The Clarkson review: Ferrari California T (2014)

It's drizzling, I'm doing 2mph... and all's well with the world

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Ferrari California T£154,490

A RECENT report suggested that people who use Apple iPhones are more intelligent, more successful and, of course, better-looking than those who use telephones made by other companies. But I’m not sure this is accurate.

I have an Apple iPhone and I’m well aware that it is riddled with faults. The   map feature doesn’t work, the battery life is woeful, its camera is up there in quality with a Zenit SLR from 1973 and the screen smashes whenever there’s a light breeze. And I can’t update to the latest model because experts tell me it’s all bendy.

There’s more. I recently bought a new laptop and loading it with all my data was a nightmare simply and only because of Apple, which wanted my password seven times before announcing that I’d entered it all wrong and that I’d have to come up with a new one that must feature a capital letter, a number, a cave drawing, a fully working model of the Tirpitz and three letters from my mother’s middle name.

Apple wanted a password that must feature a capital letter, a number, a cave drawing, a fully working model of the Tirpitz and three letters from my mother’s middle name

Then, when I’d come up with something it liked, I was told not to write it down anywhere. Which I didn’t. Which meant I’m now in a bit of a pickle because all my other devices won’t work unless I remember what it was. By Thursday I was wishing  Steve Jobs had never been born.

But I will not switch to another brand because I simply cannot be bothered to learn how it all works.

We see this with everything. I have a PlayStation and won’t entertain the idea of an Xbox because it all seems to be the wrong way round. I have a Gaggia coffee machine that is utterly and completely useless but I can’t change to one of George Clooney’s Nespressos because I don’t have enough hours in the day to work out what its buttons do.

Car firms plainly understand this, which is why they all use completely different command-and-control software. After you’ve spent a year learning how to turn the bossy sat nav voice off, you are not very inclined to switch to another brand and learn all over again.

And it’s not just the sat nav. Turning the heated seats on, shutting down the traction control, tightening the suspension, adjusting the dashboard brightness, choosing a radio station: in every single car every single thing you do is different.

All of which brings me on to the new Ferrari California T. This is the cheapest, or should I say least expensive, Ferrari and is the company’s first foray into the mainstream market. It’s a cruising car, a convertible 2+2 (yeah, right) in the mould of the Mercedes SL.

This means it will be used every day by people who play golf and live in suburbia. So it needs to be a Ferrari, or else what’s the point? And yet at the same time it needs to be benign and easy. And if it’s going to appeal to the Bobby Ewings of this world, it needs all the toys you get in a Mercedes, all the hi-techery.

As a result, the California comes with the Apple CarPlay system, which pairs the vehicle with  every single thing on your iPhone. This means you can, for example, speak a text and the car sends it.

And here’s the most amazing thing. It works. Not once did it mistakenly send the head of the army a message saying ,“Send three and fourpence — we’re going to a dance.”

However, the rest of the electronic systems were an unfathomable tangle of swearwords and frustration. I couldn’t make the sat nav work at all. I can get my head round the system in a Subaru, which takes a while, and even the one in a Jeep, which was set up by a madman, but this flummoxed me and I don’t know why. I can’t work out whether it’s Ferrari just being obtuse or whether it was suffering from some kind of electronic hiccup. This seems unlikely, though, in a car from the country that invented electricity . . . he said, with just a hint of a smile.

There’s another issue too. The California comes with the same sort of steering wheel as the 458 Italia. That is definitely Ferrari being obtuse, because it must know by now that putting the buttons for the indicators, headlamps and windscreen wipers on the wheel — which moves about — is galactically idiotic. And yet Ferrari continues to insist it isn’t. I would not buy a Ferrari these days simply because of this.

And because of the beeping. It beeps when you are reversing. It beeps when it thinks you are too close to another car. it beeps when you haven’t done up your seatbelts. It beeps constantly.

And we haven’t even got on to the sheer size of the thing. It’s a problem that affects all Ferraris these days — the F12 is about the same size as a Canadian combine — and in London it’s a menace. After a couple of days I gave up using the narrow rat runs, because I’d spent most of the time reversing.

Which meant I’d had to suffer the beeping. I know I’m going backwards, for God’s sake. I am a sentient being. And as a result I know I wouldn’t have to go backwards if this bloody car weren’t so bloody wide.

So there is much to annoy you in a California T. And only some of it is down to the fact that I’m trying to judge its systems while on the inevitable learning curve. And yet . . .

Every week I have to drive to the Top Gear test track in Surrey. It’s always rush hour. It’s always drizzling. The traffic’s always awful. There are roadworks every few yards, so it takes 50 minutes to cover the two miles from Holland Park to Hammersmith Bridge, and frankly this is motoring at its worst.

It’s like a Mercedes SL, only a bit harder to live with because of its size and the complexity of its controls. And a bit more expensive. Yes, but underneath it all it’s still a Ferrari.

In a normal Ferrari life in these circumstances is intolerable, and I usually end up looking longingly at people on buses. But in the California I was quite content just to sit there listening to the radio. It wasn’t uncomfortable or noisy or show-offy in any way.

Later it sat on the A3 at a steady 50mph, and it didn’t feel as if I was having to hold back some kind of deranged stallion.

On the face of it, then, what we have here is a car that’s like a Mercedes SL, only a bit harder to live with because of its size and the complexity of its controls. And a bit more expensive.

Yes, but underneath it all it’s still a Ferrari. Oh, sure, the engine is turbocharged now to meet emissions regulations, but you don’t notice that. What you do notice is the feel through the steering and the immediacy of the gearchanges. No Mercedes feels quite so — what’s the word? — sharp. And no Mercedes comes with an adjustable speed limiter.

If you’ve always hankered after a Ferrari and you really can’t afford to buy a second car for driving round town in the rain, the California T is a godsend. Yes, its command-and-control stuff is bonkers and the steering wheel is so stupid. I’m not tempted. But I quite understand if you are.

Clarkson’s verdict  ★★★★☆

Finally, a Ferrari made for traffic jams

Ferrari California T specifications

  • Price: £154,490
  • Engine: 3855cc, V8, turbocharged
  • Power: 552bhp @ 7500rpm
  • Torque: 556 lb ft @ 4750rpm
  • Transmission: 7-speed dual clutch
  • Performance: 0-62mph in 3.6sec
  • Top speed: 196mph
  • Fuel: 27mpg (combined)
  • CO2: 250g/km
  • Road tax band: L (£860 first year; £485 thereafter)
  • Release date: On sale now