Warning: use of the word "zeitgeist" approaching. For the first time in years, perhaps decades, it is the Italians not the Germans, Japanese or French who have captured the automotive zeitgeist. First, Fiat did it with the 500 and now here comes the staggering Ferrari California, unveiled last week.
Let's take the Fiat first. This is the car as celebrity – the defining word of our age. It is a nostalgic, sentimental throwback, like going to a roller disco or listening to Gilbert O'Sullivan. We chuckle when we see one, and they make owners feel better about CO2 emissions (kind of carbon feel-good offsetting). Ownership of a 500 says, I am cool but I don't take myself too seriously, and I need you to like me. Please.
The California reaches out to the remote polar opposite of the 21st century's economic demographic: people so rich that when the fuel runs out, they will be able to insulate their penthouses and fuel their yachts with spare banknotes. They are a new breed of obscenely mega-rich (your Russians, your hedge funders, Chris Evans), who are apparently immune to the vagaries of global economics, and very, very demanding when it comes to their cars. So the California is the first four-seater convertible Ferrari since the Mondial, and the first Ferrari to have a folding hard top and, thus, the first to go head to head with the Peugeot 307cc.
Purists are up in arms, their default setting. A folding hard top adds weight, blunts performance and compromises handling, or at least it is supposed to. But the people at Ferrari haven't made a duff car since the 348. From the 355 onwards, each model has trumped the previous one in terms of technological prowess, performance and handling. And, dare we say, the California looks good with the hood up.
It is unlikely to trouble a Porsche Turbo on a track. However, buyers will be less concerned about razor-sharp performance than they will be about looking cool – out goes the head-banging, race-bred paddle shift, in comes a smoother, Audi TT-style dual clutch system. And, judging by the bustle-style rump, these owners are expected to play golf. Probably on their own courses.
So, what will a California say about its owner? The only thing that's going to matter in the long run: money.