There is an old road testing cliche about being able to tell whether a car is good within the first hundred yards, or by the end of the pit lane or before the first corner. (You get the picture.) I'm sure some savant once even suggested they knew a car was good purely from the feel of the door handle as they went to get in it for the first time. It took me slightly longer with the 296 GTB (you gain entry by depressing a button on the door, which first releases the latch and provides a handle -- it's quite satisfying). However, the first 7 miles were perhaps the most important of my whole day with the 296. You see, I didn't use the turbocharged V6 engine at all.
Leaving the Monteblanco circuit, finding my way along the maze of local roads and then crawling through the nearest conurbation, the loudest sound was of Michelin Pilot Sport 4S rubber on tarmac. Schoolchildren still gawped and waved because the shape of the car is so utterly stunning, but -- and this might be my imagination -- I also felt there weren't many disapproving glances. It's hard to be critical when a car is contributing precisely zero emissions to its surroundings and giving church mice a run for their money.
I remember feeling the same way when I first drove a Porsche 918 Spyder back in 2014. The knowledge that I wasn't going to irritate the neighbors (whom I happened to like) when I left early one morning was a nice change. I also remember the delight (and slight fright) when the Porsche's V8 came to life, the storm after the calm erupting out of its top-exit exhausts. This pleasing contrast is the same in the Ferrari.
A range of about 15 miles on battery power alone might not sound like much, but it's enough to be useful, and the Ferrari seems to quickly recharge when the engine is on. It's quite an engine, too: The 2.9-liter, 120-degree, turbocharged V6 puts out 654 horsepower (adding to the electric motor's 167 hp) and 546 pound-feet of torque. Just as importantly, it sounds rather good.
Ferrari's engineers worked hard on the harmonics of the Inconel exhaust, which funnels into one large outlet, leading the company to refer to this engine as the "piccolo V12." And I can see what they mean: You have to rev it to hear the similarity, but this engine piles on the revs easily, and once you're up above 6,000 rpm there is a definite comparison to be made with the timbre of the 12 cylinders beneath an 812 Superfast's bonnet. It's not as spine-tingling, but it is characterful.
The performance dished out by this hybrid system is deeply impressive. Ferrari claims a 0-to-62-mph time of 2.9 seconds and a 0-to-124-mph time of just 7.3 seconds. That's not a huge leap from a F8 Tributo's specs, but the braking apparently is. The 296 GTB can haul its greater mass from 124 mph to a standstill almost 9% faster. In repeated stops, the hybrid car is said to have made a 24% improvement in braking power.
This is all due to the new ABS Evo system that Ferrari uses, which has another benefit when driving the 296 GTB on track. It allows drivers to more easily trail brake right up to an apex. This is the portion of a corner where the best drivers will make up time, but it is tricky to do as you're obviously pushing the limits of a tire in more than one direction.
I was able to experience this on the Monteblanco circuit, and while I've never been the last of the late-brakers, I felt enormously confident burying the pedal at the end of the long start/finish straight and guiding the nose into the tight first corner. In fact, confidence was the overriding impression from my few laps on the track. Despite not knowing the circuit and having to talk to a camera at the same time as metering out 819 hp to the rear wheels, the 296 was surprisingly easy to get to grips with. Oversteer is there for the taking, but it's easily managed, and unlike an 812 Superfast, you have to provoke it. You find you can really push the 296 hard -- quickly -- and it's just fun.
One word of warning, though: If you plump for the Assetto Fiorano pack (which shaves a bit of weight and gives you passive Multimatic dampers), be wary of the tires. The AF pack gives you the option of Michelin Cup 2 R rubber, and it is a good match for the 296's Qualifying drive mode, which aims to get all the performance from the hybrid system (i.e., use the whole battery) over one or two laps. A couple of slides with the Rs and they will overheat quickly, leaving you with a decidedly more tail-happy balance. It's not the first time I've heard this about these tires, however, so it's not a Ferrari-specific trait.
What an attractive tail it wags, too. I realize that looks are subjective, but I think the 296 is gorgeous -- particularly from the rear where you get all those hints of the Ferrari 250 LM. And there is a real sense of occasion when you're on the inside looking out with the wraparound screen, the intercooler intakes visible in the door mirrors and the voluptuous rear deck visible in the interior mirror. Yes, I think the steering wheel is too busy and the dash graphics are not my favorite, but you'd probably acclimate to some of this if you had more than a few hours behind the wheel. It's certainly not a deal-breaker.
To me, mid-engined Ferraris have always felt much more useable than their image suggests; I don't think you'd regret getting into an F8 Tributo everyday and commuting. The 296 GTB takes that usability a stage further. Even in a supercar, hybrid technology has to add more than just a performance benefit, and in this car it certainly does. It's great fun to drive, but it also has a grown-up, modern feel. I'd like to get to know it better dynamically on a greater variety of roads in the future, but on first acquaintance, the 296 GTB is a hugely impressive and deeply desirable car.
The Ferrari 296 GTB Packs Hybrid FerocitySee all photos
Editors' note: Travel costs related to this story were covered by the manufacturer, which is common in the auto industry. The judgments and opinions of Roadshow's staff are our own and we do not accept paid editorial content.