California dreamin': The New Ferrari confounds critics – and credit crunch

Why now, of all times, would a maker of very fast and very expensive cars launch a new model? Simple, really. It was planned long before credit started to crunch, and to back out now would render all the research, development and investment wasted. And there's the fact that a certain stratospheric layer of wealth still floats above the squeeze devastating those who are merely rich.

Ferrari has a full order book for its new £143,000 California (named after a now rather valuable 1950s Ferrari), and for most of its other models. Of cancellations there is, surprisingly, little sign, according to chief engineer Amedeo Felisa. What could yet happen is anyone's guess but, meanwhile, the California proves to be a very interesting car.

For a start, it's a coupé-cabriolet. "Shame!" cry the Ferrari purists, but the folding aluminium roof is lighter than an F430 Spider's soft top, so it's not as if driving dynamics will be compromised. There's more: it is the first Ferrari with a V8 engine mounted not behind the cabin but in front of it, and the first with the option of that highest tech of transmissions, a seven-speed, double-clutch sequential.

And the 4.3-litre, 460bhp V8 engine, although related to that of the Ferrari F430, now has direct fuel injection. This is a more efficient system than squirting fuel into the intake ports, partly because the cooling effect of the fuel mist lowers the temperature inside the cylinder, and allows more compression before the fuel is ignited. That means a bigger bang, with more energy extracted from the same amount of fuel.

This is the first small sign of Ferrari's pledge to reduce its cars' CO2 output by 40 per cent in the next few years, although the saving here is rather less spectacular. (Just over 300g of the plant kingdom's favourite gas still escapes to the atmosphere via the four stacked, overstyled tailpipes every kilometre, according to official figures.) But what a fabulous sound those grams make! The California's tune isn't quite as savage a scream as an F430's, but there's still a hard-edged, multilayered howl when the V8 is roused, the sort that has you searching for every available tunnel to indulge moments of aural fantasy.

Another particularly good sound effect occurs each time you flick the upshift paddle and trigger an instant but smooth gear change. If you're accelerating with vigour, perhaps in an attempt to emulate the "under four seconds" it takes to reach 62mph from a standstill, you'll hear a little explosion aft. Truly this engine is a living, breathing thing.

All this is best enjoyed with the roof retracted. The conversion from coupé to cabriolet, or vice versa, takes just 14 seconds of electro-hydraulic acrobatics, and the result is a very tidy-looking sports car that still has a good-sized boot despite the roofware hidden within its upper reaches. Perhaps the flanks aren't Ferrari's finest, but the louvres, grooves and curves disguise the tail's necessary bulk effectively.

Yet the California looks good as a coupé, too, with just the few joins in the upper metalwork to give the dual-purpose game away. It's truly two cars in one, and a rousing drive in either guise. There were those who didn't believe this would be the case, the same "purists" who thought the California ugly when the first pictures were released and feared it was a "feminised" Ferrari with the sharp edges and the perceived need for skill removed.

The company, I'm glad to say, has never said as much itself, and there's absolutely no sign of it when you're driving unless you regard a near-perfect transmission, be it in automatic or manual mode, as some kind of dumbing down.

There's a sport setting on the little manettino knob set into the steering wheel, which sharpens the gearshift and accelerator response without spoiling the smoothness. Best to leave it thus set for maximum enjoyment of the California's fabulous mix of crispness in corners, balance in fast bends and suppleness over bumps.

This is the most practical, easiest-to-live-with Ferrari ever. But don't let anyone tell you it's anything less than a proper Ferrari.

The Rivals

Aston Martin V8 Vantage Roadster:

£93,000 Slightly less power at 420bhp, soft top, gorgeous looks, optional paddleshift, a great drive.

Ferrari F430 Spider: £147,705

Dearer than California (coupé version is cheaper), F430 is the archetypal mid-engined 'supercar' Ferrari.

Mercedes-Benz SL63 AMG: £102,075

Biggest V8 here, emits machine-gun throb like Aston, is a very effective coupé-cabriolet.