The Ferrari Portofino: A boy’s dream
What did you dream of while growing up? Since you’re reading this magazine I’m guessing it had something to do with a car or a bike. Me? I dreamt of the red Ferrari on my wall. Okay, I’m still dreaming of that particular red Ferrari — it was the F40, and I still haven’t even sat in one, let alone drive one — but this is close. It’s a very, very early morning, coffee in hand, a red Ferrari being fired up and gingerly rolled down a flat-bed transporter. “You’ve driven it, haven’t you,” asks the man from Ferrari Mumbai. I nod. “So I don’t need to tell you what is what. Here’s the keys, she’s all warmed up, have fun.”
And that’s that. I have the keys and all day to play. To borrow a phrase, this isn’t my first rodeo; neither is this my first Ferrari nor is this my first time with the Portofino, having spent two days with it on the Italian Riviera (from where it gets its name) exactly a year ago. But there’s something special about having a Ferrari to yourself, on roads you know like the back of your hand, and with no restrictions. You will not believe the kind of mileage caps we have to fight against, sometimes even time constraints. Today there’s nothing of the sort except our word not to juice it with rubbish fuel since we are at least 150km away from high octane petrol. A full tank of gas then, all day (or until we run out of gas) and this is how we spent it.
A Portofino sunrise...in India!
No secret where we are. This is the road going up to Aamby Valley in Lonavala, a place mired in litigation that you will have read a lot about. There’s a runway up at Aamby but the last time we were there it was too dirty to drive anything fast for the fear of sand blasting the underside of the car. And in any case now we don’t know who to ask for permissions. Inside, the property is falling to pieces and it wasn’t very tasteful to begin with. No, the highlight of Aamby Valley is the road leading up to it and you must begin the climb before sunrise to beat the traffic. And you must never venture here on the weekend.
The first part of the climb, through Lonavala town and past the naval station isn’t great, save for the blast alongside and over the walls of the dam. Like everywhere in India, the roads here too are falling apart and that’s where the Portofino stamps its mark as the most usable Ferrari ever. The most usable supercar for that matter. It rides brilliantly! Now I know that unless you’re actually going to buy one, nobody is interested in hearing about how comfortable a Ferrari is but you must bear with me. This Ferrari can be used on broken potholed roads. It is the everyday Ferrari and over your commute on everyday roads it will break neither its nor your back. And then you discover the bumpy road setting on the steering wheel that makes it massively impressive. Plus the short wheelbase and the short overhangs means nothing touches on speedbreakers, you don’t even have to do the side scrabble that even AMGs and M cars demand.
Past the dirty broken bits and the parking lots, and you come to a short straight that is quite narrow too, but offers the best views of the sun rising if you don’t want to venture off the road (it’s comfortable but this is a Ferrari, this is not meant to be taken off road). Up here in Lonavala the winter hasn’t fully ebbed yet and in the depression where we are, the strong wind is freezing our fingers, making it virtually impossible to hammer out any ‘how’s your day looking’ wisecracks on Instagram. At least that means we can really focus on the lines of the car, a beautiful car unlike the California that preceded it. The Cali, that was Ferrari’s first hard- top convertible, and with a big roof to stow in the boot it ended up with a very bulbous bum. More American and less Italian. The Portofino, it looks Italian. It no longer looks like the car you’d buy because you cannot afford to live with a mid-engined Ferrari. It’s no longer the Ferrari for women (true fact – most Californias in China were bought by women), though there’s nothing wrong in women buying Ferraris lest you fire a #MeToo missile down my bow. What I mean to say is the Portofino will make both sexes go wow, whether roof up or, 14 seconds later, roof down.
The cabin too, like all Ferraris, is lavishly appointed, very spacious (for two, with only toddlers at the back), and very comfortable. Having the roof off means there’s no struggle to get into the car, no crouching and contorting, and the craftsmanship is bloody impressive. Unlike the British, Ferrari don’t make a song and dance about their craftsmanship, but unlike the British cars (that you will have read about on previous pages) which are far from faultless the Ferrari is spot on. You do, of course, pay for it. Apple CarPlay? It isn’t standard on the Rs 3.5 crore car, costing an additional Rs 7 lakh. And you have to have the prancing horse on the front apron, which will set you back by Rs 2 lakh. There are
Rs 50 lakh worth of options on this test car. Ferrari ownership never came cheap.
Into the woods, in a Ferrari!
The problem with all sunrises is that they happen too fast. Think about it. You’re sitting on the beach, nursing a drink, and the sun takes its own sweet time to lazily descend over the horizon. The sunrise though, you’re standing with flashes and cameras firing away in a frenzy, look down to check the shot, and the sun is already up. You get one shot at the perfect sunrise picture. Which today I’m not complaining about because it means a quick “pack up” from Gaurav and more time behind the wheel for me.
I’ll probably regret telling you this, but you’d be mad to stop at the parking lots where half of Mumbai lands up making it as congested as your daily big-city commute. What you should do is slalom round the parking lot touts and head further up. That’s where all the traffic clears out, where the road surface is smooth, where the corners are slow and fast, and where the joys are to be had. It’s on the parking attendant slalom that the shocking speed of the Ferrari steering comes to play. All Ferraris have very quick steering, and even though the Portofino is the most relaxed of them all, it still is hyper-quick by any normal standard. You need to take it easy for the first few miles, get used to the sensitivity and speed, but once done, everything becomes telepathic. You steer with your finger tips with barely a hint. A slalom is barely half a turn left-right-left, it’s so quick and easy. And then you head up and through the hairpins you don’t have to take your hands off the steering wheel, cross your arms and you’ve dispensed with the tightest corner.
Gaurav and Alameen are positioned in the wooded part and want me to bomb past for their cameras, something I’m happy to oblige. Who wouldn’t?
It’s a faaaast car, the Portofino. The V8 is from the engine of the year-winning family, the block is shared with the 488 and it retains the 3.9-litre capacity of the old California T. However detail improvements like new pistons and con-rods to handle the 10 per cent increase in cylinder pressures have resulted in a 38bhp power bump to 591bhp. A near-600bhp car. And 760Nm of torque. Did somebody call the Portofino soft?
100kmph takes 3.5 seconds. The 7-speed twin-clutch gearbox shifts harder and faster ensuring 200kmph comes up in 10.8 seconds. Top speed is over 320kmph. And if you drive to get a tan, you will get a cruising range of 740km. Not today though. Bomb past for the cameras and the engine feels inexhaustible, getting harder and punchier as it goes through the gears. Every gear liberates more torque, and you’re pinned harder and harder into your seat. There’s no let up. And there’s no turbo lag. Of course saying the engine doesn’t feel turbocharged is completely wrong. You can hear the whooshing of the turbos, you can feel the low-down surge that’s only possible with forced induction but responses are immediate. At 2000rpm the response time is just 1 second. For perspective, on the 488 it’s just two-tenths quicker at 0.8 seconds. And to haul it all in are carbon ceramic brakes that only Ferrari and Porsche have managed to inject with precise feel and modulation without horrid squeaky sounds either. What makes sound, a lot of sound, is the engine. At idle it is socially responsible but the flaps open when the throttle is depressed more than 50 per cent and in Sport, shouts out a soundtrack that runs through the entire gamut of base, tenor and soprano. Gaurav and Alameen, our photo and video kings, along with a whole bunch of biker boys (who respectfully give us our space, thanks guys!) are left both shaken and grinning.
Why we love the valley
Regular readers would have heard about the Lap of Mutha just outside our backyard in Pune. Well, the Lap of Mutha is effed. There’s sand mining going on at the lake bed, I’m sure that is illegal especially as those lakes supply Pune with drinking water, and the trucks have hammered the roads into rubble. Lavasa is now SUV territory. For sports cars it has to be Aamby that still has lovely corners and very little traffic.
As the crew takes a break with stomach-cramp-inducing vada-pavs, I take off for some alone time with the Portofino. To drive the Ferrari like a Ferrari should. A hint. Ferraris, especially in India, work best in the bumpy road setting that filter out nasty shocks and keep the nose pointed where you want it to go. It’s good enough to not warrant slowing down for the small speed breaker before my favourite uphill hairpin. Carry speed, Manettino already dialled into ESP off, down a gear, and use the torque in second gear to oversteer up the hairpin. This is my safe corner, to try out every new car, the safety nets of both visibility and going uphill allowing me to test both the car’s and my limits before we go to our photography corner.
The Portofino might be a grand tourer for the Riviera (or Marine Drive?) but it is still a Ferrari, in that it is lithe, agile, immediate and responsive. On dry roads there is grip to spare and only if you’re really aggressive with the throttle does it spin up the rear, and even then it is progressive and controllable, aided by that super-quick steering (7 per cent quicker than the California T’s) that needs barely half a turn to correct things.
And I forgot one crucial element, Ferrari’s turbo engines don’t thump out all their prodigious torque in the lower gears. Up at Gaurav’s oversteer corner the Portofino only squiggles its back end and the steering is so reactive the correction happens very quickly. “No tyre smoke,” moans Gaurav. So I try it harder and that’s where all 760Nm gets unleashed. In the lower gears the torque traces a markedly different curve with a lower peak, around 650Nm in first and progressively going up in second and third. What that does is give the engine a distinctly non-turbo character in that there’s no wallop of torque followed by a running out of breath. What that also means is if you’re trying anything fancy, you have to be aware that the Portofino can get tricky the faster you go and when all 760Nm gets deployed, your reflexes better be as quick as the steering. There is no Side Slip Control like on the 488 that lets you oversteer with ESP kicking in if it thinks you’re going to overcook it. If you want to slide your Portofino you’re on your own. And our man from Ferrari Mumbai, who actually shot one of the slides you see on these pages, keeps hollering for one more run.
If anything, that makes my day. A Ferrari to myself without any don’t-do-this-don’t-do-that nonsense, to not only push but soak in the nuance; experience both the usability and the limits of the everyday Ferrari ever (if such a thing as an everyday Ferrari can even be contemplated). Let me repeat that again. A Ferrari to myself. It’s what boyhood dreams are all about.