Ferrari’s California T HS (Handling Speciale) is the lowest rung on the proverbial ladder. The particular Rosso California model I’m writing about rings in at $270,000, which may mean “entry level” to Ferrari but certainly not to me. Attainability, or lack thereof, isn’t the main reason the brand resonates around the world, though — it’s the Ferrari mystique. That’s why, when I approached Ferrari North America about taking my teen son and their nearly $300,000 car into California’s Joshua Tree National Park to camp — and they agreed to the whole thing — I was thrilled. A week and five hundred miles later, I learned a lot about Ferrari and even more about my son.
The trip was an important one for me. My son is on the cusp of manhood and his interests remain focused on sports and school, not yet dominated by romance and friends. He still sees his dear old dad as someone to look up to, and for my part, I’m keen to know the young man he’s becoming. Seeing your child grow to independence is incredibly bittersweet, so when an opportunity to connect in a meaningful way presents itself, you have to take advantage. And I figured that going very, very fast in a car of significance was such an opportunity.
Of course, none of this crossed my son’s mind. I’m still Dad, the guy who now has answers to questions like: “What happens if you get pulled over going double the speed limit?” or “What does this button do?” He’s also exploring new ideas and activities (some of his photographs are featured in this story) but hasn’t yet adopted my passion for driving and cars, something I hope he’ll inherit. “Hope” being the keyword, as my own father is both a musician and a pilot, while I am neither. This doesn’t mean I don’t connect with my father, but it does mean we can’t share his true passions, which does make me a little melancholy. My thought is that I’ll lead my son to water, but he’ll have to decide if he wants to drink.
Of course, there are few thirteen-year-old boys that would turn down a week-long ride in a Ferrari of any kind. Lucky for me, my son isn’t one. Our plan was simple: we would join family friends in Joshua Tree National Park for two nights of camping followed by a day of dirt biking at Moto Ventures in Anza, California.
Almost immediately, there was a need to compromise our plan, for one glaring reason: space. Perhaps the GTC4Lusso, with its hatchback and four seats, would have been a better camping choice, as the California’s convertible hardtop takes up a considerable amount of room in what would otherwise by a sizable trunk. So, bicycles were out, as were the stove and camping chairs. In the end, we fit a two-person tent; two sleeping bags; a medium-sized backpack of clothes, flashlights, knives and cutlery; a small cooler of food; and a camera bag, along with one large human being (yours truly) and a normal size teenager. As such, there was very little room left over. We didn’t care — we could have happily camped with bowie knives and a tarp. In fact, I was impressed the California swallowed as much as it did.
My son just wanted to hit the road, which is when we encountered a second issue: a single cup holder. In a $300,000 car with four “seats” (the back two of which are just exquisitely tailored benches for children), it felt a bit passive aggressive. We imagined the original design included zero cupholders until some kind soul, at the very last minute, sneaked one in. As a result, over the next five hundred miles, only one of us got to use it. Me. Because I’m the Dad.
“My thought is that I’ll lead my son to water, but he’ll have to decide if he wants to drink.”
However, as soon as my right foot went deep into the go pedal, all thoughts of camping, cup holders and pretty much anything else were quickly obliterated, because Ferrari does one thing better than almost anyone else: internal combustion engines. Each is steeped in motorsport history and may be forged from the wings of angels in the pits of hell. Ferrari motors are legendary; the rest of the car is a bonus. The California HS, whose twin-turbo V8 makes over 500 horsepower, very much adheres to this recipe. Despite the car’s GT pedigree and relatively heavy weight, the motor is hard-edged and sharp.
Throttle inputs are easy to modulate once the turbos come on — despite Ferrari’s engineering prowess, there is still a tiny bit of lag. Turbos are a fact of life in today’s era of hybrid supercars and smaller displacement engines, but Ferrari has worked hard to ensure you don’t miss that displacement (the company will happily sell you a V12 if you do). Good as the drivetrain may be, the exhaust note somehow lacks drama compared to the current kings of tailpipe sound: Jaguar’s F-Type R, Dodge’s Hellcat and the 6.3L AMG Mercedes.
Southern California’s relentlessly soul-crushing freeway system leaves much to be desired, but even over the concrete expansion slabs the car loafed along in seventh gear, quiet enough for us to chat about school (he’s doing well), girls (aware they exist) and video games (loves them). Later, 80 miles into the trip, on a series of high-speed third-gear sweepers, I noticed my son put down his phone and stared out of the windshield in terror. For the record, thirteen-year-olds NEVER put down their phones. This “casual GT” Ferrari’s potential was considerably deeper than I had anticipated: my first glimpse of why folks fall in love with the brand. Ferraris are fucking fantastic, and when we slowed down enough that I could safely look, I caught my son with a huge, crazed smile glued to his face. Clearly, he agreed.
It was also during that high-speed run that I fell in love with the steering wheel. I deeply wish that every manufacturer put such a wheel in front of the driver. With carbon paddles fixed to the column (as god intended), the steering wheel apes Ferrari’s F1 cars with a plethora of fingertip controls. In fact, Ferrari has done away with conventional “control stalks” altogether; even the turn signals are embedded into the wheel, much like they are on a motorcycle. There are LED lights in the carbon fiber lip of the wheel representing the rev limiter — as revolutions climb, lights appear, indicating you should shift. They may seem gimmicky, or even a little retro-futurist, but when the scenery blurs and all you can see is the tarmac in front of you, those lights matter.
I was also enamored of the Manettino drive mode selector. Ferrari pioneered this selector on their F1 cars and it lends the whole driving affair a certain seriousness that cars with simple Sport buttons seriously lack. When the machined dial is clicked to Sport, engaging the transmission’s manual mode, the character of the car transforms and, much like a teenager whose parents are on vacation, it gets wild fast. The dampers hunker down and suddenly the hard-backed bucket seats seem all too appropriate. In manual mode, the transmission won’t upshift until you tell it to, and when it does it’s a hard, rifle bolt jolt to the nervous system.
This is a very fast car. Properly fast. Fast enough that you better be paying attention to what’s well down the road because you’re going to be there in no time at all. It can transform from a casual cruiser to a speed weapon in seconds; in the wrong hands, it could be incredibly dangerous. I had precious cargo in the passenger seat and thus never really probed the limits, but even at seven-tenths, it offered enough performance to make my palms sweat.
“It was also during that high-speed run that I fell in love with the steering wheel. I deeply wish that every manufacturer put such a wheel in front of the driver.”
So, the California is fast. But did it camp? It did, in the sense that it got us to the campsite safely and provided a lot of odd looks from fellow nature lovers. For four days and 500 miles, I treated it (almost) exactly like I would any other, and in return, it worked just fine. And it occurred to me that Ferrari as a company has changed dramatically over the years. When I was thirteen, the idea of taking a Testarossa into the desert would have been, at best, a joke, and at worst a surefire way to see how well you withstand walking in 110-degree temperatures. But the 2017 California HS is different. The A/C was strong; the seats, supportive. Even the cruise control, while completely counterintuitive in its location and functionality — and which, like the cupholder, seemed like a grudging concession to Americans — worked fine.
On a curvy road with the appropriate buttons pressed, the car delivered an experience that I think can only be found in a Ferrari. In those moments of speed, the engine howling and tires squealing — or moments later when the carbon fiber brakes send your eyeballs toward the windshield and the brake lights blaring — you understand the heritage, the delight and the love the brand has garnered. You get Ferrari.
Was my son impressed? Was it a special enough vehicle for a jaded thirteen-year-old living in Southern California, a place well known for its plethora of exotic machines? In a word, yes. The car at times had us both grinning like idiots, and the rest of the time offered enough peace and quiet to talk to him about his interests, his dreams, his feelings. And those periods of conversation will remain more valuable to me than the memories of driving fast in a Ferrari. Well, mostly.