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Desert Storm: Ferrari Portofino drive in Rajasthan

19th Apr 2019 7:00 am

Can the Prancing Horse be comfortable in the land of the camel? We take the Ferrari Portofino to a remote corner of Rajasthan to find out.

It’s a lovely day with clear blue skies, a refreshing nip in the air and the road ahead is smooth and absolutely empty for miles. These are perfect conditions to drive a fast convertible and that is exactly what Rajasthan offers in the wintry months.

I’m on the outskirts of Jaisalmer and the scarlet red Ferrari Portofino looks surreal against the barren landscape I’m scything through. Is it a fast fish out of water in this arid land? No doubt, the natural habitat for this drop-top Ferrari – named after the touristy fishing village in Italy – is gentle, Mediterranean climes. And it’s for this same reason its predecessor was called the California. But right here, right now, the Portofino feels remarkably at home in the desert. Can we hope for a Ferrari Jaisalmer one day in the future? Well, the name certainly has a nice ring to it!

GETTING REAL

So how easy is it to live with the Portofino in an environment that is typically outside a supercar’s comfort zone? It’s to answer that question that I’m spending three days in this far-flung desert outpost.

The thing is that the Portofino is the most useable Ferrari you can buy today, with a certain versatility and convenience you won’t find in its hard-edged and high-strung stablemates like the 488 and 812. But is it too namby-pamby like its predecessor was? The California, which the Portofino replaces, sold in good numbers (mainly because it was the most-affordable Ferrari) but it won’t go down in history as a great Ferrari. It was a bit too soft and uninvolving, even when it was updated with turbocharging to the California T.

The Portofino’s classical lines don’t offend when set against heritage structures.

The Portofino is a completely new model and has been designed to be a more authentic Ferrari experience than the California, but it’s still the entry-level model and the carmaker has been selling a lot of them by luring first-time buyers. In India, the Portofino, which starts at Rs 3.5 crore before any options, is the brand’s bestselling model and that’s not just because of its price but also due to the much-needed practicality it offers in the Indian environment.

It retains the California’s 2+2 seating and, unlike other Ferraris, you don’t have to tumble down into a pair of low seats; what you get here are high-set, comfy buckets that are surprisingly easy to get in and out of.

The tiny rear seats, however, are better used for carrying a few soft bags rather than people. You get the same folding metal roof, which neatly glides into the boot in a scant 14sec at the press of a button; it’s a convenience we take so much for granted these days.

Not long ago, Ferrari never bothered about anything beyond how its cars drove, so their cabins were typically as stark as a cave. But the brand has come a long way since, because owners these days demand to be pampered on all fronts, and the Portofino has it all.

Cooled and heated seats (pictured above), and a 10.2-inch screen are in tune with new-age Ferrari owners’ demands.

You get cooled and heated seats, a massive 10.2-inch infotainment screen (unheard of in a Ferrari) and a dashboard wrapped in high-quality leather. The steering wheel, lifted from the 488, has too many buttons on it, which is fine in a car that immerses you in a laser-focused driving environment – like on a race track where you don’t want to take your hands off the wheel – but for a car with touring credentials, you want the switchgear and buttons to be more spread out.

A cool feature is the passenger-side touchscreen display – a hefty Rs 7 lakh option but one that’s worth it. It sits above the glovebox and directly in front of the passenger and displays data like RPM, navigation and speed. Your partner won’t have to guess or crane his neck to know how fast you’re going!

CROWD CONTROL

Our base for this drive is the Marriott Resort and Spa in Jaisalmer. It’s a brilliant property that is superbly located just off the Jaisalmer-Jodhpur highway, a mere 2.3km from the famous 800-year-old Jaisalmer Fort – one of the few ‘living’ forts in the world. Coming all the way here, it would be a shame not to see it. But sightseeing in the Portofino? That turned out to be a really bad idea. Driving it in the congested lanes around the fort was the easy bit; it was parking that caused chaos.

The 800-year-old Jaisalmer Fort towers over the Portofino, but the latter is prettier!

A Ferrari in Jaisalmer is as rare as a camel in Maranello, and every time I stopped, the Portofino was surrounded by hordes of selfie-savvy tourists throwing themselves in front of the car to get a shot. There was just no place to park the car safely and I quickly retreated to the security of the Marriott. The next day I did manage to visit the fort and took the easiest way there – in an autorickshaw! 

With the car’s top down, you get that crucial extra bit of visibility and the Portofino is quite easy to manoeuvre through the town centre as long as I keep one eye on the long bonnet and the other on bikers and autorickshaws that dart in front of me. The twin-clutch gearbox in ‘auto’ mode feels a bit hesitant at low speeds – and there’s no creep function, so you have to modulate the throttle and brakes in start-stop driving. This clearly is not the environment the Portofino was designed for and it was time to unleash those horses – 600 of them to be precise.

WHERE CAMELS DARE

Heading to the Sam Dunes on NH53, the Portofino feels mores of a ballistic missile than grand tourer and it’s genuinely hard to drive it slowly. It helps that the roads are simply awesome in this pocket of the country, close to the Pakistan border, and this is thanks to the Border Roads Organisation (BRO) which keeps the roads in superb shape, all year round. It has to. Having an unfriendly neighbour, our border security forces are always on high alert and they need smooth (and pothole-free) roads for rapid deployment of military vehicles. And it’s the kind of roads that the Portofino needs, too.

In selfie-obsessed India, the Portofino is a tourist attraction on wheels.

Traffic thins within 20km of leaving Jaisalmer, and heading west, the road is a smoothly paved ribbon of tarmac cutting through the Thar. There’s nothing but sand on both sides of the road and you can see an oncoming car for miles away. Perfect for maxing out the Portofino.

The 3.9-litre V8 is shared with the 488 but here it’s in a lower state of tune producing ‘only’ 600hp. Given its grand tourer credentials, the focus here is on torque and driveability, not manic power delivery. But with a claimed 0-100kph time of 3.5sec and a top speed of 320kph, performance is nothing short of staggering. Turn the ‘Manettino’ switch to Sport mode, squeeze the long-travel throttle pedal, tug the right paddle for rapid-fire upshifts and the Portofino rockets to the horizon hitting speeds you cannot believe. The vast expanse of the desert shrinks and your focus is fixed on the shimmering road far ahead.

Driving with the roof down is an epic wind-in-your-hair experience that has the intensity of a typhoon at the speeds the Portofino is capable of. The roar of the gorgeous-sounding V8, which revs to 7,500rpm, thunders through the stillness of the desert, scaring away whatever little wildlife there is. The exhaust note is loudest in Sport mode; it sounds more dramatic than any other V8 turbo and is very Ferrari in character.

The big surprise is how pliant and supple the Portofino’s ride is on a bumpy surface and the aplomb
with which it rounds off sharp edges with not more than a firm thud. There’s a ‘Bumpy Road’ setting that softens the dampersto make the ride far from bone-jarring, unlike other supercars,but you do feel it shudder and shimmy over sharp ruts.

Portofino boot good for a couple of small bags.

What makes it eminently useable, though, is its ability to tackle speed breakers – and there were some nastily big ones placed just before and after the few villages that line the road. And in case you’re asking, there’s no lift system to raise the front of the car like in the 488 GTB; but you don’t really need it as there’s sufficient ground clearance here.

Jaisalmer offers surreal views at sunset, but the Portofino is still the best way to soak up the sun.

But has too much ground clearance compromised the handling? The Portofino doesn’t hug the tarmac or dart from corner to corner like a mid-engined car but it gives a huge amount of confidence to hold serious speeds through the handful of long sweepers I encountered. In fact, the steering is a lot more responsive than I expected and a tad too quick off-centre for a car meant for long-distance cruising. I had to keep making constant corrections and a teeny bit of slack around straight-ahead position would have made me work less hard. The upside of that, though, is the accuracy with which you can place the Portofino through bends and the ease with which you can balance it with throttle. There is a tendency for the rear wheels to break traction and shimmy under power, but the handling is so predictable that the overall experience is more fun than scary.

Not an everyday sight, but this practical Ferrari can do it!

Parked at the Sam Dunes, the Portofino that day was a bigger tourist attraction than the dunes themselves. The car’s gorgeous shape, which contrasted nicely against the sand, is true Ferrari
and worthy of the Prancing Horse badge. The long bonnet, sensuous curves and lots of bulges in the right places make it one of the best-looking convertibles around. Can’t think of a better way to soak up the sun.

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