2021 Ferrari SF90 Stradale first drive review: Plugging in to 986 horsepower
The tides are changing in the automotive seas. In terms of production, Ferrari is a small fish. With just over 9,000 cars shipped in 2020, Ferrari's volume is less than 1% of a mainstream player like Toyota. However, in terms of history and prestige, it's hard to get much bigger than the prancing horse, and though the brand has gotten this far largely by doing its own thing, even the House of Enzo can't ignore the brave new world of electrification.
Naturally, just slapping an electric motor on a car isn't enough for Fiorano's finest engineers. With the SF90 Stradale, Ferrari created something special. It's an engineering marvel that you might think has a lot of parallels with another vehicular wunderkind: Acura's NSX. However, the Stradale is so radically different in terms of feel and performance that I have to confess it's actually a little hard to compare the two.
But I will just the same, if only for the sake of context. Also important for just that reason is looking at the F8 Tributo, Ferrari's current premium supercar with which the SF90 shares a chassis and some other bits. Likewise, after spending a day at Ferrari's headquarters in Maranello, much of that lapping around the company's private test track, I assure you that even these machines are less related than you might think.
Let's start with the facts and figures. The Ferrari SF90 is a 986-horsepower coupe, weighing just 3,700 pounds despite some of that power coming from three electric motors and an 8kWh battery pack that sits low behind the seats. The bulk of the power comes from a 4.0-liter V8, twin-turbocharged to within an inch of its life, and cranking out 769 hp.
That's about 60 more horses than the 3.9-liter V8 powering the F8 Tributo, but there's a lot more going on than a 0.1-liter bore job. The SF90's lump was significantly modified, including swapping the fuel injectors to a central position for better combustion and reshaping the block to sit everything lower in the chassis. That revised motor, with its new turbos, not only makes more power but weighs a whopping 55 pounds less than the Tributo's.
Like a pancake-shaped parasite, the first of the SF90's electric motors is sandwiched in between what Ferrari calls the "thermal engine" and the transmission, a new, eight-speed dual-clutch automatic that is 22 pounds lighter than the seven-speed in the F8. This motor helps drive the rear wheels and brings an additional 201 hp to the party, full of torque and throttle response and all the lovely benefits of electrification.
Up front sit the other pair of electric motors, 133 hp each for a net system output of that astonishing 986 figure. That is a lot of power, nearly 280 hp more than the Tributo, though coming at a cost of about 500 more pounds of weight. Power, however, is far from the only benefit. The twin motors up front add infinitely variable torque vectoring to pull the car through the corners. Under braking, they help recharge the battery. Those motors help overcome any turbo lag, and that big one at the back even aids the traction control.
How? I was shown telemetry from my laps at Fiorano. Whenever my right foot asked for more power than the rear tires could provide, instead of simply cutting the engine spark or throttling back like a traditional traction control, the SF90 actually cranked up the regen on the rear electric motor. This effectively reduced the power at the rear wheels, using the unwanted torque to recharge the batteries. Bellissimo.
While the SF90 shares the same wheelbase as the F8 Tributo, the car itself is nearly 4 inches longer -- largely to make room for the extra cooling demanded by the batteries, inverters and motors. The stretched nose features a prominent wing, made even more pronounced by the contrasting colors featured on the Fiorano pack seen here. At the rear, there's a hint of the slotted Lexan engine cover that is a highlight for me on the F8 Tributo, here dramatically chopped and nested beneath a sweeping, flying bridge shape.
It's a dramatic profile, but under the skin is a similar setup to what's found in the Acura NSX, which likewise uses a trio of electric motors, intimately bonding one to a mid-mounted, turbocharged engine. As such, I couldn't help but expect a similar feel as that I'd come to respect and frankly even love in the SF90's Japanese counterpart. The first time I opened up the SF90 on the track, however, I realized I couldn't have been more wrong.
Where the NSX is a stately performer, delivering astonishing speed with subtlety and smoothness, the SF90 is the ferocious Ferrari you want. Throw the drivetrain into Qualification mode and the engine screams into life, howling its way up to the 8,000-rpm redline. Razor-sharp shifts from that eight-speed DCT come with a subtle kick on the way up and a bark of rev-matching on the way down. It's a spine-tingling experience that no Plaid performer will ever deliver. The SF90's steering is lightning-quick, just like the F8 Tributo, diving to the apex or wherever else you might point it.
It's an engaging experience, but that's not to say it's necessarily a handful. Sure, there's power enough to get yourself into plenty of trouble, especially on the narrow Fiorano circuit where the walls seem never more than an arm's length away. The car, however, is manageable at speed, responding delicately to your inputs. It's only after looking at the telemetry feed after my final session that I see how much of that precise response is thanks to the harmonious interplay of the car's various systems, filling torque out of the corners and vectoring across the virtual front axle to make everything go where I want.
From behind the wheel, it all just feels right, and that's the best praise you can give to a complex system like this. So, too, is the brake feel. This is Ferrari's first brake-by-wire system, meaning the pedal in the car is effectively disconnected from the hydraulic system that actually squeezes the carbon-ceramic calipers on all four corners. The pedal feel is wholly artificial, and as such is perfectly taut lap after lap under the hot, Italian sun.
In fact there are a lot of firsts here. This isn't Ferrari's first hybrid, but it is the company's first series-production hybrid -- that is to say, a car in regular production, not a hyper-limited model like the LaFerrari. It's the company's first plug-in hybrid and, fun fact, the company's first car without a reverse gear.
How does it back up, then? The electric motors up front simply spin backward, silently and smoothly pushing the SF90 along. You can drive forward like this, too, emissions-free for up to 16 miles. In this mode the car is no rocket ship, of course, but it has plenty of power and range to get you out of earshot before spinning up the V8.
Inside the cabin you'll find another first: Ferrari's heads-up display. That HUD is a simple one, on the small side and by default just displaying current speed, which to be fair is the most important thing for anyone who hopes to preserve the integrity of their license while driving a car like this on public roads. On the track, I like the simplicity of it, as many other sports car HUDs can be distracting.
The fully digital gauge cluster measures 16 inches from side to side with a resolution of 2,880x960 pixels across its gently curved surface. While some may mourn the loss of the traditional, central analog tachometer, it's hard to fault the presentation of information here, including tire pressure and all manner of system temperatures. And, yes, there's plenty of room dedicated to a high-resolution representation of that iconic, sweeping needle.
The rest of the interior is generally familiar to the F8 Tributo, though with a new set of seats that look delicious in their all-carbon construction, padded only where you need it. Sadly, the SF90 shares a similar capacitive-touch steering wheel to the one I generally disliked on the Ferrari Roma. This means you have to tap on a surface that says "Engine Start/Stop" to fire up the V8. That's never going to be as dramatic as stabbing a finger at a big, red button.
Really, though, that's about my only fault with the Ferrari SF90 Stradale. For such a leap forward in terms of technology compared to any previous Ferrari, it's remarkable how cohesive it all feels. Four separate sources of power act as one to create a singularly sublime driving experience.
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.