Innovative chassis technology and an award-winning engine combine to deliver scintillating performance in a supercar you could use every day, writes Chris Pickering
Enzo Ferrari supposedly once said: “I don’t make cars. I make engines.” Whether or not he ever uttered those words is open to debate. And there’s no doubt that Ferrari has been responsible for some exceptionally clever chassis technology over the years too. But when the 3.9-litre twin-turbo V8 in the Ferrari Portofino fills its lungs you can’t help wondering if there’s still an element of truth in that statement.
The V8s from this family – which also includes those found in the F8 Tributo and the GTC4Lusso T – have been voted International Engine of The Year no less than four times in a row. At 600PS (592bhp in old money) the variant in the Portofino is the least-powerful engine in the range. And yet the sledgehammer blow that it delivers in any gear and at almost any speed still puts the ‘baby’ Ferrari firmly into supercar territory.
Underneath those iconic red cam covers lurks what looks suspiciously like a race engine. It uses a flat-plane crankshaft to reduce rotational inertia and improve scavenging, its bore-to-stroke ratio of 86.5 x 82mm is notably undersquare and there’s a dry sump lubrication system. Instead of the ‘hot vee’ layout used on a lot of modern road cars, its exhaust ports remain on the outside of the cylinder heads, with the turbochargers mounted low down to reduce the centre of gravity height. Ferrari says it tried both configurations and found this delivered lower back pressure, as well as favourable packaging.
The Portofino’s engine is a development of that found in its predecessor, the California T. Cylinder pressures are up by 10 per cent, aided by a revised piston and port geometry that provides more tumble. Meanwhile, an ion-sensing ignition system is used to monitor combustion stability by analysing the current draw across the spark plugs. This information forms part of the ignition timing strategy, which can include multi-spark operation, where the same plug is fired multiple times to extend the overall duration and energy of the ignition.
The turbochargers have also been the subject of a lot of work. Each of the exhaust manifolds is cast as a single part with four equal length headers to optimise the pressure waves and reduce losses. They feed into two twin-scroll turbochargers – one for each bank – with a low-inertia turbine wheel design. But the clever bit is the control system, which uses Ferrari’s Variable Boost Management philosophy to adjust the torque delivery to suit the gear that’s selected.
You can sense all of this in action when you drive the Portofino. There’s a palpable lack of inertia to the engine that makes it feel (and sound) quite different to a cross plane crank V8. If you really look for it – at very low revs in a high gear – you can detect the faintest pause while the turbochargers build up pressure, but under normal circumstances there’s simply no perceptible turbo lag at all. Instead, you get razor-sharp throttle response, monumental thrust and a spine-tingling soundtrack all the way up to the 7,500rpm red line.
There’s a similar feeling of agility to the chassis. At 1,664kg, the Portofino is commendably light for a 2+2 grand tourer with an electric folding roof (and some 80kg lighter than the California T it replaces). Despite its outward similarity, Ferrari says the chassis has been reworked so heavily for the Portofino that it’s effectively an all-new design. No less than 12 different alloys are used for a mixture of extruded sections, castings and sheet-metal parts. Notable production techniques include superplastic forming for the doors and increased use of sandcasting for hollow components in order to reduce wall thickness (and hence decrease weight).
There’s also been a concerted effort to condense different elements of the body-in-white. The A-pillars, for instance, were comprised of 21 separate sections on the California T, but they now number just two. On top of the overall weight reduction – around 40 per cent of which comes from the body-in-white – the new structure is said to be some 35 per cent stiffer, while the weld lengths have been reduced by 30 per cent.
Again, the benefits are tangible. The structure feels at least as stiff as any other front-engined convertible that I can think of and even the bumpy roads of our Scottish test route failed to provoke any scuttle shake. It’s fair to assume that this structural rigidity also plays an important part in enabling the Portofino’s aggressive chassis set-up – the steering is scalpel sharp and the body control is enforced with an iron fist. And yet it’s also remarkably civilised, particularly when you switch to Comfort mode and the adaptive magnetorheological dampers relax.
Even in Sport mode the Portofino manages to combine its caffeinated reflexes with a good level of ride comfort. That’s partly down to the damper hardware that has been introduced for the new model; the geometry is essentially the same as that of the optional Handling Speciale pack that was available for the California T, but the Portofino uses dual-coil dampers to improve the precision and speed with which the magnetic field is adjusted. It also features a new electronic control system with algorithms developed for the 488 GTB, which are said to improve response times at high input frequencies.
The end result is a car that’s comfortable enough to function as a true grand tourer, while still delivering the characteristically sharp driving experience of a modern Ferrari. Objectively speaking, it’s this chassis technology that’s perhaps the greatest achievement on the Portofino – blurring the distinction between a sports car and a long-distance GT. Subjectively, though, it’s that engine that steals the show with its vast reserves of performance and seemingly boundless energy. Enzo Ferrari, we suspect, would approve.