Ferrari 296 GTB review – hurtling on to the new frontier

Ferrari 296 GTB review – hurtling on to the new frontier

It was at the intersection that he caught sight of the car, which was at idle waiting for the light to turn green. He was about five or six, standing on the walkway, one hand holding on to his mother’s as she chatted with another lady, but there was no mistaking what his attention was fully on now, even from 20 metres away.

At green, I made the turn, and the car started moving slowly, parallel in his direction. He looked up at his mother and waved with his free hand, trying to catch her attention, before pointing at the car, a big smile plastered on his face, the type a sleek red projectile on wheels moving within the field of vision is bound to elicit at that age.

The smile turned into surprise as the car glided by silently, missing the raucous tone usually associated with such a form. His gaze remained transfixed even as the car started making slow distance away from him, but the complete lack of any engine note had obviously stymied him – it was by now impossible to discern his expression in the rear mirror, but the telltale sign was there when he stamped his free hand on the back of his head.

Ferrari 296 GTB review – hurtling on to the new frontier

He wasn’t the only one who was caught out that afternoon in Maranello, with quite a few double takes being noted, but his reaction was the most catching. In a town where sonic assaults from revving Prancing Horse engines are rather commonplace, the Ferrari 296 GTB running silently on its all-electric mode stood out for a different reason.

Unless you’re not a car buff, a silent Ferrari takes some getting used to, but it shows the future we’re heading towards, like it or not. Of course, we’re not fully there yet, and so there’s still quite a bit in the way of aural occasion when the brand’s new twin-turbo V6 comes to life, especially at full pelt.

While it doesn’t have the sonorous voicing of the automaker’s larger mills, the F163 has a good tone to it, and it plays loud without ever coming off as brash. As for power, the unit makes 654 hp (663 PS) on its own, and while this is less than the 710 hp (720 PS) coming off the F8 Tributo’s V8, an electric motor capable of delivering 164 hp (167 PS, or 122 kW) and 315 Nm brings total output from the hybrid powertrain to 818 hp (830 PS) at 8,000 rpm and 740 Nm at 6,250 rpm.

Coupled with an eight-speed wet dual-clutch transmission, the same one found on the SF90 Stradale, SF90 Spider, Roma and Portofino M, all that power to the rear wheels is good enough to get the fixed-top 296 from zero to 100 km/h in 2.9 seconds, a 0-200 km/h time of 7.3 seconds and a maximum speed of more than 330 km/h.

While these numbers are not a radical jump from the F8 (the 0-100 km/h time is identical, and the PHEV is just a shade faster into 200 km/h), how the automaker’s second series production plug-in hybrid presents its speed, especially in tighter, twistier terrain, is different. Much of it comes from the assistance of the MGU-K (Motor Generator Unit, Kinetic), which is housed between the engine and the gearbox.

Simply put, the electric motor fills up any blank spots and aids the car’s response to input significantly at lower rpms when pushed, especially under short, repeated load. This was evident on the twistier sections of the Strada Proviciale 26 around Samone during the three-hour drive with the car.

On the motorway, the 296 felt supremely comfortable and hilariously fast when pushed in a straight line, surely enough for many who will own one, but it’s on curvy B-roads – and, we’ll get to that in a bit, on track – where all its pluses come to the fore.

On the SP26, the car displayed plenty of traction, going exactly where it was placed, with the fast, accurate steering providing confidence to push, but what got me wasn’t the grip or the pheonomenal turn-in ability. It was how seamlessly quick the car managed to cover the terrain that was the eye-opener.

The brakes, which haul the 296 up shorter by nearly nine percent compared to the F8, were stupendous, allowing the car to be prod harder – and secured later – before entry. Meanwhile, exits were managed in quicker fashion, the hybrid system providing better transitions by having more speed on call out of the bends through its rapidly accessible torque. The F8 may have a stronger mid-end repertoire, but this one has greater scope and breadth.

It’s not just in tighter dogfighting-type terrain, because the car shows the same propensity on the higher end of the speed spectrum, on track. At Sepang, the 296 showed how fast, sharp and composed it is – again, the brakes were an absolute standout, hauling the car up late with unflappable conviction.

A new ABS evo system, which limits pedal travel without sacrificing efficiency and provides more consistent braking force under repeated heavy braking, works as advertised, because there was zero fade or sponginess.

The 296’s ability to pick up speed rapidly out of corners came to the forefront here, making for excellent threading in terms of flow across a lap, and the soundtrack matched the progression, with the V6 sounding keen to belt it out at higher registers, very invitingly at that. Does it ace the F8? Pretty much, on most counts.

In Italy, such was the buzz of the ‘in late, out quick’ revelation that I ended up spending most of the time around the area instead of the full route, trialling out the different eManettino drive modes. Hybrid mode works well enough, but Performance, which keeps the engine running at all times and juices the battery enough to provide the electric motor necessary assist, proved the choice cut.

Some notes on the 80-cell 7.45 kWh lithium-ion battery, which is similar to the 7.9 kWh battery in the SF90 but has four cells less and is two kg lighter. The unit is said to be able to provide 25 km of all-electric range (similar to the SF90), but this sounds rather optimistic under real world conditions. Then again, I wasn’t really trying to conserve battery energy early on.

On the return journey, I decided to set out to regain as much juice as possible to run the last leg in Maranello on electric mode alone. It takes a while, and the returns aren’t that great from motive power (around 5 km gained from a lot of trying), but it can be done, although it’s hardly likely for anyone owning such a car to want to do so, I’d think. On pure electric power and puttering about in urban surroundings, the 296 feels like your everyday EV, except you’ll always be reminded that you aren’t, being in that cabin.

Speaking about the interior, the design lift from that of the SF90 means the overall presentation is sleeker than the F8’s layout. There’s better flow to the structural arrangement, and there are less jarring bits protruding about, with a cleaner-looking steering wheel to boot. The seats work very well from a comfort and support aspect, as the extended period spent in the driver’s seat on the solo drive showed.

As for the exterior, the form – which marries a host of retro styling cues to plenty of attention to aerodynamics – works, and then some. Design-wise, the car’s front end is much more tapered than the automaker’s previous mid-rear engine V8 models, but it’s the second half of the car that provides the real visual allure.

From imposing flying buttresses and wide wings to the Kamm tail and an engine bay cover with a unique, three-dimensional glass surface, the hard-top 296 has nothing short of a great rear end, especially when taken in from a rear three-quarter viewpoint.

So, with a broad, balanced character, what’s not to like about the 296, then? The “lifeless” element of electrification and the continued reduction of cylindrical elements, perhaps? Distrust is not uncommon when new applications of tech come about. However, time is a great leveller of things. Remember when turbocharging arrived on the 488 GTB back in 2015? The groans were loud, and the sighs plentiful.

Never mind that the new car was faster and infinitely more accessible to a wider range of drivers, because rose-tinted always has its way. Initially, at least. As it turned around, and more swung into the “less effort, better drivability” camp, things settled. After all, there was still a V8 at the back, and it could go plenty fast.

When the F8 Tributo arrived to replace the 488, the format was essentially unchanged – mid-engined V8, with a turbo strapped on, continuity assured. Little did anyone know that demands of the day, which shifted things initially to going blown, would continue to roll and gather pace. Fast forward to now, with current direction having dictated the advent of something like the 296.

Ferrari 296 GTB review – hurtling on to the new frontier

It’s a stunning car, both from a technical and driving viewpoint, very much a directional change from that before it, even if the general wrapping remains identifiable. It’s no bad thing. Armed with a new powertrain, it takes the lessons derived from the car it, well, replaces, and hones it into a faster bullet, one that is arguably more drivable across the entire speed range.

While the 488 – and subsequently, the F8 – introduced new levels of comfort and ride, this one is even more cossetting, and electrification makes it infinitely quieter when it matters. However, all this doesn’t blunt anything, and higher up the performance envelope the car is infinitely sharper and more dynamic on the whole than the F8.

The advent of the 296 and hybrid power shows how the world is moving on. That full electrification is inevitable is inescapable, but as shown with this one, progress towards that doesn’t mean it is dull or boring, even if there is a five-year-old in Italy who at this point in time probably thinks otherwise.

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Anthony Lim

Anthony Lim believes that nothing is better than a good smoke and a car with character, with good handling aspects being top of the prize heap. Having spent more than a decade and a half with an English tabloid daily never being able to grasp the meaning of brevity or being succinct, he wags his tail furiously at the idea of waffling - in greater detail - about cars and all their intrinsic peculiarities here.




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