Hybrid V6 powertrain is a real high point, thrilling at all speeds, beautiful
Haptic switchgear is irritating, cabin isn’t much of a step forwards, nothing else worth mentioning
What is it?
A huge accomplishment. A successor to the legendary Dino. A genius bit of technical development. A warning shot across McLaren’s bows. Proof downsizing can improve the breed. Evidence that Ferrari has fully got its head around hybrid and electricity. Any and all are true. But this is probably the one that matters most: the best supercar available today.
This is the Ferrari 296 GTB. It is a deeply, furiously complex car. It never feels like that to drive. Neither on road, nor on track. Ferrari says it’s not a direct replacement for the F8 Tributo as that remains on sale (if only for another year) and is significantly cheaper. The 296 GTB costs nearly £40,000 more – £241,550. But it slots into the mid-engined ‘everyday’ Ferrari lineage that started with the 308 47 years ago and has continued without interruption – and with some legendary highlights, including the 458 Speciale – ever since.
Take me for a quick tour through the car’s technical make-up.
It still has an aluminium chassis (hardly surprising when Ferrari has its own foundry on site in Maranello), with two seats ahead of the powerplant. Down behind the seats, slotted under the parcel shelf, is a 7.45kWh, 70kg battery pack. That feeds a 165bhp electric motor (it’s the rough dimensions of a frying pan) that’s sandwiched between an all-new (and totally not Maserati MC20-related) V6 and eight-speed twin clutch gearbox.
The SF90 had another pair of electric motors for the front wheels, yielding 4WD and near-zero boot space, but this single motor is the 296’s only one. It can power the car alone, and at up to 84mph. But what it’s best at is allowing it to crawl quietly, to go full Victorian school child and be seen but not heard. More on that later.
What about the core of any Ferrari: the engine?
It’s a bit of a revolution: Ferrari’s first-ever production V6. The Dino was a sub-brand, remember. Look deep and you’ll spot the famous red crackle covers, but they’ve been prised further apart, the banks opened out to 120 degrees. Pride of place in the engine bay now goes to a curvaceous burnished metal heat plate. Under it, nestling in the ‘hot vee’ of the cylinder banks, lie a pair of IHI turbos shared with the SF90. The turbines at both ends are slightly smaller, so they can spin faster (180,000rpm), run more efficiently (by 24 per cent) and respond quicker.
This – we’re tempted to say entry-level – Ferrari has a grand total of 818bhp, 165bhp of e-thrust supplemented by another 663bhp from the twin turbo V6. What it doesn’t feel – thankfully and amazingly – is particularly turbocharged. The F8’s V8 does, coming across as a mighty force generator, more impressive in the mid-range than the top end. Not this one. It soars to 8,500rpm, and gives you a reason to go there, max torque only arriving at 6,250rpm. Nor does it come across as particularly electrified. The turbos and e-motor are there to enhance the V6, not to be the stars of the show in their own right. Of course there’s masses of zero lag bottom end grunt, but the way it’s blended is genius. You can deceive yourself into thinking you’re driving an especially healthy naturally aspirated engine.
And it sounds good too, higher pitched and richer toned than the F8 Tributo’s flat V8 blare, more fizzy and energetic. Ferrari claims its engineers nicknamed it the ‘piccolo V12’ – little V12 – it doesn’t have the trumpeting baroque glory, the proud Roman pomp of an 812 in majestic full flow, but we can see where they’re coming from.
How is it to drive?
On road it’s smooth, intimate and connected. The steering’s super fast, but Ferrari is on top of that now, so trust in the front end comes naturally. It’s not super-rich in road detail, but it’s massively satisfying to turn: the weighting, the resistance, the connection: all are superb. Body control on the smooth surfaces of southern Spain is immaculate, traction effortless, everything operates in balance and harmony, it never feels heavy or caught out, it just carries you along, wants to entertain and amuse. Alert and playful.
And when you get to a village you can press the haptic eD button on the lower left of the steering wheel and have a claimed 15 miles of e-range. OK, it’s more like 10, but the point stands. You can go into stealth mode and roll silently through. Supercars are attention seekers, heard before they’re seen, but here’s that extra dimension that electricity brings – soundless progress and a more accepting audience.
The gap between silent pottering and track ripping is a gulf of epic proportions. Hard to believe it’s the same car, in fact. OK, it wasn’t since Ferrari insisted we drove a different car fitted with the £25,920 Assetto Fiorano pack on track at Monteblanco, but the way it rips around, making me feel like a hero even though I’m protected by an electronic bubble (6w-CDS, the car’s central dynamic brain, marshals ABS individually to each wheel, predicts grip and monitors all movement across three axes) is amazing.
The 296 is corralled by quite the most dizzying bunch of acronyms I’ve ever come across. But no-one does this stuff better than Ferrari, and they have never done it better than this, a car that dances so exquisitely to your tune. It’s an adrenaline rush because the car feels organic and natural even though underneath it’s anything but. Complexity? Completed it, mate.
We struggle with the SF90-influenced cabin. The screen control touchpad on the wheel takes concentration and effort, the actions aren’t natural, inputs are delayed. The design is fine, but hasn’t moved the game on that much. You can at least use this one for weekends away. There’s a little wind noise, but you’ll cope because eighth is long and the firm seats are well shaped.
Words: Ollie Marriage
Photography: Mark Riccioni
What's the verdict?
The V6 is a thing of beauty, and so’s the car itself; the visor-like windscreen, the buttresses, the 250 LM-inspired side vents. Only those with an electric allergy would choose F8 over 296. This is a big step forward: electricity used to add depth and dimension to the supercar experience, to be there when it’s beneficial, but to step back and work in the shadows when it’s not. Perfect. More intimate and engaging than big brother SF90, too. With that they made the tech usable, here they’ve taken it to the next step: made it fun.
It's going to give McLaren some sleepless nights, that’s for sure. Both firms will say the Artura (670bhp and £182,500) isn’t a direct rival, but they’re just dancing around each other. Right now no-one builds a better mid-engined supercar than this. And it’s a V6. We think it’s less of a step change to lose a pair of cylinders than it was to add a pair of turbos. The purity of the product shifted fundamentally when 458 became 488 back in 2015. This, in a very modern way, is getting back there.