Will a convertible roof and a plug-in hybrid powertrain quell Ferrari’s mid-engined supercar passion? We drive the 296 GTS to find out.
Maybe we can all agree on something. It’s that, everything else being equal, having the ability to temporarily lose the roof on a supercar is better than not.
Disagree? Come on, don’t be pious. Of course coupes are way cooler, being more pure-bred and motorsporty, and generally no-nonsense. But it’s also important to accept that if you are driving any supercar, open or not, you’re already fully partaking in the nonsense and may as well lean into it. And the fact is that although all modern supercars give you the option of toggling fruity exhaust modes, lessening the hand of the chassis electronics, taking ‘manual’ control of the gearbox and exploring various other tricks to your heart’s content, none of it skyrockets the drama quotient quite so effectively as peeling back the roof and opening up the sky.
But here’s the drawback: without the panel above your head, you reduce the torsional stiffness of the shell, making the chassis steer less precisely and the suspension work less consistently. To remedy this, you can strengthen the floor and half-moon of the door apertures, but this never fixes the issue entirely and adds weight, as does the mechanism that retracts the roof. You end up with a tubbier, floppier car, which is okay for an Audi A5 Cabriolet but less desirable, you’d think, in an 610kW Ferrari.
The Ferrari in question is the new 296 GTS, which will likely command a premium in Australia over the $570k fixed-top 296 GTB. Word has it that in Maranello they were worried that after the epic aural panto of the naturally aspirated 458 Italia, the blown V8 of the 488 (and subsequently F8) would fail to evoke adequate excitement in the open-air version.
As it happens, they were right to be concerned. That turbo unit did indeed sound a little flat. But now it’s gone, and we know from driving the 296 GTB that Ferrari’s fresh twin-turbo 2.9-litre V6 is really quite tuneful, its sonic spectrum loaded with higher frequencies. It’s natural, too. There are pipes that cleverly channel appealing sounds from pick-ups around the engine bay into the cockpit via a series of valves and resonators but there is nothing man-made about any of it. Roofless GTS duties should suit this engine well.
But first, those compromises. Ferrari’s stated aim with the 296 GTS is to replicate the character of the sensationally good 296 GTB as faithfully as possible. It’s why the double-wishbone suspension in both cars uses exactly the same geometry; why the EPAS calibration is unchanged; and why the damping rates have been tweaked only on account of the Spider’s extra 70kg, rather than to give the car any distinct dynamic. That’s one of the drawbacks: 70kg, plenty of it quite high up in the car’s structure. Rigidity is the other. However, while Ferrari wouldn’t say how close the GTS gets to matching the GTB, it did claim at the launch event a 50 per cent improvement compared with the F8 Spider, which sounds pretty remarkable. As for performance, the GTB and GTS are identical: 0-100km/h in 2.9sec, at least 330km/h flat out.
No surprise, then, that the rear-drive, plug-in hybrid powertrain is also unchanged. That means 481kW comes from the V6 and 122kW is generated by the slim motor between the flywheel and the eight-speed dual-clutch transmission, with its versatile limited-slip differential.
The GTS also employs the GTB’s fiercely complex electronic chassis command centre. This uses data from the steering, throttle and e-diff plus various gyroscopes and sensors to keep the handling as locked down or joyfully adjustable as you like, all in the context of relative safety. For civilised slivers of oversteer on the exits of the bends, you might set the powertrain to Performance and for chassis have the eManettino (that’s the colourful rotary dial on the steering wheel) in CT Off. For maximum attack at Silverstone, you’d go straight for Race on the eManettino and set the powertrain to Qualifying, which is the only way to get all 610kW.
Does ultimate speed matter in the 296 GTS? From the driver’s seat, I’m not sure. Fully unleash it and the car is head-scrambling; unnerving, even, if only when you remind yourself that this is no SF90, with the stabilising effect of a driven front axle. Honestly, 540kW would be more than enough and even 460kW plenty to be getting on with, but 610kW? Pointless, brilliant, and something that even a well-developed frontal lobe will struggle to contend with.
That it doesn’t feel especially risky to extend the 296 GTS speaks to just how supremely well this car absorbs the road beneath it and how homogeneous the handling is, helped by truly world-class traction control and ABS tuning. Having previously experienced the coupe with only the hardcore Assetto Fiorano chassis and aero package (also available on the the GTS), with its race-style Multimatic dampers, I thought the regular set-up could feel clumsily soft, especially in the convertible. But it doesn’t. Truth is that on uneven roads, the unyielding reactivity of the Assetto suspension can unsettle the car, but in the firmer of its two modes, the factory-standard hardware on our GTS proves awesomely polished. Only the worst compressions, taken at outrageous speeds, threaten to bamboozle the car’s body control, which is an uncanny blend of iron-fisted and carefree. It’s perfect for road duties.
It lays the ground for this Ferrari’s defining characteristic, which is simply ‘flow’. There’s no question that a carbon-tubbed McLaren Spider model (any of them) reacts more cleanly on turn-in and feels just a touch more unified in the way both axles carve through your chosen line, but that approach does come with the caveat that those cars can sometimes feel a little too racy. The 296 GTS doesn’t take itself so seriously but still feels delightfully agile and composed. Everything is so nicely matched up: steering, pedal weights, spring and damper rates. It’s an exceptionally confidence-inspiring car, both up to and just beyond the limits of lateral grip. Maybe there’s 5 per cent precision lacking compared with the GTB – a faint inertia on turn-in and an even slighter willingness to push into understeer that isn’t there with the stiffer coupé, perhaps – but that’s about it.
And while we’re on the subject of small margins, of the many extraordinary figures at play with the 296 GTS, how about this one: 0.3sec. This is the fragment of time by which this boulevardier derivative conceived to cater for your inner poseur trails the 488 Pista around the Fiorano circuit. So the 296 GTS is basically as quick as the 260kg-lighter 488 Pista, which is an animal of a track-day supercar. That’s almost incomprehensible, hybrid assistance or not.
The powertrain in the 296 is extraordinarily potent, of course. But what matters more than the mad scope of the power and torque is the style of the delivery, which is pretty sensational on all counts. Open the throttle and you’re treated to unexpectedly sharp powertrain response courtesy of the torque fill provided by the e-motor. Even without it, this powertrain doesn’t really do lazy. Ferrari reckons the responsiveness of this heavily turbocharged V6 is only 15 per cent longer than what you’d achieve from a similarly powerful atmospheric V8 and you can sense that urgency. It builds pressure so quickly too, and when the boost bubble reaches full size, you’re not automatically treated to a frightening spasm of lost traction but still have finesse and linearity on your side, sustained all the way to the 8500rpm redline. There are no gaps, only drive and shape. The counterpoint here is that the 296 GTS can unstick its Michelin Pilot Sport 4S tyres almost at will, if you really want it to.
As for having the roof off, well, it’s great fun. Obviously. It only takes 14 seconds to complete the process and this can be done at up to 50km/h. Once it’s down, you’re reasonably well shielded from wind buffeting so long as you keep the windows up. However, arguably the most satisfying arrangement is to have the roof up but the impressively wide rear screen retracted, which you can’t do in the coupe. This brings you so much closer to the engine, with its pneumatic gasps and hisses when you’re coming off part-throttle and its more histrionic traits when you push the perfectly weighted accelerator as flat to the floor as you dare. It’s a lovely halfway house, and weirdly pacifying when the GTS is in electric mode too.
So is the GTS the Ferrari 296 to have? Well, for those who drive only on the road, I don’t think there’s any meaningful reason to favour the GTB because its drop-top twin is every bit as quick and precise as you’d ever need. As for 296 GTS versus the rest, the pricing puts it up against not only the upcoming McLaren Artura Spider (also PHEV) but also that car’s megastar older sibling, the sublimely communicative 720S Spider. Now that’s a hard call. Maybe the pretty Ferrari still edges it. It’s just so fun-loving and cohesive, and its breadth is astounding. Sounds sweeter, too. Nonsense? Yes, but nonsense as an art form.
Any concerns that chopping the roof off the Ferrari 296 might dent the excitement it can generate disappear the first time you make the most of that 610kW output. In terms of speed, sophistication and refinement, the 296 Spider remains an incredible piece of engineering. That it also maintains the theatre and thrills of the great Ferraris sends it right towards the top of the supercar pile.