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Review: Ferrari Portofino

What is it?
Ferrari doesn’t do humble, but company insiders will admit, if pushed, that the California (and later T update) wandered too far from the authentic Ferrari template. Not so far for the convertible GT to be deemed a commercial failure – the opposite in fact, with 11,000-plus sold in a decade, 70 per cent of which were conquest sales – more that it lacked the pointy precision that’s characteristic of contemporary Ferraris.

The Portofino aims to redress the balance, literally and figuratively, adding a shot of adrenalised dynamism to the usability and versatility beloved of California clients – grintozo, Ferrari calls it, or grittiness – not to mention chiselling away at the old car’s, umm, lard-arsed profile. Ferrari’s Centro Stile has worked wonders here, crafting a form that has tension in coupe form, particularly in the way the retractable hard-top roof is now convincingly integrated, while still delivering the lissom elegance of a convertible and the trick aero a modern Ferrari needs. Unlike Aston Martin’s sublime new DB11 and the next-gen Mercedes SL, Ferrari has stuck with the RHT over the trad canvas soft-top, and insists the weight penalty is negligible. Saving the kilos on a car as content-rich as the Portofino is a tall order, but it’s a task Ferrari technical director Philippe Krief and his team have set to with rigour and vigour.

There’s an all-new aluminium chassis, using 12 different alloys, key elements of which are now cleverly integrated. Take the A-pillar, for example: on the California it consisted of 21 separate components, now it’s a single piece. Hollow castings help improve structural rigidity: the new car is 35 per cent stiffer than the old one. Savings have also been made in the powertrain and electronics, while the seats, heating and ventilation system and dashboard structure are all lighter.

At 1664kg with fluids, the Portofino weighs 80kg less than the California T. The engine is a reworked wet-sump iteration of Ferrari’s award-winning 3.9-litre twin turbo V8, good for 591bhp in the Portofino and more significantly 561 torques from 3,000 to 5,250rpm. Changes to the hardware include a ten per cent increase in the maximum pressure of the combustion chamber, revised con rods and pistons, and a single cast exhaust manifold. There’s now more power at the top end of the rev range. Ferrari, understandably, is hell-bent on giving its new-age turbo engines the throttle response, savage sonic signature, and irresistible character of the atmospheric V8s many of us still lust after. As powertrain director Vittorio Dini told TG: “Extracting more power from a turbocharged engine isn’t just a matter of playing with the boost: you have to make it harmonious, robust, and driveable.” So is it?

What is it like on the road?
Horsepower inflation has brought us to a point in which Ferrari’s most accessible ‘entry-level’ – in conspicuous inverted commas – isn’t far off the early Noughties Enzo supercar in terms of power and pace. The Portofino is supposed to be the gateway drug to the Prancing Horse, the car that eases Ferrari newbies into the Promised Land. But the first time you drop the hammer in this thing, it takes off like a scalded cat chasing a rat up a drain-pipe. It’s fast. Capital F fast. Mother-flipping fast. Zero to 198kph in 10.8 seconds and 317kph top speed fast.

No issues here about lacking proper Ferrari fizz, and who else but Maranello would illustrate the car’s pulsating soundtrack by showing us a graph delineating the bass, tenor and soprano frequency range (from subterranean Bazza White to full-throttle Bruce Dickinson)? Even for a company with a back catalogue as mechanically rich as Ferrari’s, the 3.9-litre engine sounds and feels every cubic centimetre a genuine masterpiece. Intake and exhaust have been tweaked, and there’s an electric bypass valve, but the key here is a turbo-denying absence of lag and razor-sharp throttle response. These old-school Ferrari traits are matched by such a vat of torque that the Portofino can pull from low speeds in seventh gear. The dual-shift ’box is a bit aggressive in manual mode, but mostly the Portofino nails its duality mission, happily mooching about town rather than straining at its diamond-studded leash.

And like all recent Ferraris it also has a superbly resolved ride quality; Ferrari has tweaked the algorithms in the magnetic dampers, although the Portofino runs stiffer springs front and rear. But it’s not perfect. Raise the tempo and it begins to feel oddly hyperactive; both the front and rear are talking, just not always with each other. Like the 812 Superfast, it has electric power steering; as with all Ferraris in recent memory, it’s easy to over-drive the car at first, and you need to wind your neck in to get the best from it. The latest iteration of Ferrari’s magnificent e-diff has its hands full keeping everything pointing in the right direction, and if you twiddle the manettino into full ‘off’ mode, you’d better bring your A-game – 591bhp is a heap of power, after all. Body control is leagues better than the California’s, but the Portofino still retains a certain softness, even in Sport mode, that can feel discombobulating at high speed.

Paradoxically, although it feels much more like a proper Ferrari overall, it’s also more enjoyable at six rather than ten-tenths – the territory we suspect most owners are likely to take it. So maybe they have judged it right. The Brembo brakes could use a little more feel, too, although ultimate stopping power is superb.

Layout, finish and space
In creating the Portofino, Ferrari spoke to a lot of clients. In fact, this is probably the most market-researched Ferrari ever made. Whether that runs counter to the pure inspiration that fuels truly great cars – and art – is moot, not least because the Portofino has several excellent places to stash your smartphone. (When the California arrived 10 years ago, erstwhile Ferrari CEO Luca di Montezemolo still thought sat nav was the devil’s work.)

It’s also a high quality item inside. Ferrari prefers to call it a +2, and though there’s an extra five centimetres in the rear seats, they’re better suited to Rodeo Drive shopping expeditions than human beings. Even small ones. Infotainment is handled by a 10.2-inch HD touch-screen, with Apple CarPlay, and the air con is 25 per cent faster than before, and 50 per cent quieter. The perplexing ergonomics of the 488 are replaced by straightforward ease-of-use, although that F1-aping multi-function wheel is still too busy.

Final thoughts
That Ferrari ditched California in favour of an all-new name speaks volumes. The Portofino is lighter, faster, much prettier, and better made. There’s a lot of solid gold action up here – AMG S63 cabrio, Aston DB11, Bentley Continental GT, Porsche Turbo cab, maybe even the Rolls-Royce Dawn – and not one of them goes about separating you from large sums of money in quite the same way. But only one of them is a Ferrari, and the Portofino is more Ferrari-ish than ever.

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