2023 Ferrari 296 GTS | PH Review

2023 Ferrari 296 GTS | PH Review

We covered the Porsche 911 GT3 RS recently, and I mention that not because it’s a direct rival to the Ferrari 296 GTS (it isn’t) but because, while I was with the Porsche people, one very high-up official from Stuttgart, who shall remain nameless, said to me, “I think the Ferrari 296 GTB is the most beautiful car in production”. High praise indeed. And whatever you think of the 296’s 250 LM styling cues, when I drove the GTB at the start of the year, I came away thinking it was ridiculously good. I just wasn’t sure I wanted one.

It’s a perverse point, perhaps – but something hadn’t quite clicked. What? Well, I think it was too good. Too perfect. Too efficient at generating mighty amounts of speed, both around corners and in a straight line. All that’s fine on the track, of course, where the only word to describe it is phenomenal. There I could pin the throttle and reach its giddily high limits of grip all the time. It was stupendous fun, with the added bonus being how easy it was to drive at the limit and beyond.

On the road it was different. Holding the throttle open for more than a second or two and reaching its limits of grip there were a pipe dream. And if you tried, a potential nightmare. So the speed you could reach – legally, safely – seemed dispassionate. I just wasn’t scratching the surface, and that, I’m afraid, becomes frustrating; dare I say it, even a bit boring. It’s like Roger Federer playing in a tennis tournament for tots. It never feels stretched. I even had a conversation with one of the engineers about the possibility of massaging some flaws back into these cars, to make them more usable. He seemed to agree, but he may have been humouring me.  

So, I wondered: would the 296 GTS offer a little more real-world drama? Perhaps the odd flaw that meant lower limits, making it more exploitable? As I sat in the press conference that didn’t seem likely. The 296 GTS was designed cheek-by-jowl with its GTB sibling, and I was hearing that it’s just as good at everything. Oh dear. The 2.9-litre twin-turbo V6 still produces 663hp and, on top of that, the plug-in electrical side of the equation still adds another 167hp. So 830hp in total, then, which is still an awful lot.

Next, I pinned my hopes on it being less wieldy, with its heavy metal folding roof. But no. I mean it is heavier, but because the hardtop is made of aluminium not lead, it adds just 60kg. You can add another 5kg for the chassis strengthening, which involves beefed-up A and B pillars and different extrusions underneath. So 65kg, then. Or even 70kg if you go for the Assetto Fiorano pack. Add that to the GTS and it doesn’t get all the same carbon bits that it adds to the GTB: the door cards, for instance, stick with the standard materials. Anyway, is 70kg really going to make much of a dent in the performance and handling? Probably not. 

Unless the centre of gravity is much worse. After all, that weight is very high up. Good news: it is worse, but it’s only raised by 5mm. And the torsional rigidity? That’s as near as damn it the same, they told me, and 30 per cent better than the 488 Spider’s. Even the aero isn’t reduced. It still has the active elements that make the GTB so grounded, including its ‘tea tray’ front wing that guides air to the flat and fiercely contoured underbody. It also has a similar rear wing, which rises from above the back number plate to keep the rear end glued to the ground. The rear deck has been reprofiled, of course, and has ‘nolders’ behind rear seats – a nolder, I learned, is something on a surface that breaks the flow of air – but it’s all just as efficient as the GTB. So peak downforce remains 360kg. Boo.

It has all the GTB’s trick electronics as well, meaning the 296 GTS is also one giant supercomputer. One that is so immensely powerful its processing speed is 35 per cent faster than any other Ferrari road car. It takes information from many sources and uses this to keep everything poised and pointing in the right direction – even if there’s an idiot behind the wheel. The electric power steering, for instance, feeds information to the Side Slip Control, so it can estimate what grip is available. The ABS control works with the brake-by-wire system to maximise the braking effect and stability over any surface. And on top of that, it has the same six-way Chassis Dynamic Sensor (6w-CDS) that appeared on the GTB. That measures the acceleration on three axes, and does the same counting for the rotation, too. It knows everything that’s happening at all times. It even knows that the meaning of life, the universe and everything is 42…probably. But, unlike Deep Thought, while it’s sorting out all the slides, it’s also worked out the question.

But my question remained: “Give me something that’s a bit crap to get excited about, please?” Still nothing. Well, other than it is dog slow. No, that’s not true. The GTS still brushes away 0-62mph in 2.9 seconds. The only negative I heard was Raffaele de Simone, Ferrari’s test driver, reckoning it loses about eight-tenths of a second round a lap of Fiorano. Whoopdy-do. The same ridiculousness on the road beckoned. 

At least something went wrong. As I headed out of Maranello, the sat nav got confused. It kept telling me to go back to the starting point, which I did, and after it was reset that worked perfectly, too. Brilliant. So off I went, on my journey heading east through Emilia-Romagna towards Bologna. To begin with, this was mainly town driving, so I began by popping the roof down – a 14-second operation and all part of the strict testing regime, not showing off – and sticking the car into electric mode. This was odd. Driving along in a Ferrari, with the roof down, in complete silence, but if you’re looking to make discrete progress it’s actually yet another tool in the 296’s amazing armoury. There’s even a reasonable amount of poke in electric mode (the motor delivers 232lb ft), and the 7.45kWh battery has enough reserve to last up to 25km.

The 296 GTS’s brilliance even makes it a damn fine city car. You can see out of it easily – other than at Y junctions, because those nolders get in the way – and it’s fitted with a nose lift system. I didn’t need it, though. The GTS rode the many speed bumps en route perfectly without graunching. Oh, and the ride is perfect – at least in supercar terms. Stick on the ‘Bumpy Road’ mode and it just breezes over imperfections in a manner quite unbecoming of a low-slung performance car. There’s barely any suspension noise, either; that’s been near-perfectly isolated. “This thing’s off the scale in terms of engineering excellence,” I mused, “is there anything it can’t do? 

As it happens, yes. It doesn’t do well for usability. The amount of buttons on the steering wheel is a nonsense. The ‘real’ ones are okay, because you don’t knock those by accident, but you’ll hit the touch-sensitive ones by mistake. When you are trying to hit them they don’t always work, and skipping through menus using the touchpad is way too fiddly. I found the issue quite quickly: the thing the touchpad is mounted to moves, because that’s what steering wheels do. While you’re trying to deal with that oversight and work through the complex menus, another issue springs up: you cannot see the sat nav screen while looking at the menus. So while I was trying to turn on the air scarf, because it was early morning and tad chilly, I missed my turning. To compound that the air scarf didn’t seem to do anything, so I did what I always do in an open-top car when there’s a nip in the air: maxed out the heater. Still, this was good news: some imperfections at last. 

I left the town and hit the Autostrada. This was a good opportunity to see what the 296 GTS is like with the roof down at speed. Annoyingly, pretty perfect. I am tall, so my head is going to be nearer the flow of air than most, but was there much buffeting? Not really. At least not with the windows up and the electrically operated glass panel raised between the seats, stopping the turbulence ruffling my hair. Once I left the Autostrada, I picked up the SS65 heading south to Tuscany, along the Passo della Raticosa and Futa Pass that feature on the Mille Miglia. The stopover for coffee was at Chalet Raticosa, in the shadow of Monte Canda, and in between me and it were the type of squirreling, mountain roads that drop-top Ferraris are made for. And here, the 296 GTS began its ascent – not only in height, but to real-world brilliance. Now that’s my kind of perfection.

For a start, when you put the 296 GTS into Power mode, the engine cuts in and you go from calm silence to the sound of the ‘Piccolo V12’, which is Ferrari’s pet name for its V6. This still has the GTB’s ‘Hot Tube’ tuning system, which pipes the sound behind the driver’s ears, but now, with the roof open, there’s nothing blocking its natural path. McLaren, take note, because this is how a 120-degree V6 turbo hybrid should sound. I’m not saying it’s the best-sounding engine in automotive history, because it isn’t, but with the roof open it’s even more nuanced and interesting than the GTB – and far more tuneful than the Artura. Which makes the GTS more interesting at less interesting speeds.

The Ferrari people said they’d tried to tune out any boominess at low revs – there’s still some below 4,000rpm but it’s not unpleasant. By 5,000 you’re clear of it, and as you move towards 6,000rpm the wailing beings. That’s when it starts to sound like the promised little V12, and it gets better and better until, at 8,500 peak revs, it’s screaming its little lungs out. Find yourself in a tunnel and you just have to do the obviously childish thing. I know you do because I did the childish thing, and the howl bouncing off the tunnel walls was wonderful. I was beaming. For the first time on a public road, at sensible speeds, a 296 was involving me in the drama instead of leaving me on the bench. And that’s when it got better.

It isn’t really any slower than a GTB, we know that, but somehow it seemed a little less intense. Less stupidly fast. Just fast. Maybe that’s a folly. Maybe it just seemed slower because I didn’t feel the need to rag it so much to get a kick. By now I was into the heart of a glorious road that snakes wildly through the Tuscan countryside, and I was revelling in the steering. Still a little light for my taste, but that gives it a delicacy, and there’s no questioning its accuracy and feel.

That lightness, combined with the way the 296 GTS controls its body, makes it shed kilograms. And not just those extra 65kg this GTS is carrying over the GTB. At that point if someone had told me it was a tonne, I would’ve swallowed that as a fact. All because of the way it steers and the way the suspension deals with everything so unflappably; the car seems to float along deftly. It’s quite incredible. The body feels stiff, too. Maybe there’s the hint of shimmy sometimes, but one so slight that it’s possible to question whether your mind is playing tricks.

I arrived at the coffee stop properly pumped. I was fizzing. The 296 was unquestionably a mega thing already, but now, crucially, it’s transcended its technical brilliance and become just brilliant. It’s also achingly pretty. I sat looking at it as I sipped my espresso. There it was, framed by the mountains behind, and I thought its shape was just as organic. Just as dramatic. Speaking of drama, then it started to rain. That’s when I flipped from fizzing with joy to fretting with fear. This was a bump back to reality: the combination of 830hp and wet mountain roads spelt doom.

With the roof now closed I set off, the shiny surface blinking when any sunlight hit it; like a warning sign, flashing to tell me not to push. But I found I couldn’t help myself. The 296 GTS does that to you, by flooding you with confidence even when the road is flooded. Everything feels so wonderfully honed. Take the brakes. How can they feel this good when there’s no mechanical connection plus regen to boot? But they are, so you leave your braking later and later, trusting that the GTS will deliver the grip and bite you need to shed the speed precisely.

Then you turn in and the 296 GTS feels as agile as a fly. Even though the surface is now fully wet the grip and traction remain supreme, too. So I do something stupid. I ease off the traction control. Not fully – I’m not that stupid – but just enough to reduce Deep Thought’s interventions and make this more about me, instead of feeling the torque dulled and the car heading perfectly out of turns as the computers do their thing. And it began dancing around gaily; the rear moving around but in completely manageable, gentle swipes. 830hp, it turns out, isn’t hard to deal with in the rain. And it’s way more fun than when it’s dry because the speeds are a fair amount less dicey.

How’s this benign, wet-weather performance possible? Because, as with everything about the 296 GTS, its driveability is another thing that’s been beautifully rendered. The engine and the electric motor working together seamlessly, like they’ve made a truce over which fuel is better. The accelerator is your friend, not your foe. It plots you a path of traction so adroitly, even in the wet, that you don’t fear the slip; you feel it, then meter it. Job done. The gearbox plays its part. When you’re not ‘on it’, it slurs incongruously like a torque converter, but quicken the pace and it immediately recognises the change in driving style. It sharpens up, chopping through ratios like a butcher’s cleaver with every precise click, click of the perfectly sized paddles sprouting from the column. And it never thumps and breaks traction. It’s so responsive, too. Even when downshifting will push the revs to 8,000rpm, it’s still serving up the gear you’ve asked for obediently.

At the end of the day, the 296 GTB and the GTS are so closely matched that I am still wondering how I shifted so fully from respecting one to falling deeply in love with the other. But that’s the thing about love: it’s more than the sum of its parts. And the GTS is more than the sum of its parts. The performance envelope is still mighty, yet, simply by letting the universe and everything flood in through a gaping hole, it’s instantly more relevant in the real world – even before a downpour. And when the rain comes it does what I’d asked that engineer to do: reduce the limits. But it struck me that because the 296 GTS is so perfectly engineered is the very reason why you can push to reach those limits in tricky conditions. That’s why I left Italy so happy.

Having so often criticised the latest supercars for becoming too fast and fundamentally too capable for the road, the 296 GTS restored my faith, then. Even this latest breed of petrol-electric supercars can still be fun. So if you only ever intend to drive your 296 on the road, there’s no question about it: buy the GTS. Then check the weather forecast. If it says rain, open the roof, dial back the traction control (just a touch), head for the hills and just go have some fun.

Specification | Ferrari 296 GTS

Engine: 2,992cc, V6, twin-turbocharged plug-in hybrid
Transmission: eight-speed dual-clutch auto, rear-wheel drive
Power (hp): 830 @ 8,000rpm (Combined)
Torque (lb ft): 546 @ 6,250rpm (ICE)/ 232 (Electric motor)
0-62mph: 2.9 seconds
Top speed: 205mph
Weight: 1,540kg (dry)
MPG: 43.5
CO2: 153g/km
Price: £278,500

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