Of all the types of car in the world, none are quite as magical as the convertible.
The emotional appeal of the automobile, at its core, is about the sensation of speed – the thrill of the world racing by, the danger and joy of turning potential energy into the kinetic. And sure, any car, truck, SUV or van can spark that feeling — but these days, it’s rarely as visceral as it used to be. Today’s vehicles are starships compared to the rides of yore, sealed airtight pods that let barely any sound or vibration inside. They’re so aerodynamically optimized, even rolling the windows down barely results in any breeze tickling your face.
Convertibles, though, are the last vestige of immersive motoring. With the top down, you’re thrown back into the world in a visceral, emotive way that’s unlike any other form of driving. It’s like riding a motorcycle, only without the 1-in-50 chance of dying doing it during your lifetime. You’re not just passing everything by in a tiny room, isolated and removed from your surroundings; you’re a part of it again, dunked in sights and sounds and sensations.
And the last year and a half has given us an especially profound appreciation for fresh air. Before home test kits and vaccines and super-stylish high-tech face masks were the COVID-battling norm, we had fresh air as a weapon against Sars-COV-2. Get outside, get some breeze blowing, and you might as well have a forcefield around you, as far as those pesky airborne viruses are concerned.
By the time the warm months of 2021 rolled around the Acela Corridor, the initial threat of COVID-19 had passed, but the appeal of leaving Manhattan for greener pastures hadn’t. Moving out of urban zones for the roomer suburbs and rural areas became a trope of 2020, but even for those of us who didn’t change our home addresses, the country took on new appeal; when the bars and movie theaters and museums were closed in those apocalyptic early days, escaping New York City for the day became one of the only respites. My weekend trips — to hike, to walk around without wearing a mask, to buy groceries in supermarkets large enough to allow at least six feet of distance between my lungs and the nasal passages of strangers — became a lifeline to normalcy.
And — importantly, during those early days of the pandemic, when it seemed as though states might slam their borders shut any day — all that space and tranquility could be found within the lines of the Empire State. New York may be synonymous with bustling metropolis and urban fervor, but it’s much more than just the city. Head north, and the dense core of Manhattan turns to row houses and dense suburbs and relaxed exurbs, then rolling farmland and finally remote forest. Venture far enough, and you’ll touch on patches of land that have gone almost unchanged by human hands — pockets nearly as untouched as some in the still-wild West or distant Alaska.
They’re just easier to reach in a Ferrari 812 GTS.
If you’re familiar with modern-day sports cars, you probably know the Ferrari 812. Known first in coupe form as the Superfast and now, in GTS form, marking Maranello’s first series production V12 roadster in five decades, it’s an evolution of the F12berlinetta — the latest in a long line of front-engined 12-cylinder Ferraris stretching back to the 1940s. Those engineers of the post-War Italy could only have dreamed of squeezing 789 horsepower out of a production car engine, though — let alone one bereft of superchargers or turbochargers — while technology like the instant-shifting dual-clutch gearbox and Side Slip Control stability system that makes all that power manageable would have seemed like science fiction.
Still, they’d have certainly recognized the roar that spits from the tailpipes and echoes off the skyscrapers in the morning quiet when the 812 GTS barks to life in Manhattan. Back in the pandemic’s darkest days, Midtown sat empty around the clock, forcing those of us still there to dust off I Am Legend references we thought we’d retired with our memories of Hurricane Sandy. Things are more or less back to normal, but in those early hours of the day, it's easy to be reminded of those times. NYC may be the city that never sleeps, but it certainly rests its head from 4:30–7am.
Inevitably, traffic starts to thicken as the light grows brighter, the 812 GTS finding itself caught behind more and more vehicles at every stoplight. The blue steel Ferrari slides along like a great white cruising just beneath the waves, pedestrians and drivers only noticing the predator in the moment it passes them. Even jaded New Yorkers throw the occasional double-take or cast a thumbs-up; the 812 may not be as ostentatious as a Lamborghini Aventador or McLaren 765LT, but there’s no denying the power implied by its massive, sculpted hood, the menace in its sharp-eyed headlights or the speedy intentions of its long, low-slung body.
Through the real-life Sim City of Hudson Yards that keeps growing in spite of nature’s vengeance, past the Javits Center that once hosted auto shows but now serves up vaccinations, and past the ports that traded their cruise ships for hospital boats for a time, and the 812 GTS is finally fee of the stop-and-go, picking up speed as the road rises to become the Henry Hudson Parkway. For the first time, there’s a reason to press the button that clicks the gearbox from automatic to manual mode and take full command of the car; the self-shifting mechanism does fine for puttering about, but when it comes time to drive, the paddle shifters are the only way to give you direct access to the engine — which, let's face it, is a big chunk of why you buy a Ferrari.
Untangling the knot of snarled traffic and constant construction around and along the George Washington Bridge is never a pleasurable task. Potholes appear, Noid-like, forcing immediate avoidance maneuvers; Tri-State drivers wedge themselves into other lanes without blinker or warning; lanes suddenly vanish behind lines of orange cones. Suffice it to say, it's stressful under any circumstances — and more so when piloting a low-slung sports car wearing rubber bands for tires and costing as much as a nice house.
Still, it's a necessary evil — and once past it, the road finally starts to satisfy. New Jersey's dense suburbs are laced with fast-moving state highways, the veins and arteries carrying the Garden State's lifeblood from home to office to box store and back again. Empty enough to gain the speed needed to let the breeze pick up enough to ruffle my hair — Ferrari's designers made sure the 812 GTS's aerodynamics didn't let too much wind enter too easily — but still crowded enough to fade into the pack if any radar-loving lawmen should be on the prowl.
It’s here, with the wind finally whipping across my face in force, that it hits me: the biggest difference between a convertible and any other type of car isn’t the sights or sounds; it’s the smells. With the top and windows down, you’re immersed in an evocative world of odors that you had no idea were there: flowers along the roadside; fresh-cut grass in the median; the malty sweetness of the 12-pack of Bud Light lying split open in the middle of the highway. Sure, there are negatives: diesel exhaust; rotting roadkill; the inescapable whiffs of éau de Jerz. But the positives outweigh the downsides; driving a convertible feels like regaining a long-lost sense.
Jersey's suburbs thin out as the state highway merges onto the interstate. Suddenly, the Ferrari feels small; the road is so wide, six lanes and an ample median carved through the trees and towns. 18-wheelers tower above like elephants over ants, prompting an involuntary squeeze of the throttle to slingshot past them. Which it does with ease, of course; eEven seventh gear in the Ferrari is made for partying, not highway cruising. The V12 spins at close to 3,000 rpm on the Thruway, and while it may lack the torque plateau of, say, an AMG V8, it still makes 80 percent of its 530 lb-ft at 3,500 rpm.
Off the highway, then, and onto the two-lane roads that criss-cross the countryside. In early summer, the green of upstate New York is so bright it glows, as if the plants and leaves and grass had been conjured by Hal Jordan’s alien ring. Red barns, white clouds, gray tarmac and yellow lines — that's all that interrupts the pure green below and the bright blue above.
Up in those deep forest pockets of New York, even in the middle of the day, people are all but unseen. Driving down backroads, the sporadic homes along the sides sit quiet and seemingly empty, as though fresh out of a true apocalypse that wiped out Homo sapiens but has yet to claim the signs of our existence. People live here, but the ones that do so come here to put distance between them and everyone else. You can go the better part of an hour before you pass another car.
Which means that, at long last, I have the freedom to let the 812 GTS romp. Twisting the manettino — the little red clicker on the steering wheel — to CT OFF nets maximum playfulness, adding slack to the reins of the electronic safety systems without cutting them entirely. (With all the systems off, the 812 pirouettes like an figure skater if you give it too much gas with the wheel turned, as I learned with the Superfast.) And the winding roads seem to straighten out under the quick-ratio steering rack, helping this big super-GT dash along like almost like an oversized Miata. And believe me — the 812 GTS is bigger than you expect. Figure two tons, maybe more with a driver aboard.
Not that you’d know — or care — once you bury your foot in the gas. It takes time to get acquainted with the engine, to realize just how much it has to give and how high it can rev. By 7,000 rpm, the sound and force are almost overwhelming — then you realize there's still almost 2,000 rpm to go before you hit the redline. Peak horsepower arrives at 8,500 rpm, just 400 short of the limiter; you'll have to watch the tach (or the shift lights atop the steering wheel) carefully to know when to click the right paddle for the perfectly-timed shift.
Naturally aspirated high-revving engines like this feel very different than the turbo-enhanced motors found in many other cars of similar power and performance. You drive with the engine revving far higher than it needs to in order just to revel in the roar. Every couple thousand rpm reveals a new flavor, a new level of acceleration, but it’s always gradual and organic, rather than the explosive burst that characterizes most twin-turbo screamers. Think rocket launch, not afterburner.
The suspension is a tad softer than I’d expected, but that’s not to say it’s soft; it simply serves up a dash more body roll in hard turns than you’d expect of today’s hyper-capable super sports cars. But that slight dash of body roll makes it feel more evocative and exciting in the real world; you feel more involved. Today’s true supercars are so tight and quick and capable that you often don’t feel like you’re even going fast when you’re pushing the limits; this doesn’t, and in many ways, it's more rewarding for it.
Of course, no car is perfect. As much as I wish the 812 GTS could be the ideal car for me, it's lacking in legroom for folks with 36-inch inseams; after a couple hours, I was forced to stretch out by propping my feet on the firewall and straightening my legs enough to push my butt a foot off the seat. And the interior, while replete in leather and carbon fiber, doesn't quite have the fit and finish to match, say, a Bentley.
Still, in spite of that, it's hard not to be impressed. The Ferrari 812 is the sort of car that, as it turns out, becomes more accessible as a convertible. Cutting the top off many cars in the past created a compromised proposition, but going with GTS only adds to the experience, never taking anything away. There's no apparent compromise in rigidity versus the Superfast, no noticeable depreciation in performance; if there is, the car's limits are so high that it'd take a better driver than you or I to discover it. Hell, the 812 GTS even manages to avoid the curse that afflicts many a convertible: it doesn't look worse than the coupe, top up or top down.
And if nothing else, going GTS lets in the world. The sound of the engine, of course, is the killer app: with the top down, you can live inside the sound of the V12, revel in its animal howl of emotion beyond hate or rage or fear or lust. But also...the the birds singing as you cruise along at low speed. The fresh air, cleansed and oxygenated by a million million plants. The alternating shadows and sunlight of clouds and tree canopy.
As the summer sun peaks, the temperature passes 90 degrees and the humid air locks in the heat, even the rushing breeze isn’t enough to keep me cool anymore. My fingers, half-consciously, find their way to the button that deploys the folding hardtop, nestled behind me in a snug enclosure. 14 seconds of contact with that button, and I can be reveling in shade and conditioned air.
Even so, putting the top up feels like a betrayal. Better to sacrifice the body, play Russian roulette with the sunlight as it tries to burn and overheat you. If there’s one thing we’ve all learned over the last year, it’s that life is precious, and none of us know how many days we have left — especially ones driving a V12-powered Ferrari convertible.
The 2021 Ferrari 812 GTS
Base Price / Price as Tested: $404,494 / $534,835
Powertrain: 6.5-liter V12; seven-speed dual clutch automatic; rear-wheel-drive
Torque: 530 lb-ft
EPA Fuel Economy: 12 mpg city, 15 mpg highway