When I got the keys to California, I floored the accelerator until I was driving 100 mph. I felt exhilaration – and fear. This speed was unfamiliar for a driver of beaten-up Toyotas. In California we like to think we can go as fast as our imaginations take us, but this shiny red convertible named California moved too fast for me.
Ferrari let me drive the Ferrari California T for four days. I requested the loaner because I thought it might provide escapist fun and because I’m old enough to deserve a midlife crisis. I also wanted to know whether a car could really embody California. I suspected the folks in Maranello, Italy, where Ferrari makes its cars, might just be using our state’s name to sell an automobile.
My suspicions were wrong. The Ferrari California is as wonderful as our state’s most kaleidoscopic dreams. The only problem is that Ferrari’s California is so perfect it reminds you of our state’s imperfections.
The Ferrari California aligns with the state on the level of metaphor. California is famously the “Great Exception” among American states, as the author Carey McWilliams named it, and California is an exception among Ferraris. The California is not a sports car, but a convertible grand touring car built for comfort. It is not the most expensive, glamorous or fastest Ferrari. Instead, Ferrari markets the California, which has eight cylinders instead of the 12 of some Ferraris, as practical.
“It is a little bit an exception,” Edwin Fenech, the president and CEO of Ferrari North America, told me by phone. “It’s able to be very versatile. … You can go to the grocery store with your car.”
Fenech said that versatility shouldn’t detract from the car’s mystique. He added pointedly that, as self-driving – or autonomous – vehicles emerge, Ferrari wanted to affirm its support for Californians determined to steer clear of the trend.
“We are the ones who are going to defend the right to drive,” Fenech told me. “Don’t brainwash the new generation with autonomous driving – it’s so beautiful, driving.”
Today’s Ferrari California draws not just on our love for driving but on our infatuation with everything mid-20th century. Ferrari produced three different California models between 1957 and 1967. The car became such a valuable collector’s item (some sell for $20 million or more) that Ferrari revived the brand in 2008.
The newest iteration, the Ferrari California T, was introduced for the 2015 model year. It’s designed with a dual-clutch automatic transmission and a technologically advanced suspension, which make it easy to navigate through dense neighborhoods in America’s most urban state. The T stands for Turbo, as in the twin-turbo, 3.9-liter engine, which gets the car to 196 mph while using less fuel and producing fewer emissions.
To test the car’s California-ness, I drove it 90 minutes through bumper-to-bumper traffic to Santa Monica. I navigated downtown L.A. potholes. I went through the In-N-Out drive-thru, complete with in-car consumption of a double-double. I chauffeured my kids to school, with their car seats secured in the back.
With the top down, I loved the way that the car connected me with pedestrians, who offered a thumbs-up and asked what the car was. I’ve never had an automotive experience happier than driving Angeles Crest Highway, with the radio playing R.E.M.’s “Electrolite” (“Hollywood is under me … I’m Steve McQueen. I’m Jimmy Dean”).
Of course, the car, like many wonderful California things, fails the core test of accessibility: the base MSRP of the Ferrari California T is $198,973. The one I drove costs $240,000. That’s less expensive than other Ferraris (the hybrid LaFerrari sells for over $1 million), but more than three years’ take-home pay for me.
Which is another thing that makes the California very Californian. The good life is highly visible here. But only a few can afford the ride.