Ferrari decided to introduce the 2018 Portofino, the company’s new entry-level model—of course, with a base price of $214,533, “entry level” means different things to different people—at a beachfront resort on the Adriatic Sea. That’s about 471 miles southeast, as the European magpie flies, from the now-trendy namesake fishing village of Portofino, Italy, on the Mediterranean Sea.
This being winter, Ferrari executives figured the weather would be much warmer and possibly drier farther south, which is why we ended up not in Portofino, but in the Puglia region of Italy, which constitutes the boot heel in Italy’s profile. (Puglia’s motto, roughly translated: “We hope you like olives!”)
Unfortunately, it wasn’t much warmer, and it sure wasn’t any drier, but as we took the stylish red keys to a cluster of Portofinos, the clouds parted and the temperature warmed to the point where we could drive with the retractable hardtop down (and the heat on), which is a pretty important aspect of the Portofino which, this summer, replaces the Ferrari California T.
This lucky change in the weather suggests that despite Enzo Ferrari having died in 1988, he still runs Italy, and likely controls the climate. After all, the airport we flew into, Bari International, is located on Enzo Ferrari Street, even though Bari is a seven-hour drive from Maranello.
This was also lucky for us, because the drive route for the Portofino would have been nearly unusable in the rain. Not because the Portofino couldn’t handle it—the traction control and windshield wipers work quite well—but the roads we were on, even dry, had to be some of the slickest, most potholed pavement the Land of Olives has to offer. And since many of the roads were lined with sturdy, up-close rock walls, we had to be especially careful, since Ferrari had already written off a Portofino that was driven by a European journalist on an earlier wave of test drives. He reportedly tested the wall’s sturdiness and was impressed.
In one sense, this test drive route was advantageous, since we got to gauge the Portofino’s ride on very rough roads (the ride was surprisingly good, even with the steering wheel-mounted Manettino switch dialed to Sport rather than Comfort). We got to test the carbon-ceramic brakes when dogs, buses, farmers on tractors, and street gangs clad in matching Lycra skinsuits riding bicycles suddenly appeared around the next corner.
What we didn’t get to test much was the Portofinos’s at- or near-the-limit performance. The plethora of polished asphalt and potholed concrete did test the electronics, because most every time we’d get through a roundabout and hit the throttle, the fat 20-inch Pirellis (245/35 front, 285/35 out back) would search for grip, the rear end of the car would slip a little to one side, and the traction control would intervene. Thankfully.
Late in the drive we did find what we thought was a deserted, very suitable straight to test Ferrari’s reasonable claim of 0 to 62 mph in 3.5 seconds, but regardless of what kind of launch we chose, we could barely get it done in less than 4 seconds. Incidentally, these are the electronic controls as listed on the Portofino’s spec sheet: “ESP, ESC with F1-Trac, E-Diff 3, SCM-E with twin solenoids.” We probably could have used three or four solenoids. And yes, twist the Manettino all the way to the right and you can disable some of those electronic acronyms, but be sure you want to before you do.
With more torque than the California T, and noticeably more horsepower (38, with the outgoing T rated at 553, the new Portofino at 591), we have no reason to doubt Ferrari’s claim of a top speed of 198.838782 mph (yes, a slightly awkward number, due to our overly detailed translation from kilometers to miles per hour), and a 0 to 124 mph time of (we’ll spare you the .274238 conversion carryover) a very quick 10.8 seconds. But we just didn’t get a chance to prove it. This time, anyway.
If this all makes our drive sound miserable, it was far from it. The scenery was gorgeous, and the Portofino was cheerful both chugging through villages at single-digit speeds, and, when we got the chance, carving up corners. The electric power steering is better but not quite there yet. In corners, there is less body lean than found in the California T, but without a little track time, it’s hard to say how much less. Top up or down, the chassis and body did not flex, squeak, rattle, rock or roll on roads that would not be out of place in Detroit or Newark, so that’s saying something.
The seven-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission, a carryover from the California T, responds immediately when shifted up or down by the two fixed-position paddles behind the new steering wheel, but if you leave it in automatic mode, the transmission is often slow to downshift, likely due to the quest for improved fuel mileage, and a teachable transmission algorithm that was learning that we weren’t able to go all that fast, thus deducing that we were in no hurry for it to downshift. A suggestion: When passing tractors and tourists sightseeing in rented diesel Fiats, downshift manually.