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Magnificent City, A Sexy Ferrari But Nasty Speed Limits

In my line of business, I’m constantly reminded of my blessings with the opportunity to visit some of the greatest cities in the world, a job perk that I have to admit, is only second to the fact that I sometimes get to do this, from the cockpit of some of the best cars in the world. Claiming no pomp to the matter, I’ll raise my hands and agree that I’m one lucky b*****d. Last April was one of those assignments; visiting Dubai  for the first time with Ferrari. 

Dubai in itself is mesmerisingly buzzing. Unlike the charm of Europe in winter and the gayness of a New Zealand summer, Dubai is a metropolis unlike any other I’ve encountered. To learn from its locals that only two decades ago it was a barren city of dust is quite difficult to swallow. Now in the present, it has become one of the most famous global cities in the world, an epicenter of free trade and modernization. Her downtown scenes are a sight of kingly affluence and wherever you traverse, the mighty shadow of the staggeringly tall Burj Khalifa stands majestically tall to remind all who set foot onto the UAE, that prosperity and wealth belong to those who adapt and progressively change. Ferrari is quite similar in this sense, which made this maiden trip to Dubai to sample a new Ferrari, all the more wondrous.

Even so, when you’re dutifully whisked halfway around the globe to drive a Ferrari, you cant help but expect a certain few things. For one, it has to be a special occasion and this was one for the books: the first-ever Ferrari drive-launch outside of Europe. The thoroughbred in question? Ferrari’s new and extremely gorgeous Portofino. To have a chance to unleash a Prancing Horse out in the open of the UAE’s crown jewel, the city of Dubai, was an epic script being written from the word go. 

A smartphone capture the Burj Khalifa from the Shangri-La Dubai

Ferrari Far East gave us the intimate introduction to Dubai, with a roof-top view of Dubai’s skyline over some delicious dinner and drinks upon our arrival. Witnessing the city’s aesthetics in the night is something I urge every traveler who yearns to quench their wanderlust to do. To say it is spectacular, is a terrible understatement, believe me. Come the morning though, we were in for a real treat: the chance to discover Dubai in Ferrari’s latest drop-top, gorgeous Portofino. I must warn you though, there is a sour after taste to this whole experience but let’s get a few things out of the way shall we?

All of the Portofinos lined up at Shangri-La Dubai just before our flag-off

The Ferrari Portofino is somewhat of a redemptive move by Italy’s most famous name. It might take a lot of Barolo until Ferrari actually come out and say it but, this new Portofino is here to make up for the unintended sins of Ferrari’s California model range, specifically the California T. It was/is a Ferrari range that garnered a whole lot of flack in the wrong direction and this Portofino is somewhat the saviour to Ferrari’s V8 grand touring range. In all honesty though, the California wasn’t a fundamentally bad sports car. It’s just that, considering how Ferrari have positioned itself over the last seven decades as the coveted and exclusive luxury brand, the California was rebelliously friendly to garner a new customer pool, a move that many saw as a shot in the Italian marque’s own hoofs. 

The most noticeable difference about the Ferrari Portofino is where the first impressions matter the most- the looks. As you can see, it is a stunningly beautiful Prancing Horse. As we rolled out from Shangri-La Dubai into the city, it goes without saying that these Portofinos made quite the scene, especially since it was approaching the weekend. In my mind, it’s actually the prettiest looking Ferrari I’ve driven to date, and this includes the manic F12 Berlinetta, the practical GTC4Lusso and the humdinger 812 Superfast. Those are bigger and vastly different Ferraris but just on looks alone, the Portofino is simply sexy.

I was absolutely smitten by its subdued fastback looks, especially from the rear. Under Dubai’s lustrous sunlight, the collective design at the rear is on point. It is of course an accentuation of the California’s design from different angles, especially from the side and certain angles from the front, with a totally new bonnet concept housing new air inlets perched in quite nicely. Pull its hard-top retractable roof back, and you will ditch the California comparison and recognise this Portofino for its own, unique looks.

The roof pulls back in a dramatic 14 seconds, a feat that can be done at up to 20 km/h and in our context, commanded the gaze of downtown Dubai. Against the city’s glass-covered skyline, the Portofino looks so at home. The reason you don’t see many droptop images here however, is because of the unforgiving heat and dust of Dubai during the day. A real pity though, considering how heads immediately turned to look at the Portofino when its roof was stowed away at the back. Still, people were watching us because hey, a pack of Prancing Horses roaming about Dubaiis always a spectacle. Even for the city’s standards, this was a feat.

Our second stop for lunch at the famous Bab Al Shams Desert Resort

Under its newly designed bonnet, sits Ferrari’s award-winning, twin-turbocharged V8 mill, an engine that has now been nominated for the ‘Engine Of The Year’ award three years on the trot, since 2016. Unsurprisingly, the 3.9-litre block has been tuned upwards in horsepower count to give the V8 a total of 600 Italian thoroughbreds. That’s a lot of ponies for an entry-level Ferrari and definitely way more than what the California started off with. So, with a tried-and-tested V8 unassumingly hidden under this beautiful looking sports car, everything was set in motion to reign down on Dubai’s outskirts with Modena’s finest. This, is where the ultimate tragedy cum snag of this experience reared its ugly head.

No, we didn’t test the expensive set of airbags (God-forbid, we never do!) nor did we blaspheme on the moment and put a scratch on the Portofino, no. It’s just that, we got to drive Ferrari’s new Portofino under the worse setting imaginable- way, way under the speed limit. I’m not talking about lawfully-implemented speed limits. I’m talking about Locals-were-driving-faster-than-us-in-their-Prius kind of speed limits. Given, Dubai does have some very strict motorway speed caps (Yup, Lambo patrol cars are real!), considering the population of supercars and sports cars in the city are almost just as much as daily drivers.

It’s inter-state highways are also designed to cut distances short, possibly due to the ridiculous heat (Dubai averages between 39-40 degrees Celsius at some points of the year). As such, you get flat, wide roads to facilitate efficient cross-town/state travelling, and to my mind, this is why Ferrari chose Dubai for the Portofino’s maiden drive-launch outside Italy/Europe, just so that we could stretch it. But for some strange reason, our convoy marshals did not allow it. Imagine a convoy of fully-stoked V8 Prancing Horses, with its sexily-crafted looks, glowing and beaming against the magnificent parched deserts of the UAE… only to be averaging speeds between 50-60 km/h… for almost 5 hours… yes, pure, brutal, tragedy.

There was no real explanation for the over-stringent speed adherence, but had we been doing the speeds we were doing in let’s say, Australia, we would’ve been fined for going too slow. Bar this one snag, taking to Dubai’s desert roads all the way up to places like Bab Al Shams and the Hatta Dam and back down again to the city, is nothing but amazing. Dubai’s outskirts and scenic routes might come off as unseemly to some folk, but Ferrari knew exactly what they were doing when they decided to have this Portofino drive here. The stone-clad mountains in the distance, the dry red rocks and the best part, the flat-even roads, were the perfect setting to unearth Ferrari’s latest V8 stallion. So, how did the Portofino feel like on the wild of Dubai’s desert?

The Ferrari Portofino isn’t heavy metal from the word go. In this case, think of it as a jazz ensemble, with a spark for the odd funk. Despite its upward tuning, it is a controlled stallion with the occasional flair for the wild and daring. This is of course subject to the environment you let the Portofino go off into. Ours was heavily monitored in terms of speed, but we did manage some fun because the symphony between the engine, transmission and tyres are operatic. The Portofino’s new Ferrari-developed software manages the symphony rather well.

A smartphone view from the cockpit of the Ferrari Portofino while out in the deserts of Dubai.

Pounding out of of some nice, low-speed corners en-route to Bab Al Shams made me forget that the Portofino is not a full-blown Ferrari, like its Nearco-like big V12 siblings. The fact that it did feel that way in momentary pockets of speed, means that its got the familiar Ferrari mannerisms. There is a tasteful delivery of its 760Nm of torque through curvy roads. Although we never got to go at full whack, the pick-up on the Portofino is quite early but loses its zing-factor just as quick, because the torque bank cashes out at 3,000 rpm. When you do decide to pull down at its shifters in search of some tasty, aural litany, it’s a performance you should only sample in ‘Sport’ mode. In ‘Comfort’, because of the slight turbo lag from the V8 mill, the exhaust notes don’t sound as eventful.

Our stop at the Hatta Dam proved to be a great location for a nice drop-top photo op.

Although we were given the ‘zero turbo lag’ seminar at the product debriefing back at the Shang earlier, it is present but by a very small window. It’s not a long one to make you grimace in horror but it’s long enough for seasoned drivers to notice. The DCT transmission in the Portofino needs a little tweaking and hopefully, in the Portofino’s sure-to-come limited edition run there will be some improvement. This is why, as the drive progressed, I began to wish for a manual clutch to poke at when shuffling about with the Portofino, just to make things a little more engaging.

I know it sounds absolutely ridiculous; why even think of a manual transmission when you have one of the best DCTs in the business rolling out the horses? It could just be my personal taste, but I put it down to how there’s some clumsiness in how the dual clutch tranny manages the power delivery across its seven gears. It’s not a big problem, but when your supercar costs on the deep end of RM900,000 without taxes, you’re going to be very picky about these things.

The Portofino also comes with a new electric steering system, so things are sharp and accurate from the helm. There is a significant difference between ‘Comfort’ and ‘Sport’ modes where the suspension setup is concerned. It’s way stiffer and more accurate in ‘Sport’ as we learnt on our long drive up to Bab Al Shams, which is a luxury resort akin to an oasis right, smack in the middle of Dubai’s desert. Whereas in ‘Comfort’, it really felt like I was behind a 718 Cayman. I know it sounds preposterous, but I’m actually complementing the Portofino here by making this statement, because at the low-speeds we were averaging, this was a very livable Ferrari. It was comfortable, soft and very relaxed, something you don’t always come across in a Prancing Horse.

Letting the V8 Portofinos have a breather from the scorching UAE heat.

By the time we were done with our day drive with the Portofino, it was time to soak in the whole experience back in Dubai city centre. Winding down at the Ritz-Carlton over dinner and some fine red wine, our group talked about the Portofino’s appeal in general. We understood why it was a balance of subdued and relaxed. The sportscar does come with a 2+2 seating configuration (the rear seats don’t exactly cater for adult use mind you) and it is a comfortable Ferrari, way more than the California in my opinion. It’s a bang on brilliant lifestyle Ferrari though, especially with its name, which takes after the quaint fishing village in the Italian Riviera.

Still, I think that there’s something missing about the Ferrari Portofino in its drive at least. It could be down to how we were being sheriffed by some strict speed limits across Dubai, but even when the roads allowed it, driving this V8 wasn’t spectacular and that’s quite surprising for a brand that almost always delivers with its three S dogma- Style, Status and Speed. It has the style and status by the millions, and to that I say, Amen!. The speed however, well.. I’m going to need to drive this on something like Germany’s Autobahn to really know if it prances like a true Ferrari. Of course, the calculated assumption is that it will be no doubt a thrilling endeavor.

Even so, I’m still thankful for this low-speed saunting around beautiful Dubai in the Portofino. It made me realise that speed and track-like credentials isn’t always a compulsory criteria. In a majestic place like Dubai and the UAE, it actually is spot on to be snuggled in heaps of luxury and have the ability to go topless with your drive at your own fancy. People in Dubai are rich, and I’d imagine that if hey wanted race-track credentials, they’d buy over F1 teams with all their oil money. That’s the epiphany that comes with the Ferrari Portofino, that class and style trump speed and sheer ability any day. But think about this: The Portofino has this effect with just one day under massive speed surveillance. Imagine what it can do on something like the German Autobahn at your own time… yeap, it must be damn well great to be rich no?

Yours truly taking the chance to pose with his assigned white Ferrari Portofino.
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