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2015 Ferrari California T review: Twin-turbocharged sophistication

There's a new California in town, Ferrari's $198,000 California T. Twin-turbochargers add 100 horsepower, while Apple's CarPlay adds a lot of smarts.

Tim Stevens Former editor at large for CNET Cars
Tim Stevens got his start writing professionally while still in school in the mid '90s, and since then has covered topics ranging from business process management to video game development to automotive technology.
Tim Stevens
7 min read

Plenty of cars have been named after plenty of places on the globe, and sometimes it's obvious that shrewd product planners did their homework. You can easily imagine a Chevrolet Bel Air cruising down Sunset Boulevard, for example, and if you must go exploring northern Canada, we can think of worse rides than the Toyota Tundra.


2015 Ferrari California T

The Good

Updated looks and power keep this roadster current. Polished ride and great engine sounds make for an ideal boulevard cruiser.

The Bad

Apple's CarPlay brings some much-needed smarts to the infotainment system, but paying $4,200 for the privilege feels a bit excessive.

The Bottom Line

This isn't the ideal Ferrari for track hounds, but if you're thinking Mercedes-Benz or Maserati and want something a little bit more, this could be your car.

Sometimes, though, the names simply don't fit. Take the Chrysler Sebring: a car that had about as much to do with endurance racing as velour seats have to do with luxury.

For geographic-appropriate naming, few have done better than Ferrari did when it unveiled the California in 2008, and now there's a new, more-powerful model, the $198,973 California T. It's a drop-top roadster that's perfect for seeing all the lovely sights its west-coast namesake has to offer -- and perfect for being seen while doing it.

New enough

Long and low, with the engine where it belongs. Tim Stevens/CNET

2008's Ferrari California was a hard-top convertible with a 453-horsepower V-8 mounted in the traditional place: up front under the hood. Power went to the rear wheels, also traditional, but was directed through Ferrari's first double-clutch gearbox, a seven-speed capable of changing cogs in milliseconds. Two doors allowed access to four seats -- though the two in the back were tight, to say the least.

In the new California T the formula stays the same, but a few key variables have changed. The biggest, literally and metaphorically, is a new motor under the hood. The 3.8-liter lump is still a V-8, but this time it comes equipped with not one but two turbochargers, adding an even 100 horsepower to the tally. That's 553 total.

2015 Ferrari California T looks great in any state (pictures)

See all photos

The outside is refreshed as well, the car wearing a new, more purposeful visage. It's a bit more menacing, too, a look helped by narrower LED headlights. The grille is significantly broader, a bigger grin reflecting the wider smile the driver is hopefully sporting. That intake works in concert with a pair of vents sculpted into the long, low hood to ensure those twin-turbos don't cook. Enlarged vents down low on the bumper pull cool air to the brakes.

The rear has seen fewer revisions; twin tail lamps still mounted high in what has become a modern Ferrari trademark. Quad-exhaust pipes, now arrayed horizontally rather than vertically, poke out of a massive damper that sucks air from below to provide downforce. A trio of silver-colored vertical strakes add a fair bit of visual purpose, if nothing else.

On the roads

Dropping the top takes nearly 20 seconds. Tim Stevens/CNET

A car like the California T is best tested with its top down, and while I evaluated this car in the east, rather than on the highways of its namesake out west, heady temperatures and sunny skies made for ideal drop-top conditions.

That top retracts in just under 20 seconds. That's an interval comparable with the best when it comes to hard-top stowage, yet still plenty long enough to make for nervous changes at streetlights. You must be at a complete standstill to raise or lower the roof, so you're better off pulling into somewhere safe before making the attempt.

That the top can neither raise nor lower at speed is frustrating, but this does at least give you another excuse to test out the Cali T's acceleration when merging back into traffic. As with other modern Ferraris, there is a selection of ways to unleash that power, toggled via the little red "manettino" dial on the steering wheel.

Tim Stevens/CNET

Comfort and Sport are the two available positions. Leave the anodized indicator in the first and you'll be presented with a very comfortable, very refined means of transportation. The suspension offers the right amount of pliancy to soften creases in pavement or to mute separation joints on concrete, yet body control remains solid. The dual-clutch transmission adjusts itself into proper slushbox territory, letting you smoothly come to a stop, then cruise away from a light without any of the kicks or lurches of earlier semi-auto shifters.

And there's also the lack of unwanted sound. Despite the low-profile, high-grip Pirelli P Zeros at every corner, road noise is largely absent. Indeed, it seems Ferrari went to some interesting extremes to make that happen, including lining the wheel-wells with carpet. The exhaust, too, goes mute in Comfort mode, useful for maintaining good relations with neighbors.

Turn the manettino knob to Sport and instantly things get a lot more lively. The adaptive suspension cinches down a few notches, communicating more of the road surface through the racing wheel, yet still compliant enough to protect any orthodontia. The transmission also comes alive, popping up through the gears with far greater aggression and making the exhaust bark on rev-matched downshifts.

This transformation isn't as radical as, say, the California's Gran Touring stablemate, the Ferrari F12, but then, it isn't trying to be. This is a different sort of car, happier cruising than apex-hunting, but plenty sporty enough keep up with your most spirited of Sunday morning exploits. Even launch control feels like a refined affair: a bit of tire spin and a controlled getaway followed by a surge of power that carries you up to 60 mph in 3.6 seconds.

There are two turbos in there. Somewhere. Tim Stevens/CNET

Part of that is owing to the powertrain and its pair of turbochargers. The California T is Ferrari's first forced-induction car since the bombastic F40 of the late '80s, a truly iconic supercar that, for the record, made do with 75 fewer horses than this new one puts down. (It also weighed some 1,400 pounds less.) Very different cars, these two, and it's impressive to see what 30 years of engineering has done for turbocharging.

The California T does not drive like a traditional, high-revving, ear-splitting Ferrari. The power feels more linear, less exponential, surging in the middle rather than piling on up top. The exhaust note changes too, of course, more booming baritone than screaming soprano, all accompanied by the whirring and whooshing of a forced induction setup. It sounds different, but it still sounds fantastic.

Accelerate hard and you can almost feel the pressure building within the thing. Yes, there is some lag in the system, the car taking a moment to respond to the tilting of your right foot before the power really piles on. But, drive it hard, keep the revs up, and I assure you that responsiveness will not be an issue.

On the inside

Sumptuous seats offer a good mix of comfort and support. Tim Stevens/CNET

Settling into the interior of the California T is a very nice sensation, though it may take some time. Not because entry is a challenge -- it isn't; the long doors open wide and make for easy ingress and egress -- but rather because the (optional) full-electric seats offer endless adjustability. Once settled you'll start to appreciate your surroundings, nearly every surface wrapped with either leather or carbon fiber.

The periscope vents scattered across the dash, the sweeping arc of the center console with its three mode buttons, the inset LCD next to the massive central tachometer; all are familiar elements of a modern Ferrari. But, there are a few new touches here.

Yes, a boost gauge. In a Ferrari. Tim Stevens/CNET

First is a small, circular gauge that sits smack dab in the center of the dashboard. It's just a clock by default, but touch the capacitive bezel and it turns into a digital boost gauge. Yes, a discrete digital boost gauge. Import tuners, eat your hearts out.

The other distinctive thing here is the double-DIN stereo system. It isn't distinctive in that it's riddled with great functionality; in fact, your average family sedan offers a better navigation experience. However, the California T offers a significant step forward: Apple's CarPlay. For a mere $4,219, California T buyers can add in compatibility with Apple's new in-dash experience, wherein an iPhone takes over to stream music, provide navigation, and even offer simple messaging.

Sure, you'll spend 10 times more than Apple's most expensive iPhone to get it, but given the cost of this car, it's well worth it.

Options and conclusion

Tim Stevens/CNET

The starting price on a 2015 Ferrari California T is a healthy $198,973 -- but as with nearly all exotics, that's just the beginning. The car I drove for this review was optioned to the hilt, including additional carbon-fiber trim in the interior, the Scuderia shields on the fenders, adaptive suspension, 20-inch wheels, sportier exhaust, and a "high-power" sound system that sadly doesn't live up to its name.

All those options, and many more, sent the cost of this review car soaring to $440,638. (International pricing is not currently available for the California.) Yes, that's well more than double the base cost. Extravagant? A bit. Worthwhile? That's a decision best left to you and your team of financial advisers.

If you can swing it, the California T is an interesting proposition. It's the most financially accessible Ferrari of the moment and the most comfortable to drive in and around town. However, it's still capable of tearing up back roads with the best of them. You can even bring more than one friend along -- so long as those in the back seats have distinctively skinny legs.

The California T is also something more: it's a preview of things to come. With the 488 GTB also making the switch, forced induction is now clearly the way for even the most traditional of performance brands. With the mixture of ridiculous power and refined characteristics, plus an engine note that will still make you grin like a fool, it's clear that a turbocharged future isn't necessarily a bad thing.


2015 Ferrari California T

Score Breakdown

Performance 9Features 7Design 8Media 7