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Ferrari California T Handling Speciale 2016 review

Handling Speciale package aims to make the Ferrari California T more involving

Overall Auto Express Rating

4.0 out of 5

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Some people may deride the California T for not being a ‘proper’ Ferrari, but upgrading to the Handling Speciale package goes some way to redeeming it. While it’s still more of a drop-top grand tourer than an all-out sports car, the tweaks mean it’s more rewarding to drive without sacrificing its GT sensibilities.

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When the Ferrari California first launched in 2008, it earned some pretty mixed reviews. While its name harked back to the classic V12-powered open-top machines of the sixties, the fact it had an electric folding hard-top, front-mounted V8 and rear-drive configuration raised questions as to whether it was a genuine Ferrari.

Then the introduction of the California T in 2014 saw the first twin-turbo engine to feature in a Ferrari road car since the F40.

Now the firm has added a new Handling Speciale package to the California T, which aims to provide a more involving drive. Ferrari fans trying to spot an HS will have a few visual clues to help them out; there’s a dark grey finish for the grille, rear diffuser and exhaust tips, and if you get close enough, there’s a special plaque in the cockpit between the front seats. But the big changes for the Handling Speciale are reserved for under the skin.

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Mechanical upgrades include stiffer springs that enhance the California T’s handling, while the standard magnetic dampers have been upgraded to speed up their responses, too. These settings are unlocked when you move the manettino switch on the steering wheel to Sport mode, plus the exhaust has been retuned to deliver a more vocal response when you prod the throttle.

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Fire up the twin-turbo V8, and the exhaust’s new tone is instantly recognisable, with a bassy rumble emanating from the exhaust tips. Prod the throttle, and the flat-plane crank of the V8 means it’s soon replaced by a familiar zing only a Ferrari V8 can produce. The exhaust adds some extra enjoyment to the California driving experience, too.

While the car is on the firm side, in Comfort mode it’s more than just bearable. Put it into Sport and the extra firmness is evident, but the bumpy road setting for the dampers means it’s the best of both worlds, with taut body control and a more secure feeling in corners.

The steering is also given extra weight, but while the California doesn’t have the light, darting feel of the 488 GTB’s, it provides enough feedback to place the car accurately on the tarmac. The chassis generates plenty of grip, too, and the California is great fun to get around corners ready for the V8 engine to fire the car along the next straight. There’s no lag from the twin-turbo set-up, and while its responses are rather lethargic in full auto and Comfort modes, the HS package delivers rapid and seamless shifts in Sport mode.

The result is a car that feels quick and alert on twisting back roads, yet can be dialled back to become a fast and relaxing grand tourer. Plus, it has the added bonus of top-down driving when the weather permits.

Perhaps the biggest compliment you can pay the Ferrari California T is that while it doesn’t deliver the pure driving thrills of a 488 GTB, or the sheer excitement of an F12 Berlinetta, it really is the Ferrari you can drive every day.

Shelling out an extra £5,568 for the Handling Speciale package doesn’t compromise its all-round ability, but it gives it more dynamism and appeal when you do want to make the most of its performance. For most potential buyers, it’s an extra that is well worth upgrading to.

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Senior test editor

Dean has been part of the Auto Express team for more than 20 years, and has worked across nearly all departments, starting on magazine production, then moving to road tests and reviews. He's our resident van expert, but covers everything from scooters and motorbikes to supercars and consumer products.

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