Camogli, an ancient fishing port and current tourist honey trap on Italy's northwestern coast, is too beautiful to be true and at least two hours from Ferrari's Maranello home. That's significant. Ferrari launches its mid-engine sports cars on home turf, always giving journalists a handful of laps on its own test track as well as the chance to try the car in question on the surrounding roads. But to underline that the California is a different kind of Ferrari, a more-rounded, less focused car, the latest incarnations of the coupe-cabriolet have always been unveiled far from Fiorano. The Italian Riviera scenery was sensational, but in a way it was a shame. This new California Handling Speciale deserved the Maranello treatment.
When Ferrari bolted on a blower to create the California T two years ago, it brought its entry-level vehicle a step closer to the lofty standards set by the rest of the family. The California was still a car designed to appeal primarily to first-time Ferrari buyers, but this time it was fun for existing owners too. Now there's an optional performance kit, the Handling Speciale package, that's designed to draw the two strands of the Ferrari brand even closer together.
The HS pack on the old naturally aspirated car comprised a 10-percent quicker steering rack and stiffer springs. It ramped up the agility but hampered the California with all the ride sophistication of a conjugal visit. This new one is much more polished on surfaces that aren't. Spring rates are increased a significant 16 percent at the front and 19 percent at the back, but Ferrari says it was able to do that without killing the comfort thanks to advances in the magnetorheological dampers.
The handling's as idiot-friendly as the manettino toggle on the steering wheel that allows you to tweak the suspension settings. Instead of a 488's five positions, you get three: Comfort, Sport and ESP off. The California is a 3814-lb machine, but the extra suspension stiffness gives the body control a boost, keeping movements in tighter check and helping improve the turn-in despite the HS wearing identical Pirelli P Zero rubber to the stock model.
Comfort mode holds together longer than you expect when you up the pace, but you'll want to select Sport mode if you're putting any real kind of energy into the drive. Push the car a little harder into the turns and you discover that the California's neutral chassis balance and almost total lack of understeer means the rear tires are more than along for the ride.
You need to work with that idea to keep things smooth. It's not that the rear end feels ready to break completely loose, but there's a definite shift in cornering attitude as the weight moves. You can feel the car rotate through the curve, and if you don't listen to the messages you feel through the seat of your pants, and instead leave the ESP to intervene, progress can get a little jerky.
But you get used to unwinding the steering lock a touch as you make each apex and as the car's balance changes. Imagine you're some 1960s GP hero four-wheel drifting his 156 Dino through Monza's storied curves, and the HS is quite the entertainer. This is what sets the California apart from something like an AMG SL65. It's why it deserves that horse on the nose.
Switch the ESP out fully and you'll find the traction is actually really strong, as you'd expect given the my-first-Ferrari remit. You'll have to try unnaturally hard to slide the HS in the dry, but it'll happily move around in the damp, and move quickly—just make sure your steering corrections are as lag-free as the engine.
There are no changes to the twin-turbocharged motor, which thumps out the same 552 hp as in the standard car. That's 109 hp less than the 47cc-larger, 452-lb lighter 488 Spider. No prizes for guessing which is quicker. The mid-engined machine is on a different level, but 3.6 seconds to 62 mph is still damn quick, and it's actually easier to use all of the available performance here than it is in any other Ferrari.
The HS pack isn't entirely without compromise. There's some exhaust boom, and although there's more volume (3dB across the range), it still doesn't sound anywhere near as exciting as Ferrari's old naturally aspirated V8s. It can't be retrofitted to existing cars, and although the ride is good, it's definitely worse than the standard model's. If you were only buying a California for the pose, you'd still be better off in the stock machine. But for everyone else the HS kit is good enough to consider a mandatory option. It's good enough to make you wonder what kind of machine the California could be if Ferrari really went to town.
So why is Ferrari only offering a basic handling package rather than developing a full-bore Speciale/Scuderia version? It's a combination of price and positioning. Turn out a California that handles like a 488 and costs almost as much, and most customers are going to ask themselves why they wouldn't just buy the real thing. From the very beginning the point of the California was to bring new customers to the brand, not spread existing ones more thinly.
There are cracks if you look even remotely hard. The California is not as handsome as an Aston Martin and doesn't even have basic luxury options like keyless entry, never mind the gadgets you'd get on an AMG SL65. Even a Fiesta offers keyless entry. But if you want a high-dollar two-seater with a blue-chip badge that's a sports car in more than name only, the California still makes a strong case for itself.
The case is now even stronger if you add the Handling Speciale package. The HS kit costs $8120 on top of the California's $202,723 (including destination) base price, which you can look at a couple of ways. It's big money for a set of coils, a rear muffler, and pair of floor mats, but it's also far less than Ferrari could probably have gotten away with charging. Which, in the twisted world of $200k- cars kind of makes it a bargain. The Handling Speciale doesn't transform the California into Ferrari's best car. We'd still pick it last for the football team once the 488s, F12s, and LaFerraris had been spoken for. But it does make an underrated machine even better.