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Entry-level Ferrari? The Portofino is more caged tiger than baby brother

By Paul Connolly

Ever since Ferrari announced plans to replace the California T, there have been stirrings in the Prancing Horse fan underworld.

Would the successor be any good? Can an entry level car ever be a real Ferrari? Is it a baby Ferrari or a real Ferrari?

And probably most importantly of all – will it be better than the California?

Fret no more; the Ferrari Portofino has now been in the market place for over a year; it’s well bedded in and the general agreement is that it’s a full-blooded Ferrari all right.

The thesis was more than tested out on a recent Ferrari review day in Scotland.

No less than eight Portofinos were lined up at the Old Course Hotel at St Andrews in Fife. Included in the line-up was Charles Hurst’s own Portofino demonstrator model. (And very nice it is, too.)

That they made an impressive sight was beyond question, as passers-by lined up to take photos and heads turned as cars left the hotel in near-convoy shape.

But what does this £164k entry ticket to the exclusive world of Ferrari ownership offer? That was the task at hand. But first, let’s pause to reflect on the Portofino’s place in Ferrari history.

The Portofino, named after a famously picturesque town on the Italian Riviera, is a two-door 2+2 hard top convertible. It follows the California, another grand tourer, which dates back to 2008. More accurately, if is the direct successor to the California T, a 2014 upgrade to the first-generation California.

Originally criticised for being under-powered and devoid of proper Ferrari handling, the California was vigorously re-tooled and improved. By the time the California T arrived, it was a proper, fiery Ferrari – and well-loved for it.

The Portofino, then, has much to live up to. As well as taking on the mantle of being the entry point to Ferrari world, it had to be a significant advance on its predecessor.

From the outside, the front-engined Portofino is all muscular poise and show; oozing the kind of confident sophistication you’d expect from a Ferrari.

It’s a Grand Tourer that struts its sporting heritage, but which also aims to be an everyday driving car (kind of).

And it’s true, this Ferrari will be comfortable in many situations, including weekends away and short trips to the continent. Optional 18-way adjustable electric seats will help with longer journeys.

There are rear seats, but they are really only for small children or for stowing bags. Not that this matters – if you can afford a Ferrari and you have children/load space requirements you’ll probably want to hang on for a year or so until the Ferrari SUV arrives. (Get your name down now, though.)

The retractable hard top has been completely redesigned and can now be opened or closed in 14 seconds on the move at lower speeds.

Ferrari’s designers have worked hard to maximise space inside the boot; the luggage compartment now holds two cabin trolleys with the roof down and three with the roof up. The boot is 292-litres at its maximum load-configuration. Small, but not bad for this type of car.

The cabin is a lovely place to be: quality Prancing Horse craftmanship with exquisite leather and carbon fibre trim and a seriously driver-focused cockpit.

A nice touch – although you’ll pay extra for it - is a “dedicated capacitive display” on the passenger’s side. Directly linked to the main screen, it provides data relating to car speed, rpm and gear engaged.

There’s a 10.25” touchscreen in the centre of the dash easily accessed by both driver and passenger that displays the car’s infotainment and navigation services.

Ferrari is trumpeting progress in improved noise reduction and wind reduction thanks to a new wind deflector.

Top up or down, it feels like a true Ferrari even before you start the engine. And that’s’ where the magic really begins. For all its stylish looks, the Portofino is a caged tiger.

Under the bonnet lurks the award-winning Ferrari twin-turbo V8 engine that delivers 591bhp with a stonking 760Nm of torque that kicks in in the middle of the range and hangs there for what seems like forever (well until you start maxing out the rev counter).

Power is sent to the rear wheels via a seven-speed dual-clutch transmission set-up, and there’s a new chassis with improved suspension and a new electronic differential.

The stats are impressive: top speed 198mph, 0-62 in 3.5 seconds and 0-124mph in 10.8 seconds.

But it’s not just the stats, the Portofino boasts a true Ferrari driving experience. The handling is precise yet characterful, and the booming soundtrack is sheer magic, the note changing as you dial the manettino between different drive modes.

The handling is exquisite, pouring into corners with aplomb and little body roll, and coping with the demands of both town driving and bumpy Scottish country roads with ease. Ferrari’s Bumpy Road setting even allows you to calm the suspension on b-roads.

Automatic gear changes are exact and responsive, and drivers more accomplished than me report that manual changes at speed on twisty roads using the steering column paddles are a joy.

Importantly, Ferrari has managed to shave 80kg weight from the Portofino compared to the California T, which improves performance further. This has been achieved with a raft of engineering and design feats from redesigned A-pillars, to powertrain refinements, the use of hollow components and a new air con unit.

You’ll pay from £164k for your Portofino, and significantly more if you can’t stop helping yourself to the many tempting optional extras.

For that you do get access to the full thrill of owning a Ferrari, plus there’s a tempting after-sales care package that includes seven years’ free servicing.

The Portofino may not have a mid-mounted engine, but an authentic Ferrari it certainly is.

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