When is an open top Ferrari a GTS and when is it a Spider?
Ah. You’re looking for logic in Ferrari’s naming strategy. Good luck with that. Back in the day, a GTS was effectively a ‘targa’, ie: it had a removable panel rather than a fully folding roof, as debuted on 1977’s 308 GTS (you remember the opening credits of Magnum PI, right?) On the Nineties F355, you could have a GTB, a GTS or a Spider. That glorious machine was replaced by the 360 Modena, whose Spider version had a canvas soft-top and slightly awkward styling, as did the follow-up F430 (it was prettier, though).
Since 2011’s 458 Italia Spider, open Ferraris have had a retractable aluminium roof, ingeniously packaged conduits for high-speed hedonism without compromising on structural integrity. That’s exactly the deal with the 296 GTS, the first road-going Ferrari, erm, Spider to use a six-cylinder engine. If you discount the Dino GTS, which isn’t technically a Ferrari. Or in fact a Spider, because it only had a detachable roof panel.
Might you be over-complicating this?
Perhaps. The RHT (retractable hard top) itself is an elegant solution, the GTB and GTS designed, says Chief Design Officer Flavio Manzoni, concurrently. Design is obviously subjective, but the 296 is a fabulous, fascinating thing to look at, completely of the moment while throwing back in a supremely nuanced way to the mid-Sixties 250 LM endurance racer. Check out the visor cockpit, the rear buttresses and the engine bay and the lineage is clear. The last two have been reworked on the GTS, and there’s more of a step between the roof and the ‘aero bridge’ that runs the width of the car.
The roof splits into two sections that fold over the front of the engine, preserving the same heat dissipation characteristics as the GTB, and ensuring that the two cars’ silhouettes are almost identical. The GTS gains a viewing window on the engine cover so you can gaze at the exotic plumbing beneath. The roof folds away behind the seats in 14 seconds, at speeds up to 28mph. Packaging the roof was no more difficult than before, despite the additional hybrid gubbins, but cooling it all was more tricky, Ferrari says.
It’s also highly aerodynamic. There’s a cooling intake beside the ultra-slim front LED headlights. An underbody channels hot air away from the car’s bodysides, leaving cooling air free to flow into the intercoolers. An aero device Ferrari calls the ‘tea-tray’ dominates the front end, uniting two competing pressure fields into one ‘energised’ vortex that sucks the car to the road. And an active spoiler is integrated into the rear bumper, good for 360kg of downforce at 155mph.
Presumably there’s a weight penalty?
Inevitably. But it’s a small one. The GTS weighs 70kg more than the GTB, so 1,540kg dry. Virtually all of that extra heft is in the roof, but 5kg is down to some extra carbon fibre reinforcement in the underbody. The sills and A and B pillars have strengthened joints, and Ferrari claims that the 296 GTS is 50 per cent stiffer than the F8 Tributo Spider. And this is still a deadly serious and extremely high performance car, with a zero to 62mph time of 2.9 seconds, 124mph in a blistering 7.3 seconds, and a top speed of 205mph (even with the roof down).
As on the GTB, the GTS is available with the track-oriented Assetto Fiorano package, whose additional £25,920 outlay nets you fixed rate Multimatic dampers and sticky Michelin Cup 2R tyres. We know that the GTB so equipped is absolutely dynamite on track, but a bit restless on choppy roads, unsurprisingly. Besides, despite its parity with the GTB, how often would you really use your 296 GTS on a track day?
Are you suggesting the GTS doesn’t have the same fire in its belly?
Oh, it does. But with the roof immediately stowed as we headed out of Maranello and towards Tuscany’s Raticosa and Futa passes, there’s still a sense that the GTS is a little more mindful, if you can describe anything that packs a total of 819bhp in that way. It’s always wise to ease yourself into an experience like this, and such is the bandwidth of a contemporary Ferrari that the GTS will unobtrusively slide into top gear, its supple suspension erasing cruddy road surfaces.
Pop it into e-mode, for maximum mindfulness, by pushing one of the innumerable buttons on the steering wheel, to enjoy arguably the 296’s most amusing party trick. It’s good for 15 miles in this set up and can run at speeds up to 83mph (though not at the same time). Yes, this is a Ferrari that willingly strangulates itself.
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And with the roof down, you’ll hear things you never normally hear above the insistent idle of a Ferrari combustion engine. Bird song, perhaps. Italian truck drivers whistling the ‘Amarcord’. But this would be a criminal waste of that startlingly impressive hybrid V6.
Ah, yes. The internal combustion engine lives on. Is it really as good as everyone says?
Oh yes. Zero emissions at the tail-pipe is one thing. But actually the hybrid tech gives Ferrari’s engineers an additional power source to play with, and the resulting energy is vigorously networked around the car to enhance every aspect of its behaviour. The 2.9-litre V6 turbo sits in a 120-degree ‘hot’ vee configuration so it’s low and wide to optimise the centre of gravity, and produces 654bhp on its own. It’s hooked up to a lightning fast eight-speed dual-clutch gearbox and an electronic differential, integrated with a rear-mounted electric motor that produces an additional 165bhp.
In ‘qualifying’ mode, the 296 GTB can thus call upon a total of 819bhp, engine and e-motor blending seamlessly via an additional clutch that sits between the two power sources, decoupling them when the car is running in pure e-mode. A high voltage 7.45kWh battery feeds the e-motor. Persuading all this stuff to engage in meaningful dialogue is the really clever bit: Ferrari uses a device called TMA – transition manager actuator – to oversee and optimise the flow of energy between electric and internal combustion, with proprietary software keeping it all smooth and instant. It’s very clever.
Does it really sound like a little V12?
Turbos traditionally muffle an engine’s harmonics but Ferrari’s claims about the V6’s soundtrack aren’t hyperbole. A symmetrical cylinder firing order and equal-length, tuned exhaust manifolds and an 8,500rpm red line mean that this Ferrari mostly sounds like a Ferrari should: sonorous low down and rising to an operatic crescendo as the revs rise. Revving it out to the limit is a total blast, and there’s just no sense of any lag at all. It feels naturally aspirated.
It’s exceptionally well-integrated: the hardware, software and aerodynamics are totally harmonised. Recent Ferraris have had overly fast steering, but this one is calmer and more linear. Or maybe we’ve just got used to it. Unlike the all-wheel drive SF90, the 296 GTS is rear-drive only, but there’s grip, traction and texture to the way it handles. In fact, it’s more interactive than its hybrid big brother, easier to play around with.
How much of that is down to the electronics and algorithms?
Ferrari loves acronyms, so say hello to the 6w-CDS – for 6-way Chassis Dynamic Sensor. Basically, it gathers and crunches data acquired from steering, throttle, gearbox, braking and sound to blend the whole driving experience. Another new device is the ‘ABS evo’, which works in parallel with the traction control system and the 6w-CDS to sharpen handling and braking yet further. And Ferrari’s ever-evolving ‘side slip control’ is a drift mode by any other name; it’s almost comically good at serving up slides, although when the heavens opened on the Raticosa we opted for a different sort of mindfulness. Fortunately, the traction control is spectacular, even without selecting the ‘wet’ mode on the wheel.
Any problem areas at all?
Normally, we’d say that Ferrari’s HMI is the only thing that’s off the pace. The company’s insistence on grouping everything on or close to the wheel is cool in theory, but can take some getting used to. A little haptic square triggers access to various sub menus shown on the main instrument display; it works more effectively than the one that adjusts the door mirrors or climate control. The gear selector cleverly mimics the open gate layout of so many classic Ferraris, and allows you to flick between M for manual, R for reverse and so on.
The interior is beautifully made and nicely finished. Spend too long in Ferrari’s Atelier and prepare to spend a fortune on exotic trim finishes, seat and door inserts, and much else besides. Taller drivers may find things a bit tight space-wise. Slide the seat right back and it chafes the rear bulk-head. Nudge it forward and your knee will brush the lower face of the dashboard. The back of your neck benefits from the warming effects of an air scarf.
We can cope. Where do we sign up?
Ah, well. Needless to say the 296 GTS is a) rather expensive and b) rather unavailable for several years on account of it being sold out. It’s a wonder Ferrari still asks us to drive its new cars, really. It’s probably something to do with validation, not that they need it, and there’s little doubt that the hybrid V6 is a hugely accomplished achievement networked into a car that’s phenomenally satisfying to drive and extremely easy on the eye. The folding roof merely adds another element to one of the truly vital driving experiences.