The Ferrari Roma is a truly good looking car
The unfortunate timing of the Roma’s arrival prevented us from really testing its touring credentials
The original premise was a simple one: a blast across France, from Le Mans back to London after the 24-hour race, in a Ferrari Roma to really test its cross-continent GT credentials under the cover of darkness.
The reality will be a little different. For starters, it stays light much later into the evening than I had envisaged. Well past 10, in fact, in mid-June, with the time difference and starting that far west making the return journey from Le Mans largely one in daylight. Ah.
No bother, though, as the keys to the Roma land in my palm a good 48 hours earlier than expected and I therefore have a whole weekend to enjoy it rather than just for the return leg – which will make for a far more rounded GT experience and a more memorable weekend, even though I already had lofty expectations to begin with.
The Roma was revealed in late 2019 so was tested by Autocar at the height of the pandemic, and this unfortunate timing means we haven’t had the chance to really get to know it.
Perhaps it has been a bit overshadowed, too, by some other headline-grabbing cars from the firm revealed in recent times, including the 986bhp Ferrari SF90 Stradale hybrid hypercar, and the consequential questions about what this would mean for the brand’s core mid-engined supercar. That, it turned out, became a hybrid, too. We’ve recently driven the petrol-electric V6-powered Ferrari 296 GTB and immediately fallen in love with it.
The Roma, on the other hand, uses Ferrari’s wonderfully flexible and high-revving 3.9-litre V8 with 612bhp and 561lb ft. It’s most definitely not simply a coupé version of the still somewhat unloved Portofino, and there’s no electrical element to be found.
Its layout is classic front-engine, rear-wheel drive, and it has the proportions to match. The marketing blurb makes the usual bold statements, but this one is right up there: the Roma is the “most powerful and fun-to-drive mid-front-engined V8 2+2 in Ferrari history. Not forgetting that the concept is underpinned by everyday drivability and superb on-board comfort.
Quite a wide brief. Quite a legacy to live up to. Yet it’s off to a very good start. Isn’t it beautiful? Almost jaw-droppingly so. Parked up against other Ferraris at our base in Le Mans as it so often was, it looked good enough, if a little understated in the company of a brace of SF90s and a red-and-baby-blue (yes, really) 296 GTB. But put it on its own in any other situation and you have, to these eyes at least, the best-looking Ferrari of the modern era.
The proportions are spot on, the lines so simple, and the pearlescent off-white paint just catches the light so perfectly. It’s not an aggressive design, but it’s still a sporty one, and it has the edge in the beauty stakes over anything from Aston Martin.
While I had planned to tackle the return drive in the Roma, I still had to get to Le Mans somehow, and that was by another new arrival from the brand, the Ferrari SF90 Spider. Aside from luggage space about as generous as Ryanair’s allowance and performance that Concorde could relate to, it was surprisingly comfortable and usable on the 400-mile trip. The ride was good, there wasn’t an abundance of road noise and even the seats were quite comfortable for its serious driver’s car brief – certainly enough for two-hour stints at the wheel to not be too tiring.
Although people won’t be cross-shopping the Roma and SF90, the context of my experience in the latter was important for what was to come on my return leg in the former.
Having received the keys on the eve of the 24-hour race, I head off to the La Sarthe circuit to enjoy the wonderful evening twilight and eventual darkness, all while soaking up the atmosphere, starring in the Instagram videos of many a carspotter by the roadside and, yes, joining in the slightly childish revving in the occasional traffic jam when encouraged by said Instagrammers. When an engine sounds this good, and with so many cars going electric, it almost feels like a duty to do so. I frequently oblige, enjoying the interaction of the oversized paddles in the process.
Appetite whetted, I park up at the circuit again the next day, ready to watch the race. The start, and indeed the build-up to it, is some spectacle, before the two Toyota GR010 hypercars streak off into the distance, never to be challenged again – and there are still more than 23 hours to go. It’s more than 30deg C, there’s no cloud cover and limited shade, it’s incredibly busy and it’s hard to get a good vantage point. Woe is me etc.
I will admit that while I love the spectacle and human element of Le Mans, endurance racing isn’t really my bag in terms of sporting spectacle. That said, next year onwards looks to be a far better and closer contest, with works entries from Porsche, Peugeot and Ferrari, ending a 50-year absence to challenge Toyota. That will be then, but this is now, and in lieu of wheel-to-wheel racing, what I really want to stand and see is the cars in the dark. That’s the real unique element of Le Mans: top-rung sports cars appearing only as dancing pairs of headlights. But that’s a good six hours from now.
Luckily, I have the keys to a Roma in my pocket. I have time to kill, and there’s no better thing to kill it with. Part of the appeal of any great GT is driving much farther than you need to for dinner, and in this case I choose Amboise, a good 70 miles down the banks of the beautiful Loire river. Some lazy roads through the countryside will take me there, before a twilight blast on the autoroute to return, with a stomach filled by something other than an overpriced burger and frites.
What follows is one of those drives that I will remember forever. The roads on the way south of Le Mans soon clear of race traffic and take a lovely flow through forests and fields. Turning the still-evocative manettino (this dial making its first appearance in a V8 GT) from Comfort to Sport, I’m rewarded with even sharper responses and blistering but still enjoyable and approachable acceleration, all accompanied by a low, growly, bellowing soundtrack and crisp, rapid shifts from the eight-speed dual-clutch automatic gearbox.
The roads are mainly straight, but the Roma carves through the corners it encounters, with a sharp turn-in, a pointy front end and plenty of grip. It can be playful on the throttle even well within its limits and will happily wiggle its rear on demand should I wish. A mid-engined Ferrari is inevitably sharper, even more involving and more playful, but there’s still so much enjoyment and engagement to be had here in what’s a very approachable car. Can’t all Saturday nights be like this?
I arrive in Amboise with a big smile and leave a couple of hours later still with it, all while plotting a lifestyle change when I’m back in the UK to do this more often – although 70 miles to some water from my place probably would get me to Hayling Island. Still, back to the present and the sun is setting, and I chase it on my way back to Le Mans, where the fast, flat autoroute is almost completely empty.
There’s not too much to learn from such a road, other than what a sumptuous mile-eater the Roma is and how amazing it is at making rapid cross-country progress.
Toll booths are actually a welcome sight, for they allow confirmation of how high-revving this engine is. Peak power arrives at 5750rpm and stays for 1750rpm more until the engine eventually hits its redline, and there’s nothing childish at all about flooring it in second gear away from toll booths, watching the rev-limit indicator flash up on the top of the steering wheel in front of me. I know that there are people who find this gimmicky, but I love it and can’t get enough of it.
All this surprising fun on France’s autoroute network bodes well for the return, albeit with a distance on that memorable evening blast back to Le Mans multiplied by six and plenty of luggage to squeeze in.
Not before watching the race at night, however, which doesn’t disappoint. That part is, thankfully, epic, my favoured viewing spot being opposite the garages on the pit straight so I can watch the buzz of activity, while having the perfect angle to see the cars loading up their outside tyres through the right-hand first turn.
The next day brings the expected Toyota one-two, and 400 miles stand between my bed and the end of a memorable weekend. Clearly you don’t buy any Ferrari for it to primarily be quiet and comfortable, but that the Roma is able to play this role so well is surprising, especially when you’re looking to get home as quickly and with as little fuss as possible, however far away it might be.
My comfortable two-hour stints in the SF90 on the way to Le Mans could easily be four-hour ones in the Roma, considering how much easier again it is to it drive long distances. My bladder or the fuel tank (300 miles between fills is easily achievable) will probably give up before my concentration levels.
A journey that I’ve done plenty of times can, despite the allure, still be a bit of a boring one, but not in the Roma. Not for one second. It’s exciting to sit in, interact with and enjoy, even during the quieter stretches of a trip with a snoozing passenger. If I find myself wishing the miles would go by a bit sooner, I just look at the bright-yellow prancing horse badge on the steering wheel and my smile soon returns.
It’s all rather uneventful on the way back, which is really the point of a GT. The Roma asks so little of me for most of the time and rewards me almost instantaneously when I want to put a broader smile on my face.
It also surprises in ways that you would never really expect. Like how excellent the headlights are (these £2880 active matrix LEDs are one Ferrari option that really is worth the money) and how practical it is. On that latter point, Ferrari officially calls it a 2+ coupé, the plus referring to two little bucket seats in the rear cabin that provide very handy bag storage on the go, in addition to a decently sized boot. Even better, those rear ‘seats’ fold flat, creating a really quite large and usable space that can take more than enough luggage space for two people to have a good few days or more away and still plenty of shopping space.
Niggles? There are a few. Ferrari’s infotainment system continues to baffle. The Roma has a very good configurable 16in high-definition digital instrument display, but it’s let down by clumsy haptic controls on the steering wheel and an 8.4in central touchscreen that looks and feels low-quality and by the end of our trip has given up completely. That would be no great loss, but for it also housing the air-conditioning controls. Luckily, a slim third screen for the passenger allows it to be controlled. And for all that configurability, I’ve never worked out how to display the fuel economy. It’s probably best not to ask.
One thing that automotive journalists are always asked concerns which car would we buy with our own money, given how much we drive. It’s an almost impossible one to answer, especially for someone like me, who doesn’t like being flash, is more than happy to blend in and is therefore drawn to a nice BMW 3 Series or perhaps even a Volkswagen Golf GTI (that’s a Mk7, not the current one, if you’re interested). Such responses aren’t what the person asking either expects or really wants to hear, given how exotic the answer could have been.
But now I know: it’s the Roma. In this colour, too. Maybe that’s due to recency bias and how good the environment I experienced it in was. But I’m not so sure: it’s as good to drive as it is to look at and far more usable than you would ever expect, a box more of us want ticking than we would ever admit, even if money is no object.
While a proper GT, the Roma is still a true Ferrari sports car, one made more versatile than ever and more usable for more of the time. It may have taken us a while, but it’s safe to say that we’ve now got to know it rather well indeed.
When darkness falls at Le Mans
While we didn’t end up doing too much driving at night, the drivers at the Le Mans 24 Hour race most definitely did. Among them was James Calado, who would go on to finish second in his factory AF Corse team’s Ferrari 488 GTE Evo in the GTE Pro class. What’s it like, then?
“It takes three or four laps to get used to,” he tells us on the eve of the race. “We get two practice [sessions] at night, but you miss all your reference points from the daytime. Things seem to be quicker at night; things come up faster at you. But then it becomes second nature. And you really can really smell the barbecues!”
With new reference points for braking zones acquired and tastebuds tingled for the end of your stint, what else do you need?
“You need good lights. There are no lights around the track. Yet the engine feels quicker, there’s cooler air, it feels more comfortable to drive and the tyres last longer, too.”
Used grand tourers
The California is the Ferrari that wasn’t not really a Ferrari, originally destined to be a Maserati until complexity got in the way and made it too pricey for the trident badge. It doesn’t have the best image, then, but it’s a modern era Ferrari at a price starting in the low-£60,000s. It began this new front-engined V8 lineage in 2008.
This isn’t really a GT, much more a front-engined supercar, and a V12 one at that. The 599 served Ferrari from 2006 to 2012 and was perhaps the last of its truly old-school big front-engined V12 supercars, before the F12 Berlinetta and then the 812 Superfast upped the tech considerably. It even spawned – controversially – a GTO version. A 599 can be found for as low as £75,000 now.
The FF of 2011 also packed a V12, plus a couple of firsts: a shooting brake bodystyle and four-wheel drive. It’s a very different Ferrari, then, and one that has aged wonderfully well. Prices have now dipped below £100,000 for the earliest and most-driven examples. It was replaced by the Ferrari GTC4 Lusso, which added an option for a V8 engine as well as the V12.