A couple of years ago, Ars got to spend a rather enjoyable morning with a Ferrari Portofino on a very deserted, very twisty Californian road. It was revelatory, demonstrating that this entry level Ferrari—sometimes unfairly maligned because it has back seats and a retractable hardtop—was capable of delivering the goods in terms of driver engagement. That’s good; you’d hope that even Ferrari’s most affordable road car would be fun to drive.
Now there’s an uprated version, called the Portofino M (for Modificata). This gets a small bump in power and a brand-new eight-speed dual clutch transmission. There’s now a more permissive race mode, too, and that retunes the onboard electronic systems that both flatter and protect the driver. But the Portofino is also supposed to be one of Ferrari’s most versatile vehicles, thanks to those (admittedly rudimentary) back seats and folding hard top. And so the Portofino M—base price $226,000—gains some extra convenience features, including a suite of advanced driver assistance systems and the option to have ventilated seats.
I concluded my 2019 Portofino review praising its handling on that sinuous ribbon of asphalt, but I left my time with the car none the wiser with regards to its ability at more mundane tasks. After all, this is the closest thing Ferrari builds to a daily driver. And evidently, this practicality was on Ferrari’s mind again when it organized the first US drive of the Portofino M. There were no winding mountain roads this time, nor a race track upon which to really push the Modificata to the limite.
Instead, this test would be perhaps harder and probably more relevant to the Ferrari. Ahead of us, miles of mostly straight road stretching out over islands made from long-dead coral and long-distance bridges. At its end, the country’s most-southerly point, and the promise of a house full of six-toed cats. (You are allowed to pet them, but only on their terms and there’s no picking any of them up.) We knew the Portofino M would be able handle a curve, but it was time to see how this grand tourer handled some actual grand touring, trunk full of luggage and all.
More powerful, less polluting
I’m not sure that Enzo Ferrari ever really did say that when you bought one of his cars, you paid for the engine and got the rest thrown in free. It’s certainly not the case these days, but Ferrari’s engines are still able to impress. The company’s 3.9 L V8 has racked up four consecutive International Engine of the Year awards. (Yes, it’s a thing.) The version fitted to the Portofino M now produces 611 hp (455 kW), an increase of 20 hp (15 kW) on the regular Portofino. Torque remains unchanged at 560 lb-ft (760 Nm).
Most of the modifiche made to the engine are to ensure it meets tightening emissions regulations; it now conforms to the European Euro 6d, China’s new 6b standard, and the US Environmental Protection Agency’s Bin 50 standard. All of these place more emphasis on reducing nitrogen oxides and other pollutants—the sooty downsides to fuel-efficient direct injection gasoline engines. To that end, Ferrari has fitted smaller, denser catalytic converters and new gasoline particulate filters.
In the past, stricter emissions regulations usually meant decreased performance, but not now. The new catalysts and particulate filters increase backpressure, costing the engine 22 hp (16 kW) despite the replacement of a traditional silencer with a new exhaust flap. To compensate, there are new valve springs, and lighter hollow valves are used on both intake and exhaust sides. There are new camshaft profiles that increase the amount of valve lift for both intake (by 1.1 mm) and exhaust (by 1 mm) valves, as well. Ferrari has fitted the turbochargers with speed sensors, which it says have increased the speed at which the turbines can rotate by an extra 5,000 rpm.
A more significant change is the new dual clutch transmission. This now packs eight gears, rather than seven, and it’s related to the one fitted to the SF90 Stradale but with longer gear ratios (and a reverse gear, unlike the hybrid SF90 which uses its electric motor to go backwards). The wet clutch module is smaller but able to cope with 35 percent more torque, up to a maximum of 855 lb-ft (1,200 Nm) of dynamic torque when changing gears.
The engine actually restricts its torque in the lower gears, and it only produces the full 560 lb-ft when in seventh or eighth—not something we put to the test on Highway 1. Ferrari also says that the new transmission is 15 percent faster on full-throttle upshifts and 21 percent quicker on heavy braking downshifts than the seven speed in the regular Portofino. The new transmission has reduced energy losses under the WLTP testing cycle by 23 percent and CO2 emissions by 6 percent compared to the seven speed car. So, despite that bump in power, fuel efficiency is increased slightly at a combined 19 mpg (12.4 L/100km).
Side Slip Control is probably smarter than you
Mastering a Ferrari from the olden days was a physical and mechanical challenge. A Daytona might have been the fastest thing on sale in its day, but contemporaneous accounts describe its heavy, unassisted steering as truck-like. Gears may have been selected manually by guiding a ball-topped lever through open gates, but a strong left leg was often necessary to work the clutch. Woe betide the driver who attempted to select second gear before everything was thoroughly warmed.
A 21st century Ferrari is a much more electronic experience, born out of the company’s halcyon time in Formula 1 with Michael Schumacher. Now, electronic systems govern the steering, the dampers, the traction control, the stability control, the rear differential, the brakes, the engine, and the transmission. Another layer on top, called Side Slip Control, coordinates it all.
You control this via the Manettino, the red anodized switch on the steering wheel. Wet mode has the tightest reins, with different systems becoming more permissive as you move through Comfort, Sport, and Race. ESC-off disables everything other than the antilock brakes and the electronically controlled rear differential. The Portofino M has a new subsystem called the Ferrari Dynamic Enhancer. This adjusts brake pressure on each wheel independently, but only when you’re in Race Mode, making “the car’s lateral dynamics more predictable through and exiting corners.”
I’ll have to take Ferrari’s word for that, for the roads of the Florida Keys were not really conducive to exploring the performance envelope. In Wet or Comfort, the car really is docile, with plenty of throttle travel, and you can leave the transmission in automatic and it will run up through the gears to keep your revs low in the name of better efficiency. The brief times I ventured into Race Mode—exiting a deserted junction for instance—it was evident how much SSC was clamping down on yaw moments in its less permissive modes. In Race, this car dances sideways just a little with throttle applications, which dials up the excitement despite being perfectly safe.
It might be an oversimplification to compare a modern Ferrari to a negatively stable aircraft like the F-22, where the flight control computers are in charge of translating the pilot’s wishes into something aerodynamically possible. But, that’s the comparison that comes to mind. The only difference? Here, the goal is not to shoot down an opponent but to protect or flatter the driver, depending on the mode.