Jazz legend Miles Davis once said that in music, silence is more important than sound. Ferrari could be said to embody that approach in its cars. Its looks evoke silent awe, and the distinctive sound of its engine is its most unique feature. The Italian company refers to it as “audio-harmonics”. Sitting between a high-pitched whine and a throaty rumble, it combines both fury and finesse, rising and falling as the car is driven. What would happen to the audio-harmonics was the biggest question when Ferrari announced it would be making a V-6 electric hybrid car, the 296 GTB. Would the Ferrari Sound be compromised? The good news, after driving one, is that the electric engine sounds every bit as beautiful.
Today, hybrid and electric motors have levelled the playing field between premium luxury cars and high-performance sports cars, but the million-dollar question is what happens to supercars, which combine speed, performance and luxury, when their ICE-engineering advantage is taken away.
For Ferrari, which has been the mainstay of pure sports car performance, given its pedigree and multiple F1 wins, nothing has changed. The new 296 GTB (Gran Turismo Berlinetta) reinforces that with its looks, combining sex appeal with futuristic engineering and technical dynamics. The design is all curves and aerodynamic scoops in midnight blue as opposed to the Ferrari red. It’s got a shorter wheelbase, a body that seems like it’s been carved from a single block, and a novel engine compartment under transparent 3D glass. The rear has enclosed lights and an integrated spoiler, and is much more fluid and elongated than its counterparts. The headlights are sharper and more jewel-like, a break from the past when they resembled tear drops, and are located next to the air-intakes for the brakes.
Step inside the cockpit of 296GTB whose doors open scissors-style and the driver is enveloped in sumptuous Alcantara and leather, minimalist blends of chrome and plastic, and an all-digital interface and screen that was first seen in the Ferrari SF 90 Stradale. Not for a millisecond does the inside feel cluttered, confusing or intimidating. Small and narrow as the seats are, they are large enough to accommodate passengers who are reasonably fit.
The steering wheel crafted in refined leather smooth enough to be used for Mont Blanc briefcases rests on paddle shifters (an F1-derived feature) and has a bright yellow Prancing Horse logo in the centre. All around are a dozen or so controls that are smartly spaced out and easy to read. For the uninitiated, who look for a start-stop button, it will be at 6 o’clock on the steering wheel itself.
The V-6 hybrid engine requires charging when not being driven, and while this is the first time Ferrari has gone so small and slashed weight, it’s not been short-changed on power or performance. Surprisingly, it manages to churn out a heart-beat accelerating 800-plus bhp. That’s more than the Lamborghini Huracan, which touts 600 bhp to power its drive. Styled as a coupe with two doors, the rear-wheel drive 296 GTB features a three-litre engine that may not seem like it can perform until driven. In hybrid electric mode, one can go as fast as 135 kmph, and in ICE-mode, up to a max of 330 kmph. Its hybrid nature means the fuel-conscious consumer will get an average mileage-efficiency of around 15 kilometres per litre.
To the powertrain: One can make the 296 GTB run as an EV, which is really the point of being a hybrid, as it gives you that zero-emission edge in cities where it’s needed.
The hybrid mode is for normal everyday driving, and the other ICE-modes allow you to give you all the power and drivability while letting the battery run out. Start up the 296 GTB and it rumbles to life and feels connected to the asphalt with glue-like traction. Its steering is thick but like a squash racket, a harkening to Italian craftsmanship that constantly looks to blend form with function. On the road, even the early acceleration silences any doubts regarding performance. It’s surprising and powerful but never terrifying like some older sports cars.
The balance in handling is superb as is the controllability. Look at a lane and you’re there, think of pulling into a corner and it’s easier done than considered, and it does all that with rock-solid grounding and ample power to boot. There’s no rolling or pitching or feeling of instability. On the straights, the 296 bursts smoothly into action, gliding like the roads are made of ice. Is it the Prancing Horse logo, the V6-800 hp engine or gut-feel that tells me I can race past anything in front of me? It’s all three.
Ferrari is one of the few automotive manufacturers to have a dedicated professional race track for testing. The Pista di Fiorano is a 1.86-mile circuit designed to test a vehicle’s chassis, braking and other capabilities. An aficionado once noted that the difference between Ferraris and every other sports car was this: the others were street cars style, built and tuned to run like Formula 1 cars while Ferraris were Formula 1 cars that were geared up to look and run like everyday street cars. There’s another nuance: all Ferraris are made with unique features that are discontinued in a few years. This makes them collectible as well as unique, even individualistic.
The 296 GTB, one of the 10 cars the Italian brand sells, was launched late last year globally and is likely to remain in production for a couple years before it makes way for other V6 derivatives or goes entirely electric.
As I pulled back into the dealership in Mumbai to return the car, I was told the Ferrari could be heard several miles away, all thanks to those unmistakable harmonics.
As Enzo Ferrari, who founded the company in 1939, once said, “Death will destroy my body, but my creatures will keep on living ever after, in the years to come.”
Pavan Lall is a Mumbai-based journalist and author of Forging Mettle: Nrupender Rao And The Pennar Story.