2009 Ferrari California: First Drive

The high-powered, drop-top, Grand Touring segment gets a serious driver’s car.

2009 Ferrari California: First Drive

Mud mixed with gravel spread suddenly over the artfully paved road as I round a tight right-hander between Trapani and Palermo, Sicily. Sitting behind the wheel of the Ferrari California, we had just finished chasing the sunshine on a high-speed section of the A29 autostrada. Top down, my forehead was beginning to show signs of having been exposed to the bright Mediterranean sky.


1. The California uses a version of the F430’s V8 engine but with less power and more torque for better power delivery in every-day situations. Output is 460hp and 355 ft-lbs.

2. Instead of Ferrari’s trademark F1-style gearbox, the California uses a seven-speed dual-clutch setup (with paddle shifters) for equally quick shifts that are much smoother.

3. The California is both a coupe and convertible, with a hard-top that retracts in 14 seconds.

4. The sprint to 60 mph takes roughly 4.0 seconds.

It is during these intense moments that you fully appreciate the superior design… and the standard Brembo brakes with carbon ceramic discs found on this the newest luxurious exotic.

Pushing hard to decelerate, the Ferrari California stops instantly and my feeling of relief is equally direct. With sweaty palms wrapped tightly around the 3-spoke steering wheel I thank the car gods for delivering me a vehicle that can provide such an engaging driving experience once moment, and save my bacon the next.


Passion is what drives the team from Maranello, Italy to produce some of the finest automobiles in the world. To say the word, “Ferrari” exudes an emotional response from everyone who hears it. It is impossible to be impassive in the presence of these great cars and the 2009 Ferrari California is another fine example of why the marquee is so beloved.

Designed to be different, the California is a touring coupe with the heart of a stallion. What makes it so unique is that for the first time Ferrari has developed a car that is both a hardtop coupe and a convertible. In fact, the transition from one to the other takes a mere 14 seconds to accomplish.

Aerodynamics plays a large part in keeping the car quiet on the road. In coupe form, it delivers a drag configuration of 0.32. The front air intake is designed to maximize road performance and cool the brakes. The rear extractor is shaped to improve balance and keep the car planted firmly at speed.

At 160+ mph, a speed we achieved on several occasions with both the roof up and down, the Ferrari California feels rock solid on the highway, especially in a straight line.

Side-buffeting was a minor issue twice as we transitioned between fenced and open freeway, though it was never a serious concern. Only once did we feel the backend lift slightly as we crossed from fixed asphalt to a lengthy span bridge at a slight right angle. For all other times, the suspension performed flawlessly.

Designed with a 2+ passenger configuration, the California offers no charge optional seating for two children in the back or the standard rear parcel shelf. A pass through to the trunk is perfect for a set of golf clubs.


Engine performance comes in the form of a 4.3-liter V8 mounted in a mid-front position. The result is a near perfect 53/47 front to back weight distribution.

Power is rated as 460hp (107 ponies per liter) at 7750 rpm. Torque is an impressive 355 ft-lbs at 4750 rpm.

Direct fuel injection, variable valve timing and a flat crankshaft, typical of modern F1 engine design, assist the lusty 8-cylinder to achieve a zero to 62 mph time of 4 seconds. The engine note is equally as raucous as the other V8 Ferrari, the F430, but each has its own unique voice. Top speed is listed at 196 mph.

Bouncing off the 8000 rpm rev limit on several occasions, the engine has a superb, but unobtrusive way of letting you know it is time to change gears. F1-styled shift paddles make cycling through the 7-speed dual clutch transmission (DCT), a simple and fun task.

Mounted to the race designed leather steering wheel, the Mannetino switch allows for adjustment of the Ferrari California’s transmission and stability with three unique settings; Comfort (everyday driving), Sport (maximum performance) and CST off (track setting). With slippery roads in Sicily due to heavy rainfall the day before, we spent most of the time driving in either Comfort or Sport modes.

To fine-tune the suspension of the California, Ferrari trusted the experience of none other than Formula 1 World Champion Michael Schumacher. A traditional quadrilateral system is utilized in the front. For the rear, a new generation multi-link suspension has been developed. Traction control is standard on the California, with magnetorheological dampers available upon request.

Ferrari President and Fiat Chairman Luca di Montezemolo noted at dinner on the second night of our drive event in Sicily that the Ferrari California was deemed ready for production only after Schumacher stated he was happy with the suspension set up. It seems winning the championship seven times carries with it a certain level of credibility.


Ferrari has designed the 2009 California to reach a market as yet untapped by the prancing horse, one that is traditionally more about luxury and straight-line performance (like with the Bentley Continental GTC or Mercedes SL AMG models). But make no mistake, the Ferrari brings a lot of finesse to this segment.

Comments from the assembled journalists revealed this may be the first Ferrari to be purchased more by women than men. The fact that it has significant appeal for both is a very good thing.

Unfortunately, as with all modern Ferraris, whoever buys the California may be required to exercise more than just a little patience. The typical two year wait for anything coming out of Maranello, Italy has already started.