2020 Ferrari Roma - a trip to the Alps

2020 Ferrari Roma - a trip to the Alps

Eight o`clock, and the chiming of ancient bells rolls around the cobbled piazza as it has done for centuries. Overhead, yesterday’s clear skies have given way to a bruised, claustrophobically low ceiling of cloud that entirely cloaks the distant mountains. The air is thick, warm like a bath and heavy with the scent of storms. In half an hour (and not a moment before, sadly), I’ll be given the key to my Roma. Until then there’s time enough for another espresso and to ponder all that we know about Maranello’s latest, a front/mid-engined 2+2 GT that – with neat symmetry – feels like a timely nod to Ferrari’s glorious past just as the fearlessly progressive hybrid SF90 forges into the future.

The Roma is, depending on your generosity, either nothing more than a Portofino with that car’s folding hardtop roof welded shut or one of the most intriguing Ferrari in years, one uninterested in outright performance and the race-inspired visual clutter of cars like the F8 Tributo and keener instead on qualities like timelessness, elegance and day-to-day usability. The Roma’s a 21st century Ferrari that, in its remit, style and heart-swelling romance, calls to mind masterpieces like the 250 GT Lusso – or so Ferrari hopes. Fast, engaging to drive and beautiful, it’s Maranello’s 911, if you will, albeit with a list price north of $400K.

Ask chief technical officer Michael Leiters for clarification on whether the Roma’s a GT or a sports car and his answer is ‘both’, delivered with a grin. Consider the engineering and he may have a point. The Roma’s aluminium structure is based on that of the Portofino; same wheelbase, for instance. Maranello claims 70 per cent of the body and structure is new or substantially modified, but the new exterior metalwork surely accounts for the lion’s share of that. Weight is down, by 100kg or so, and the centre of mass is lower, thanks to the deletion of the Portofino’s folding-roof mechanism. This has allowed Ferrari to keep the same front spring rates as the Portofino (on adaptive dampers) and go 10 per cent softer at the rear while still reducing bodyroll by 10 per cent for a given rate of lateral acceleration.

This is all good news, as is the fact that this is the first Ferrari GT to get a five-position manettino (your options run from Wet through Comfort, Sport and Race to ESC Off; pushing the toggle now accesses the everuseful bumpy-road mode). You also get Maranello’s latest driver-assist electronics, Slide Slip Control 6.0 and Ferrari Dynamic Enhancer, to let you goad the rear axle out of line in safety. This is also the first Ferrari GT to get proper underbody aero, with vortex generators in the floor to create useful downforce despite the very clean body’s conspicuous lack of wings. 

8.28am. Finally my obvious impatience wins through, one of Ferrari’s new keys is dropped into my hand (a little rectangle wearing the prancing horse, which feels both perfect and a bit nasty, like something a gap-year student might pin to their foul-smelling backpack) and the Roma and I can go. Wake the V8 (now via a touch control on the steering wheel which is, frankly, a backward step over an actual button), note the pleasant exhaust note and roll out of Pollenzo before those clouds flash-flood the place. 

One moment you’ve decided against endless overtaking, happy to just tune out and – inshallah – get there when you get there. The next, a Sprinter van helmed by a local specialist comes past you, the three cars ahead and the truck holding you all up, in the process making a very compelling case for not being quite so lazy. I twist the manettino round to Race, tug the new eight-speed gearbox down to third and begin to leapfrog my way to freedom using the V8’s apparently endless urge. Humming west with more conviction now, the mountains growing bigger with every kilometre, one key aspect of the Roma begins to seduce even as another breeds frustration. First, the bad news. The Roma gets an all-new cockpit big on graceful curves and a welcome sense of minimalism, but that’s not the bad news. Rear-seat legroom may be virtually non-existent (reaching behind the driver’s seat with it set as I want it, there’s perhaps two inches of rear legroom…) and the boot small, but this is, frumpy and plasticky steering wheel aside, a nicely crafted and reassuringly expensive sports car interior.

No, the issue is Ferrari’s new-generation infotainment system. It debuted in the SF90 and comprises a 16-inch multi-function curved driver’s display, capable of cycling through three views (a stripped-back racy one, a fullmap ‘I’m really lost’ one and the one you’ll actually use, with a giant revcounter centre stage) and an 8.4-inch, portrait-orientated touchscreen that repeats much of the same functionality – nav, media, phone – while also taking care of climate control. Both screens look great, particularly the crisp, bright and vast one ahead of you in the instrument binnacle. But the lack of Audi-style haptic feedback (there’s an audio response instead) and some lag in the system (Ferrari insists customers’ cars will be sharper) makes for a painful combination. Apple CarPlay and Android Auto compatibility will surely help but the former will be an option priced at around $7000 in Australia. It wasn’t available on our early test car, but Ferrari system’s voice recognition is at least first rate. To activate it, simply say ‘Ciao, Ferrari’.

But, just as a sense of disappointment threatens to take hold, the opportunity arises to exercise the Roma’s V8. And, just like that, you’re falling in love with Maranello’s latest all over again. This morning’s agricultural flatlands have given way to forested foothills and the combination of gradient, thinner traffic and many, many more corners is at last giving the Ferrari the kind of canvas a 456kW brush demands. At 1570kg the Roma isn’t a heavy car by modern standards – lighter than a Jaguar F-Type P450 (1660kg), and only a little porkier than a Porsche Carrera S (1515kg) or Aston Martin Vantage (1530kg), none of which are anything like as powerful. That much power, unencumbered by a punitive kerbweight, is a mesmerising combination. 

The Roma’s V8 isn’t all-new, being closely related to that of the Portofino (which, in turn shares much with the old 488 and new F8). It features more aggressive cams with increased lift, an exhaust system with reduced backpressure and sensors in its turbos that let Ferrari safely wring another 5000rpm from the turbines. The net result would be good for 30kW over the 441kW Portofino were the Roma not also required to stuff petrol particulate filters into its exhausts, which knock that advantage back to 15kW, resulting in a net 456kW peak power figure.

The engine drives through a new eight-speed twinclutch gearbox, again pinched from the SF90 hybrid hypercar. It’s 6kg lighter than the Portofino’s sevenspeeder, faster-shifting and more efficient, with a drysump configuration and less viscous oil for reduced frictional losses. Ratios one to seven are also shorter than the Portofino’s, for stronger acceleration, while eighth offers a lazy overdrive. 

Chase the power at the top of the rev range (as ever, Ferrari’s deliberately held back torque at lower rpm, for drivability and to maintain the theatre of the top-end rush) and the Roma covers ground at a breathtaking rate, the engine’s responsiveness, strong but smooth midrange and awesome top end making light work of everything, from steep climbs out of tight corners to spontaneous overtakes in the ‘wrong’ gear. Shifts are slotted through before you know you’ve asked for them, even if the paddles themselves feel incongruously cheap and crude given the Roma’s list price. And when you need to lose that speed, the firm, short-travel left pedal breeds enormous confidence, linked as it is to carbonceramic brakes as deft and as intuitive to modulate at a walking pace as they are powerful at speed. Handy when that unsighted, three-figure sweeper into which you’re charging proves to be anything but… 

2020 Ferrari Roma engine 3855cc V8, DOHC, 32v, twin-turbo

For a few moments the cloud thickened, rendered the world beyond the Roma’s perfectly formed prow invisible (the view from the driver’s seat is ordinarily spectacular, the pronounced wings framing the road ahead) and promptly vanished, the Ferrari and I bursting into a new world of dazzling sunshine, cutglass mountain air and views to make you weep for the fragile beauty of this planet. Great peaks soar into the sky, incomprehensibly vast slopes of scree plunge back into the swirling cloud below and here and there weatherravaged shelters and terrifyingly steep footpaths betray the presence of some hardy souls, if not now then at least at some point previously. 

The road has it all, from faster stretches that hug the mountainside to knotted stacks of first-gear hairpins to steal all your hard-won momentum. Except that in the Roma speed is effortlessly acquired, lost and maintained mid-corner. Ahead, the tarmac swings left momentarily, then – feet from oblivion – corkscrews right and disappears up over my right shoulder, racing for the sky. Turn-in is keen and the front axle’s resistance to understeer welcome given the lack of road width. Midcorner grip is equally strong and reassuringly telegraphed, and the steering (fast, but a shade less hyperactive than the F8’s) works with your brain to make all those tiny, almost imperceptible tweaks of line and attitude entirely subconscious.

2020 Ferrari Roma interior

You’re aware only that you’re having an absolute blast, and that – happily – so sorted is the Roma that it feels like it’d take a catastrophic error of judgement to get things properly wrong. That this Ferrari is as malleable and benign while only a handful of kilowatts shy of a McLaren F1’s potency is an incredible achievement. 

Neither is the Roma a one-dimensional thrasher. You can go at things like a Lambo in a china shop, charging up and down the gearbox and stuffing the car into corners with abandon. Or, as befits its long-distance, everyday remit, you can stay a gear or two higher, go a little easier on the throttle and brakes and just use the easy corner speed and slinky momentum to shrink cross-country distances. A GT, then, but a GT that satisfies like a sports car when the mood takes. 

Key to this deft ride/handling balance are surely those relatively relaxed spring and damping rates. The Ferrari’s ride quality, even without recourse to bumpy-road mode, is sweet for such a poised, responsive car. The Roma breathes with lumps and bumps and refuses to deviate from your chosen line even when you run into some particularly rough stuff mid-corner. That light touch means you always know where you stand, the car talking to you in the way it moves on its suspension.

Behind us, Italy. Ahead, bathed in a roving patchwork of light that mirrors the patchy blue in the clouds overhead, France. Here, where the two meet, in a cramped parking area choked with cyclists and hikers, the Roma is a superstar. Phones, eyes and excitedly pointing fingers are all drawn to its impossibly curvaceous sheet metalwork like moths to a flame, suggesting perhaps that while midengined supercars can be dramatic, alien, shocking even, only cars with their engine up front, where Enzo preferred his, can be truly beautiful. Where the F8 Tributo is fussy, even clumsy in places (it is, effectively, a re-skin of the 488, which was in itself a re-skin of the 458…) the Roma is a startling reminder of the star quality of Ferrari design boss Flavio Manzoni and his team. Redolent of the past while steering laudably clear of retro pastiche, this is a truly beautiful contemporary Ferrari. 

It is also a great one. On the move, preferably on the kind of roads worthy of cars this special, the Roma’s every bit as engaging to drive as it is to look upon; responsive, exploitable and majestically fast. GT or sports car? The seats and driving position are all-day comfortable but exhaust noise is ever present, grating after a while on less interesting roads. And while there’s less road noise than you’d expect given the amount of rubber the car holds to the road, NVH levels are still high for a true GT – a Bentley is far quieter. But the Roma is, by dint of its rear seats, more conventional layout (mid-engined cars draw attention, and can intimidate) and elegant form undoubtedly, a more usable kind of Ferrari, even if you’d need to be brave (or in a most agreeable postcode) to leave the thing parked on the street overnight. But it’s still – in the best possible way – a Ferrari. Indeed, the Roma’s the Ferrari we didn’t know we wanted. Now that it’s here, want it we most certainly do.

Regrettably given we’re in Italy, there hasn’t been time to eat. In a roadside cafe I order a panini. A good while later it appears, lovingly crafted. To go with it I grab a cold Coke and a tub of Pringles (this is not the time for modesty) and, aware of the ticking clock and Ferrari’s immovable return deadline, go to pay with a wave of my bank card. ‘No, solo contanti,’ smiles the nonna at the till, her face crumpling into uncontrollable laughter as it becomes apparent that the guy in the $410K Ferrari doesn’t have 10 euros. It is, I concede, pretty funny. Mortified, I go about trying to get some contact details. Instead she insists I take the lot, on the house. No such thing as a free lunch? Just as, long ago, I’m sure there would have been were you driving a 250 GT Lusso or a Daytona in Italy, so there is when you drive a Roma. 

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