bigger and heavier. There’s no mystery to it; safety became a selling point, and airbags and energy-absorbing crash structures take up room and add weight. Naturally, we would expect that power would increase along with mass to prevent next year’s model from being slower than this year’s, but they’re actually getting faster, too.
Consider the Golf GTI. When it launched in 1976, it had 110hp (81kW) and took 9.2 seconds to reach 62mph (100km/h). The 2018 version is exactly twice as powerful (220hp/162kW) and takes just 6.5 seconds to complete the same test.
This trend intensifies as you go up the performance ladder; despite the occasional call for a truce, the arms race continues in full swing. The conventional wisdom—which I myself have peddled on these very pages—is to wonder whether all this progress is actually a good thing. When Formula 1 cars grew too fast for the tracks upon which they raced, the sport moved to new, purpose-built tracks that contain those speeds. But our roads haven’t really changed; if anything, they’re usually a lot more crowded than back in the day.
And so, the conventional wisdom goes, something like a Miata is way more suitable for a Sunday morning drive down a twisty road than an exotic with four times the power and six times the price. As is often the case with conventional wisdom, it turns out that’s not actually true. One Sunday morning a few weeks ago, while in California, I found myself with the keys to a 2019 Ferrari Portofino and instructions that amounted to “don’t bend it and please be back by 1pm.”
The Portofino is Ferrari’s entry-level car—”entry level” in this case starting at $215,000. It’s a front (mid-)engined 2+2 with a folding hard top and a 592hp (441kW) version of Ferrari’s F154 3.9L twin-turbo V8. (Other versions of this V8 can be found in the 488 and the GTC4Lusso T.) At 180.6 inches (4,586mm) long, 76.3 inches (1,938mm) wide, and 51.9 inches (1,318mm) tall, it’s not particularly diminutive, although at 3,668lbs (1,664kg) it does weigh about 5% less than the model it replaced. It’s a bigger car all around than the old Ferrari Daytona, for example, and positively dwarfs something like a Mazda MX-5 RF. Which is what made that particular Sunday morning all the more remarkable.
I didn’t see another car for hours
Somehow, I’ve become a morning person, and I knew my best chance of getting to know the Portofino traffic would be to leave before dawn. But where to go? South on SR1 would be the obvious choice; certainly it would deliver the best pictures. But a friend gave me another idea: head east and keep going until you reach the flat farmlands. So I did.
As locals will no doubt know, the particular ribbon of road I’m talking about (which you can see in the gallery up top) is narrow. So narrow that, in places, there is neither lane divider nor room for two cars to pass each other. It’s also twisty, with few straights and plenty of blind turns. It’s the sort of road you’d think perfect for a Mazda MX-5 and perfectly unsuitable for the bigger, heavier, much more powerful Portofino. At least, that’s what I expected—and I was perfectly wrong.
Ferraris of recent years have been characterized by steering that is both very fast—something like 2.2 turns lock-to-lock—and also very light. And the Portofino’s aluminum chassis makes it very stiff, with the two in tandem delivering a car that is far more nimble than it has any right to be. And although the chassis is very stiff, the magnetorheological dampers have a “bumpy road” mode independent of the various other software-defined parameters like the throttle pedal mapping or the seven-speed dual clutch transmission. You can feel road imperfections—of which there are quite a few on California’s less-traveled back roads—through the communicative steering. But the dampers will soak up the worst of it so the ride is never close to spine-jarring.
If I’d had some time with the Portofino and a race track, you might now be reading about how the car handles on the limit. I didn’t, so the best I can say is that the front tires never ran out of front grip on that particular Sunday morning. The closest I got to lurid power-on oversteer was the occasional shimmy from the rear exiting a slow bend onto a straight.
This could be a daily driver
Similarly, if I’d had more time to live with the Portofino, I could tell you whether it copes with the fast-food drive-thru and if it’s possible to make someone sit in the back without amputating their legs. Again, the answers to those questions will have to wait until a later date. (I can say that, when you fold the roof down, it takes up a good deal of the trunk volume.)
Alas, as I mentioned before, my instructions were to deliver said Portofino back to the paddock at Laguna Seca. So on the practicality stakes, I should say that the infotainment system is fine and Apple CarPlay works well. The car is easier to get in and out of than any of the mid-engined entry-level competitors made by Maranello’s rivals.
That ease of use definitely plays in Ferrari’s favor. Few would consider daily-driving a McLaren 570S, and fewer still will commute in a Lamborghini Huracán. But the Portofino doesn’t just offer a front-engined alternative to those exotics; it’s also a potential rival for cars that are more grand tourer than out-and-out sports car. Cars like the Bentley Continental or Mercedes-Benz SL, which people can and do drive to work in. Like the Portofino, I’m pretty sure either of those would have been swell for cruising down SR1. But when the road gets narrow and twisty, you’re going to want the one with the prancing horse badges.