By now it’s pretty obvious that the machines have won, so bow down to our new robot masters. Technology, however, has been seen as a thinner and polluter of the involvement and interaction that sports cars exemplify, a notion that dates back as far as the advent of power steering. In recent years, the list of high-tech aids has grown into a heap: stability control, yaw control, torque-biasing differentials, electric power steering, cable braking, active aerodynamics and hybrid assist. The Ferrari 296GTB has them all and more, while delivering a driving experience as pure and unaltered as its more analogue predecessor. And its hidden intelligence makes piloting this 819bhp part-electric supercar and accessing a high percentage of its towering talents feel almost ridiculously easy.
The biggest news is the arrival of Ferrari’s first road-going V6 since the 246 GT Dino retired in 1974. And since the Dino never officially sported the Cavallino Rampante shield (at least not officially), making it Ferrari’s first V-6-powered tram. The new engine displaces 3.0 liters and uses two turbochargers placed in the V of its widely spaced cylinder banks, 120 degrees apart. Each turbo powers three cylinders, their power demonstrated by the engine’s 654 bhp, which Ferrari says is the highest figure per liter of any production car currently on sale.
Power assist comes from an advanced 164-horsepower axial-flow motor that sits between the V6 and eight-speed dual-clutch transmission. A third clutch can separate the combustion engine from the transmission, allowing the 296GTB to run purely on electricity, although it can only do so for relatively brief periods at speeds of up to 84 mph. The 6.0 kWh battery behind the seats provides an estimated range of 10 miles. Unless locked into its electric drive mode via the steering wheel-mounted selector switch, officially known as the eManettino, the GTB will spark the V-6 to life if anything more than the top thumb of the throttle stroke is used.
Ferrari engineers dubbed the new engine the piccolo V-12 while developing it, and it makes a convincing sounding impression of a 12-cylinder under the kind of heavy use we couldn’t resist giving it, revving at a limiter 8500 rpm with a unbridled enthusiasm. At low revs, there’s no doubt about the boost, with an induction noise like a stream of water, until the exhaust note and mechanical symphony become loud enough to mask it. But the electric motor’s instantaneous response means there’s no noticeable turbo lag – the electric motor actually reduces its contribution slightly as boost pressures increase to keep power delivery as linear as possible.
With the powertrain giving it all, the 296GTB feels just as fast as 819 horsepower would suggest. The new car is slower than the more powerful all-wheel-drive SF90 Stradale that sits above it in the company’s hybrid hierarchy, but only slightly. Acceleration is poor, and we estimate the launch control will deliver a 2.9-second time to 60 mph and a quarter mile in nine. And the 296GTB’s 1:21 lap time at Ferrari’s Circuit Fiorano is just two seconds slower than the Stradale (and 1.5 seconds quicker than the V-8-powered F8 Tributo.)
Despite its extravagant power and rear-wheel drive, this Ferrari, shod in street-grade Michelin Pilot Sport 4S tyres, showed colossal grip on Spanish mountain roads – traction control using variable electric motor regeneration to prevent slipping without the need to wind back the motor. On the tight, dusty Monteblanco circuit near Seville, another GTB fitted with the track-oriented Assetto Fiorano pack and running on Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2 R tires had even better grip but remained benign as its high limits were deliberately exceeded. . Ferrari chief development driver Raffaele de Simone insisted that we experience the 296GTB with its traction control disabled, and the resulting yaw angles were expertly managed by the Side Slip Control system. This car is no harder to drift on a track than a Mazda Miata.
Even among the many other technical highlights, the GTB’s steering and brakes stood out. The rack uses electric assist, but it manages to deliver feedback that feels entirely natural and unfiltered, accurately reporting everything from surface texture changes to slip angles under the toughest use of the track. Power-assisted brakes have done away with the direct hydraulic link between the pedal and the calipers that grip the carbon-ceramic discs, but the weighting and response feels just as true. An active feature adds both the ability to preload the system before hard stops and subtly apply individual brakes to help guide the front end through turns.
The presence of so much technology should probably make the 296GTB seem lacking in emotional engagement, but the reality is anything but. The assist is invisible, helping the car slow down, turn and unleash its enormous power, without diminishing the visceral excitement that comes from unleashing so much sound and fury. It’s not as raw as the V-8-powered F8 Tributo that will come closest to it in the Ferrari hierarchy, but honestly the 296GTB feels no less like an experience.
The most obvious comparison is with Ferrari’s other plug-in hybrid. The 296GTB’s V6 and rear-wheel-drive put it below the 986-hp all-wheel-drive SF90 Stradale; the new car is also 220 pounds lighter, smaller and, in our view, more elegantly proportioned, especially when viewed from the side. The lack of all-wheel drive also means the GTB never suffers from the slight steering corruption that Stradale sometimes gets from its powered front axle. The 296GTB’s $322,986 price tag also makes it nearly $200,000 cheaper. It’s definitely not $200,000 worse.
The 296GTB’s cabin is plenty spacious for a two-seater Ferrari, and there’s even a respectable amount of luggage space in the front trunk. Out back, the glass engine cover shows off both the V-6 and, in a very 2022 twist, the high-voltage orange cables that carry power to the electric motor. Complaints are limited to minor annoyances: a clunky infotainment system and Ferrari’s continued enthusiasm for putting all the switches on the steering wheel. The result is ergonomic confusion, especially with the audio controls, headlight turn signal and windshield washer jostling for space behind the steering wheel. Usability would be enhanced by a few old-fashioned column rods.
The 296GTB is proof that hybridization and the rise in power of high-performance machines are not to be feared. At least not when Ferrari does. It took tremendous effort to make something so complex appear so simple, a digital supercar that manages to feel almost entirely analog. It’s both a technical masterpiece and as thrilling as any Ferrari should be.
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