Driving my first Ferrari: does it live up to the legend?

Ferrari Portofino road trip

Ask anyone who likes cars – hell, ask anyone. What is the ultimate car brand? The car everyone knows and most people want? Love them or lump them, there is only one answer: Ferrari.

I’m not a Ferrari fan in particular. I’ve always loved the more subtle four-seat GTs (330 GT, 456 GT, 612 Scaglietti), but a Ferrari has never been my dream car. Yet it’s the marque that has always resonated as the cultural archetype for racing, luxury, success and excess. The embodiment of Italian bravado and style.

Ferrari Portofino road trip

I grew up watching the Scuderia dominate Formula One racing, in between reading gushing reviews of red road cars that seemed to have no equal. Sure, Aston Martin and Porsche occasionally had a good pop, but journalists always came running back, arms and eyes open wide, to the contemporary Ferrari.

Fast-forward some 15 years and I find myself with a Ferrari and a weekend to go and play. Now, I thought, was the watershed moment: a rite of passage. Would the real thing live up to the legend?

A fair prediction would have been ‘no’. For it wasn’t a snarling 812 Superfast or side-slip-equipped 488 Pista sat outside the office awaiting a coat of wintry grime: it was a Portofino.

The Portofino is the successor to the California, a car occasionally dismissed as ‘not a proper Ferrari’. Granted, very few buyers of these front-mid-mounted V8 cars are Ferrari veterans. It’s not got the same multi-way traction control as the mid-engined models, or indeed a blood-curdling, free-breathing V12 like the flagship GTs.

Ferrari Portofino video review

This is the drop-top, diet Ferrari that belongs on the Pacific Coast Highway, or so those drift-happy journos will tell you.

I’m no wannabe Park Lane poser, though – I wanted to actually drive the thing. So, with friends living on the Scottish border, the obvious thing was to head up north…

Getting in my first Ferrari

Friday afternoon comes and a red fob slides onto my desk. “It goes without saying… be careful,” I’m warned. No arguments there. I walk outside and, while excited, I can’t get away from the feeling that Ferraris used to be prettier. And smaller.

This so-called ‘entry-level’ car has some size and presence about it, but not the delicacy and elegance of the marque’s older models. It’s much better looking than 2009’s California, mind.

Clambering inside, being careful to avoid dinging the door and the five-figure satin paint, there’s no indication that this isn’t a ‘proper’ Ferrari. The cabin is beautifully appointed.

The lack of bucket seats (thank God) juxtaposes with lashings of carbon fibre and shift lights on the steering wheel. I’d save some pennies and take the classier standard alloy finish. It’s true what they say, modern Ferraris are an ergonomic nightmare, at least at first.

Engine: Start | Stop

Ferrari Portofino road trip

Foot on brake, press the bright red button on the wheel marked ‘Engine Start | Stop’ and the dash and wheel lights flutter into life. It’s an event, and that’s before the V8 catches with a bark and a woofle. Immediately, folks working in the same building wander over – “Superfast, right”? This was the first indication that, to anyone other than seasoned anoraks, the horse commands attention regardless of the snout atop which it prances.

The first challenge is getting out of the office car park. Obviously, it’s parked facing away from the exit, which itself is a bit of a climb. A trial by fire in terms of getting used to the dimensions and learning the control weights, then. The dual-clutch box, while whip-crack on a run, feels somewhat sluggish when crawling. One to get used to.

Ferrari Portofino road trip

Once you’re up and running, another Ferrari cliche becomes abundantly clear. The steering really is lightning-quick when you’re fresh from other cars. Otherwise, the gearbox is superb and the now-standard carbon-ceramic brakes aren’t nearly as grabby as earlier systems were purported to be. All in all, without a heavy clutch, worrying cabin heat or strong-arm steering, the Portofino seems decidedly un-Ferrari-like, at least in the classic sense.

I get on the road properly and, to my delight and relief, the Portofino lets another surprise out of the bag. It rides really quite nicely. First stop: home to show mum and dad – you would, wouldn’t you? Up the A1 and A505 I fly, in superb comfort and with consummate effortlessness – the Portofino giving a taste of its GT credentials.

I pick up a friend and make a beeline for my childhood home. Yet again, the car gets the attention befitting the badge. Local lads run up the high street to catch it. This is a front-engined silver cabriolet – a far cry from a mid-engined red supercar. Still, a Ferrari has that kind of magnetism, not to mention the noise.

The long run up to the Scottish borders

Ferrari Portofino road trip

By the time we get underway, it’s nearly 9pm and we’ve got the better part of a five-hour drive ahead. This was to be a real test of the Ferrari’s GT credentials.

Set cruise, wiggle your backside into a long-term position and watch the miles disappear. This is the side of the Portofino’s personality that I became most grateful for as I spent 16 of the next 48 hours driving. It settles down beautifully on compliant suspension and there’s no drone from the engine.

It’s not perfect, mind. Be sure to leave it a while after you’ve put the roof up. A whistle or two can be heard from the roof if the rubbers haven’t settled. That quick steering requires a bit of micro-management at speed, too.

Hours go by and you often forget you’re in a Ferrari – in my case, my first. Is that a bad thing? It took us all weekend to decide. A quick coffee stop revealed it has the car park presence. You can’t help but smile as you walk back out to it. Before we knew it, we were snaking our way up the A66 and across onto the M6.

Ferrari Portofino road trip

The final word on the Ferrari’s grand touring prowess was that, even with 250 miles behind us and a weekend’s driving ahead, we were sad this journey was ending. A new Bentley Continental GT might have done a better job still, but the Portofino is a superb long-distance tourer.

For your own mental maths, we burned through just under £60 of high-octane – a wedge over half a tank on the run up. You could do 400 miles on a tank without worrying, I reckon. The final practical test was a very steep, very tight driveway entrance. It was a nail-biting experience, but the baby Ferrari was just slim enough to get through without a graze.

Portofino in the Lake District

Ferrari Portofino road trip

It’s a foggy Saturday morning in Cotehill as we head down for breakfast in Keswick. We needed to fill up for the long day of testing, filming and photography ahead deep in the Lake District.

Our chosen arena would be a challenge for any pretender to supercar status. The Buttermere to Honister pass is tight, twisty and the surface quality is comparable to an adolescent’s face. You’ve got to watch your extremities, mitigate throttle, be exact with steering and not overstep your braking zones.

Ferrari Portofino road trip

The Portofino, where hot hatches would ordinarily thrive, gobbled it up. Superb body control with the ‘bumpy road’ button pressed gives you the confidence to push on. The traction control system when in ‘Sport’ on the Manettino is watchful but lenient – you can feel the power moving the car around its axis via the electronic e-diff, without the sense that technology is killing the fun.

The way the car limits torque through first and second gears delivers the feeling of a nitrous hit when you reach third wide open. If you flat-foot it in third from low revs, the boost really encourages the car to get away from you, even with the traction on. The brakes, handily, arrest momentum without breaking a bead.

Ferrari Portofino road trip

With getting on for 600hp, you’d imagine the Portofino to feel like a pike in a paddling pool on the B5289. On the contrary, the performance is exciting, but not overwhelming, the chassis poised, balanced and exploitable. The quick steering begins to make sense when you can only see as far as the next switchback.

When you rip it up and down the revs via the dual-clutch transmission, you come to realise there really is a 488 hiding under the bonnet, ready to be called upon. It’s the deftest of Dr Jekyll GT cars with a Hyde-flavoured supercar available on request. That’s something few other rivals can offer.

It also accrues speed like nothing from even 15 years ago. It’s at the extremes of performance you can really use and enjoy on the road.

Does it sound like a Ferrari should?

Ferrari Portofino road trip

The Portofino doesn’t quite have the vocal intricacy and rev-range of the old naturally aspirated Ferrari V8s. It is a close relation, though, as if you’re hearing an F430 through a pillow.

The soundtrack is by no means without drama of its own. High-rev gearshifts are accompanied by pops and crackles, and there’s that quintessential Ferrari bark as the valves open around 3,000rpm.

When you pile on the loud pedal, there aren’t turbo noises in the classic whoosh and chirp sense. This isn’t an Audi Quattro, or indeed an F40. The exhaust noise could only be Ferrari, if a little dulled by the turbos. Interestingly, there’s no ‘loud exhaust’ button.

Heading home: M6 and the Yorkshire Dales

Ferrari Portofino road trip

For the drive home, we wanted a back-to-back re-run of the two opposing sides to the Portofino’s character. So we traded the A66 for a few more miles of M6, before getting off at Kendall for a B-Road thrash across the Yorkshire Dales to the A1.

Much of the Dales is a bit more open than our Lake District routes so we got to open the Ferrari up a bit more. We wouldn’t be doing the Portofino a disservice to say that a ‘proper’ supercar would do really fast stuff with a bit more drama. You always get the sense that you’re munching miles rather than attacking a road, as it might feel in a 488.

Ferrari Portofino road trip

Still, added drama is a frequent bedfellow with poor refinement. We were happy with seven-tenths of the supercar experience without any of the irritants: a feeling that became abundantly clear as the final dark hours of our weekend road trip eroded away.

For the last blast back home to bed, the fact that the Portofino is capable of really settling down was invaluable to a driver who’d, by now, had his fill.

Verdict: prancing horse or phoney pony?

Ferrari Portofino road trip

The Portofino isn’t the most spine-tingling of sports cars. It will, however, put a smile on your face if you take the scenic route and let that muzzled 488 lump off its lead.

Before and after. Looks better dirty, imo… Cosetting svelte GT when you want it to be, with deployable and exploitable supercar character (and performance) there on demand. pic.twitter.com/ZCB4pvj9Fa

— Ethan Jupp (@EthanIsSaying) January 7, 2019

The rest of the time, it really is a car for all seasons: a well-judged entrance into Ferrari ownership and a supremely accomplished GT.

The smallest horse in the stable is still a prize steed, by my reckoning, a worthy introduction to this most prestigious of automotive marques.

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