconds, all with the touch of a single button.

But even with those compromises, the California can be a handful. Press the steering-wheel mounted start button and the engine explodes into life with a sharp blast out the exhausts. Even under light acceleration, like slowly pulling away from red lights, the exhaust spits and barks. Stand on the gas and it roars, drowning out the stereo and all other sounds.

The difference between the sport and comfort settings for the suspension was minimal. Both are stiffer than most performance cars. Even in the comfort mode, rough roads take a toll on drivers and passengers alike.

The automatic transmission also takes some getting used to. It includes dual manual clutches that couple and uncouple at every gear. As a result, even though there is no clutch pedal, the transmission feels like it is manually shifting up and down through the gears. This helps produce the breath-taking acceleration times, although it also requires a light touch to drive smoothly in city traffic.

Rear visibility is also a little restricted with the top up. The back fenders rise up so high that the rear quarter windows are little more than small triangles. The high trunk line also makes it difficult to see what is directly behind the car, so backing up should be done cautiously.

Which brings us to the issue of the California's styling. Although some reviewers have called the rear end ugly, I disagree. I think the lines that flow from the front fenders along the doors and up over the rear wheels are graceful and give the car a powerful look. I also like the small taillights mounted up high on the trunk. And, although I wish the heat extractors were actual exhaust tips, they are at least functional and look great.

But I think the real test was how people reacted to the car. It turned heads everywhere I went. So let the critics stew. No one else is going to have the slightest doubt the California is a real Ferrari.

Facts and figures

• Test Model: 2010 California.

• Manufacturer: Ferrari.

• Class: Coupe.

• Layout: Front engine, rear-wheel-drive.

• Style: 2+2 sports car.

• Power train: 4.3 V8 (460 hp).

• Transmissions: 6-speed automatic.

• EPA estimated city/highway mileage: 9/16.

• Price: Beginning at approximately $197,000.