About two years since Ferrari updated the California to T-spec with twin-turbocharged engine, flat-plane crank, a 3.9-liter, and we found it to be a suitable change – compelling to experience, and rewarding to drive. 2017 Ferrari California T Handling Speciale as if every Ferrari weren’t speciale, the company has pasted the label on a long and glorious line of cars, from the 1962 250GT SWB Berlinetta Speciale to the recent 458 Speciale. The new California T Handling Speciale, for instance, is basically a Cal T with a sports suspension. BMW guys may think of it as the equivalent of an M Sport version while those with a bent toward American iron may draw parallels to a Chevy Impala SS. The California is a pathway into the Ferrari brand, with half of them sold to customers who are new to the marque.
The Handling Speciale now returns to the California T, which was restyled for 2015 and re-armed with a new 552-hp 3.9-liter twin-turbo V-8, good for smashing zero to 60 mph in 3.3 seconds. The new California T is a wonderful improvement—better looking, quicker, more luxurious, and usable as a daily driver. The HS package is just a mild toning. For $8120, chump change in Ferrari-land, it turns up the suspension stiffness a click or two, hastens the shifts slightly, adds a few styling tweaks, and if not more power, it opens up the exhaust to deliver more sound.
This is standard performance-package stuff, done by every car company to broaden appeal without breaking the bank, price standpoint or either from a cost. The spring rates rise a mere 19 percent in back and 16 percent in front, with a revised tune to the MagneRide variable dampers to leverage the tautened hardware. In addition, an altered gearbox map cuts the upshift time by 30 percent and the downshift time by 40 percent, while the F1-Trac traction control’s Sport mode also is massaged for more digging when exiting a corner and better power delivery over rough pavement.
The standard mufflers are replaced with straight-through pipes attached to a Helmholtz resonator, an acoustical box that diminishes undesirable noise while helping to shape the outgoing harmonic frequencies. An average of three decibels louder across the rev range, the effect is a sharper roar. Inside, there’s a dash plaque, while on the outside rear lower valence and the grille are rendered in accent-color gray to give the car a more purposeful appearance. the California Ts with the Handling Speciale package will feature a matte grille, a rear diffuser with matte-painted fences, and matte black tailpipes. A special-edition plaque, located in the cabin, is also standard.
Since the massaging is so mild and the underlying car is so good, there are virtually no faults to be found in the HS. It behaves like a California T that got nine instead of seven hours of sleep last night. It’s just a bit more eager to corner, a bit lustier in its engine cry and a bit more alert. The sublime balance in even this cheapest model (base price: $202,723 before Speciale package) will floor those who’ve never driven a Ferrari. Few cars are as fluid in motion, from the perfectly weighted steering to the precisely calibrated brakes to the seamlessly shifted transmission.
Special kudos go to the engineers who sorted the turbocharging. The Cal T has no dead spots or lumpiness in its torque delivery. The driver never gets one more nor one less pound-foot than what was requested via the pedal, which makes for incredible confidence when rocketing into a twisty section. This is not a car that will fall down dead when the driver lifts or run away on an avalanche of boost. Its responses are as near to those of a naturally aspirated engine as a turbo gets.
In a very Italian move, the exhaust note has been recalibrated “to underline the performance gains.” That is to say, if you don’t happen to have a skidpad handy to do a direct measurement of the increase in cornering capability – which, it should be noted, Ferrari doesn’t quantify – the sportier sound will serve as a psychological reminder. There’s no claim that the new exhaust system changes the engine’s output – cars so equipped make the same 553 hp at 7500 RPM as the model we tested back in 2014.
A Ferrari is great, but this one really is, whether it’s in HS or regular grade. The one thing the Speciale package doesn’t do is fix the car’s proportions, which are a few too many cannoli this side of gorgeous. It has just a bit too much bodywork above the wheel arches and a little too much front overhang, especially in back. You have to walk past a number of prettier and less-expensive convertibles to choose this one, the Aston Martin Vantage among them, but the California T grabs and holds you with its dynamic perfection.