Only months after driving Ferrari’s 296 GTB hybrid supercar, Prestige gets the opportunity to test its brand-new topless sibling, the Ferrari 296 GTS, in Italy – and we’re blown away by the experience.
It’s lunchtime at Forte dei Marmi, a posh resort on Italy’s Tuscan riviera, and the place is almost deserted. The autumnal Mediterranean weather is sunny and warm, yet of the crowds who’d thronged here just weeks ago, lounging and playingon the long beach edging the shimmering Ligurian Sea, filling the bars and restaurants, and splashing their cash in the luxury boutiques that stand cheek-by-jowl in the town centre, there’s no sign. Occasionally a lone jogger, cyclist or motor car appears along the wide road that runs parallel to the shore; otherwise, silence reigns as this emptying seaside town begins boarding up for the winter.
There is, however, one hive of activity in these somnolent environs, and that surrounds a clutch of identical blue cars parked by the side of the road. And these aren’t just any automobiles: they’re a line-up of Ferrari’s newest PHEV supercars, the 296 GTS, which was announced only weeks ago. Along with five other writers from Asia, I have the good fortune to be driving one of them back towards the factory in Maranello on a 280km route that starts out along busy stretches of autostrada before taking us on to the tortuous roads that snake up and down the Apennine mountains. Being in sole charge of a brand-new machine such as this is an enticing and thrilling prospect, though as the combination of petrol and electric power places almost 820bhp beneath my right foot, that anticipation is inevitably tinged with apprehension, too.
Let’s backtrack for a moment. Regular readers of Prestige may remember we wrote about the 296 GTB only a couple of months ago, when we proclaimed it the best supercar in the world. Although there’s great similarity between it and the car I’m driving today, this new GTS has one significant difference. The “S” in the name signifies it’s a “spider” – in other words, the roof comes off – and for many ferraristi, a drop-top is the brand’s ultimate road-going expression.
That said, removing a car’s roof isn’t simply a matter of slicing off the metal. The process involves compromises in weight and rigidity that often mean a convertible isn’t quite as satisfying when approaching the limit as a comparable fixed-head coupe, no matter how much fun top-down driving may be. So the big question is whether the GTS loses anything in the way of drivability to its GTB sibling.
Unless you’d lined up the coupe and spider together, you’d hardly know the GTS wasn’t a hardtop. There are some clues, however: the new retractable chapeau is in a contrasting black to the car’s Blu Corsa paintwork, the spider’s re-designed C-pillars are quite different from the GTB’s flying buttresses and, looking closely, you’ll notice its rear deck is divided into sections that can flip open to accommodate the roof when the latter is retracted: the process takes just 14 seconds and can be accomplished at speeds up to 40km/h. Nonetheless – and just like the coupe – this is a beautifully realised and perfectly integrated design, which is notable for its gorgeously smooth surfaces and a relative absence of intakes and outlets, one that looks equally sensational (and not unlike the ’60s 250 LM racer it was inspired by) with roof closed or open.
At a Q&A session the previous evening, the Ferrari boffins tell us there’s virtually no difference in torsional stiffness between the two cars car, meaning the GTS’s road manners shouldn’t vary in any perceptible way from the impeccable standards set by the GTB. And that’s in spite of a 70kg penalty incurred by the roof mechanism and additional chassis bracing.
Otherwise, same brilliant powertrain – a 654bhp, twin-turbocharged, wide-angle 2.9-litre V6 mated to a regenerative 165bhp electric motor mounted between petrol engine and eight-speed dual-clutch gearbox – and same superb chassis, fettled with adaptive magnetorheological dampers and just about every electronic aid (with corresponding name or acronym) known to humankind, plus by-wire braking with carbon-ceramic rotors and phenomenal stopping power. Performance is staggering: 0-100km/h in 2.9 seconds, 0-200 in 7.6 (just three-tenths slower than the GTB) and a maximum in excess of 330 – and that last figure is with the roof down. (One of the Taiwanese later tells me he hits more than 300km/h on the autostrada, but traffic is heavy and speeding in Italy these days can incur more than an indulgent wink, so I keep my own maximum to around 200, which is still a good deal higher than the 130 limit.)
Even in the world’s greatest supercar, the autostrada towards Florence, which I join just kilometres out of Forte dei Marmi, is as much chore as pleasure. Convoys of trucks are forever pulling into the outer lane, while road racers in lesser machinery do their best to glue themselves to my rear lights. However, the hybrid system does a magnificent job of conserving fuel each time I back off the loud pedal – and scooting along silently at 120 klicks in a Ferrari is still grin-inducingly bizarre, as is the sudden bark from that hyperactive V6 whenever petrol powercuts in unexpectedly.
Once the birthplace of the Italian Renaissance disappears in the rear-view mirrors it’s almost a relief to pull off the highway and head up into the mountains on roads less travelled. Unlike Ferrari’s purely petrol-powered cars, the 296 features two manettinos on its switchgear-laden steering wheel; used together, these control the delivery of its fearsome power to the rear axle pretty much to your liking. On these winding byways, I opt for the manual transmission mode, which offers millisecond changes at the flip of a paddle, as well as the Qualifying and not-too-extreme Sport settings, which though providing the entire hybrid repertoire of power and torque, do so in a manner that to me feels manageable – I don’t, for example, want to embarrass myself (and possibly a good deal worse) by hanging the tail out into the path of some innocently puttering Piaggio.
Any suspicions that the spider might be a softer option to the GTB are abandoned instantly, the GTS proving as steely focused as the tin-top. Bends and straights appear with such fast-forward rapidity my brain can barely keep up; they then recede far behind me just as quickly. Indeed, it’s hard to believe this Ferrari is carrying more than 1.5 tonnes, so instantaneous is the throttle response, blinding the acceleration and delicately precise the helm.
As for the handling, there’s no trick four-wheel steering here and nor does the spider need it. Partly thanks to the short wheelbase and chassis-management wizardry the car’s agility, poise and balance are almost beyond belief – and though the electronic systems are working flat out to keep things neat, tidy and safe, at the wheel you never know they’re there. All this with the wind in your hair and sun on the face really does add up to motoring heaven.
I’ve raved about the 296’s powertrain before, but after almost 300km I’m even more impressed by the seamless delivery of petrol and electric power. Ferrari has endowed this small V6 with all the character of its bigger and more complex engines, too, so it sounds utterly glorious no matter where you are in the rev range – and especially as it approaches the 8,500rpm top end. That noise, of course, is another good reason to opt for a convertible, and it’s another respect in which the GTS doesn’t disappoint. But then, a couple of minor issues aside – not for the first time in a Ferrari, the satnav route-guidance gives up halfway through the test, and I still can’t get the haptic controls to work properly – I’m unable to think of any ways in which the 296 GTS would.
In every way as remarkable an achievement as the GTB coupe, yet with the delightful option of removing the roof, the Ferrari 296 GTS is one of the – and maybe even the – most desirable motor cars you can buy. I say “you can buy”, but your only problem will be in getting hold of one. Word has it the entire production run is already sold out, so if you’re in any way serious about getting your mitts on this deeply wonderful machine, I strongly suggest making friends with your local dealer. As molto veloce as you can.
FERRARI 296 GTS
ENGINE Twin-turbocharged 2.9-litre V6 coupled to a single electric motor
TRANSMISSION Eight-speed dual clutch
MAX POWER 819bhp
MAX TORQUE 740Nm @ 6,250rpm
MAX SPEED About 330km/h
ACCELERATION 0-100km/h in 2.9 seconds
UNLADEN WEIGHT 1,540kg
PRICE From about HK$5.5 million