Driving Ferrari’s $300,000 Portofino, a restless racehorse of a car

This Thoroughbred wants to be at the front of the pack, a strange choice for a vehicle intended for relaxing long-distance rides.

If there is a better looking hardtop convertible than the racehorse-like Ferrari Portofino, we haven’t seen it.

Ferrari designers claim styling inspiration for the Portofino came from the Ferrari Daytona of the 1970s. (You may recall seeing the fake Daytona that was used for shooting the TV show Miami Vice in the 1980s.) The Portofino is Ferrari’s lovely interpretation of a cushy long-distance Grand Touring car, with the added feature of that hardtop convertible roof, providing true coupe styling when it’s up.

Our test car’s lush green Verde Zeltweg finish gave this Italian sports car an entirely different vibe than commonplace red paint would lend. In addition to being gorgeous, the style options selected for our test car were distinctive, so there’ll be no danger of encountering a doppleganger at cars and coffee, or of the valet bringing the wrong Ferrari to the curb after dinner (SO embarrassing!).

But at $13,500 for the paint plus $1,856 for the yellow Scuderia Ferrari fender badges, $1,687 for the chrome-edged grille, $1,519 for the yellow-painted brake calipers and $844 for sport exhaust pipes, and finally $6,243 for the 20-inch forged aluminum painted wheels, this example’s design portfolio did not come cheap. All told, our test car cost a little north of $300,000.

The Portofino not only looks more graceful than its slightly lumpy California T predecessor, but Ferrari has an airtight technical presentation proving beyond a shadow of a doubt, your honor, that the defendant is guilty of technical superiority in every category. Case closed!

And yet, there is the matter of the Portofino’s racehorse-like relentless champing at the bit to surge to the front. This is an admirable characteristic for a hard-core sports car with track-going aspirations. But in the low-key, laid-back world of GT car long-distance cruising or café trolling, maybe a Thoroughbred isn’t the best solution.

Despite its front-engine layout, its 2+2 seating, and its folding convertible top, the Portofino proves to be an impressive sports car, with genuine performance, handling and braking capabilities that exceed expectations. It shouldn’t be any surprise, after all—this is a Ferrari!

Charging into corners, when a front-engine car could be expected to understeer, the Portofino turns in crisply, providing the steering feedback needed to balance the car through the turn with the steering, brakes, and throttle. The car’s electronic differential surely contributes imperceptibly to this handling response, routing power to the wheel that will best help shepherd the Portofino around turns while making drivers feel heroic for their steering prowess.

Ferrari’s red steering-wheel-mounted Manettino switch lets drivers adjust the car’s electronics to suit the conditions, and in the case of the Portofino, this switch offers only three choices: Comfort, Sport and ESC (Electronic Stability Control) Off. Other Ferrari models include Wet, Race and Traction Control Off options, but apparently these aren’t needed for the Portofino’s grand-touring mission.

The Manettino switch lets drivers optimize the car’s electronically adjustable systems such as the engine’s throttle response, the exhaust’s muffler bypass valves, the transmission’s shift points, the electromagnetically adjustable shock absorbers, the electronic differential, the traction control and the stability control system to perform best under the circumstances. We found the difference between Comfort and Sport to be more subtle than expected, other than the immediate tendency for the car to run one gear lower when switched to Sport.

Ferrari
Inside the Portofino. Ferrari

An area where Ferrari has taken obvious measures to tame the Portofino for life away from the race track is the brakes. We didn’t drive the car on the track to gauge the effectiveness of its standard carbon ceramic brakes in that environment, but because they are carbon ceramic, we would expect them to perform faultlessly.

Other Ferrari models, however, have their brakes tuned to provide immediate friction the instant the driver just begins to touch the car’s cast aluminum brake pedal. This is good for track use, but can feel grabby and intrusive on the street. For the Portofino, Ferrari has wisely selected brake pad material that is less aggressive, making it easy to brake smoothly in everyday driving, without the jerkiness or brake squeal that are typical among Ferrari’s sportier models.

Don’t let this deceive you into thinking the Portofino is somehow diluted. Look at its specifications: 592 hp, 561 pound-feet of torque. The Portofino is a beast—a beast that is outfitted with Ferrari’s 3.85-liter twin-turbocharged V8 and paddle-shifted 7-speed dual-clutch transmission that rips to 60 mph in less than 3.5 seconds and reaches a top speed stated as “more than 199 mph.”

Though much of the California T’s foundation remains beneath the Portofino, the differences are impressive. They start with the sheetmetal, which is undeniably gorgeous, while the California just wanted to be. A weight-saving program trimmed 175 pounds of performance-sapping mass in the Portofino, and the chassis is stiffer, further aiding its quicker responses with 35 percent better torsional rigidity. That means when you turn the steering wheel, you turn the car rather than twisting a flexible body structure.

Ferrari provided us with technical charts demonstrating how the Portofino handles better and provides better steering feel and feedback than the California. Those charts seem plausible, though we didn’t drive the cars back-to-back. This is important, because Ferrari ditched the traditional hydraulic power steering assist employed on the California in favor of electric power steering in the Portofino. Hydraulic assistance is valued for its usual better feel and feedback, but Ferrari seems not to have lost ground in the switch to electric power steering assistance.

But the Portofino says that it is a lover, not a fighter. Fighting is for Ferrari’s mid-engine pure sports cars, like the F8 Tributo. The Portofino is meant for cruising South Beach and for snug double dates that employ the car’s more spacious back seat.

Here is where Ferrari leaves us scratching our head.

The Portofino’s race-tuned flat crankshaft, twin-turbo V8 has a raspy, cigarette-scorched voice when driven gently. Ferrari employs active muffler bypass valves to manage the engine’s sounds to suit the conditions, but there’s only so much to be done with the sound from a turbocharged race engine like this when full power is not required.

twin-turbo V8
The twin-turbo V8. Ferrari

Because, for the Portofino’s $301,743 as-tested price, you have tasty options from other automakers, especially the traditional British purveyors of fabulous GT cars. Chugging through traffic, just off idle, the engine also feels short of the muscular torque that effortlessly powers rivals like the Bentley Continental GT V8 Convertible and the Aston Martin Vantage Roadster through urban no-wake zones.

Those English cars burble along purposefully, with crisp response to the driver’s toe on the accelerator, and smooth, seamless gear changes from the transmission that propel the car and its occupants forward with no fuss. The Portofino, meanwhile, seems to be jostling to get to the front of the race, with its engine’s industrial-grade audio accompaniment and less-than graceful gear changes from the track-ready dual-clutch transmission.

In this sort of use, relaxation seems the furthest thing from the Portofino’s mind, or even its range of capability. Which is fine, if your goal is to have a purebred race car that has space for friends or family to enjoy the car with you. For comfortable long-distance cruising or for low-speed café trolling, however, there are much more relaxing alternatives that do these jobs without feeling so frenetic.

Your preference may depend on whether you need to be the horse at the front of the pack or if you’re happy to just take things as they come.