by Jeremy Clarkson
At first there was only the Toyota Prius. Launched in 1997, it was the first mass-produced car to have both a normal petrol engine and an electric motor and was supposed to be the future. But in essence it was a weak and very ugly vehicle bought by moralists and Uber drivers. I really hated it and couldn’t understand how a car with two engines could promote environmental protection. Especially since the electric motor was powered by batteries of nickel, the export of which causes acid rain, and cobalt, which is mined in Africa usually by ten-year-old slaves. But after 16 years McLaren appeared, which gave a weapon to the ecological mentality and used the electric motor not to save fuel but to make the car faster. Ferrari and Porsche followed suit, and then Formula 1 followed. Now, when I see a hybrid car, I don’t jump to conclusions. All of this brings me to today’s topic. Ferrari’s first proper production hybrid (the SF90 was a limited edition), the 296 GTB. A car that can travel 10 miles (Ferrari says 15), running on electricity alone. This means you can use it in the city when the internal ignition is removed from the urban centers.
Since it’s a Ferrari, I was worried that it would be delivered to the wrong house and then they would take it away after an hour to put three new tires on the wrong axles. Then they wouldn’t bring it back, because the quarter would still be in the garage. Then, I had another worry. The electric motor in a hybrid adds weight. Batteries add weight. The computing power required to tame two drive systems adds weight. Ferrari has always been about light agility. How did he manage to make a hybrid car so light? He did not do it. The car is pleasantly small, but weighs, without oil or fuel, about 1.5 tonnes. It is very heavy. There is another issue. If you trace the family history of this model from the 430 and 355 to the 308, you will see that all of its ancestors had V8 engines. But not this one. Like the original Dino, which was never really a Ferrari, it has a V6 engine with the cylinders spread out like a bicycle. Of course, in the fork of this setup are two turbos and that’s where the electric motor is. So, in total, you have 830 hp. But we’re going with the soft one because superchargers aren’t machines. Electric motors are not machines. They are political scams and I was afraid I would feel that way. I was worried that the sound would be wrong. I was worried that the complexity would be irritating and that even if everything worked, the heavyweight would be a problem. When the car arrived at my house, I burst out laughing. It had a huge blue stripe on the roof and hood. The rear apron was blue and so were the wheels, but the rest of the car was red. It looked really ridiculous. All auto journalists pretend that the new, modern test model they drive is theirs, but they won’t want to test that with this one. Because at every gas station people will burst out laughing. “Look what that fool did to his car.”
I decided that if anyone asked me why I’d spec’d my car like that, I’d say it was James May’s (co-presenter of ‘Top Gear’) and I’d just borrowed it for a few days. And having settled this matter, I begin. I soon had to stop to find my glasses, because the steering wheel was festooned with several buttons, most of which didn’t seem to do anything. I spent quite some time teasing them until the engine stopped. So I gave up and left again. Silently. In electric mode. I was thinking how strange it is to drive such a car and not make any noise when suddenly there was a loud explosion behind my head. Some software had decided the battery was too low or I was going too fast or something and the camera was necessary. This is an issue. In a normal hybrid with a normal, quiet engine, you don’t know what’s giving you power at any given time. But at Ferrari, you know it. There should be a light on the dashboard to warn those with heart problems that Vesuvius will erupt in a few minutes. On a straight, I put the car in Qualify mode, which means all the energy is converted into speed, and I hit the gas and it was going really fast. It was a good speed. I don’t usually like cars that make more than 700bhp because it doesn’t make sense on the road, but this one puts out its power so smoothly and correctly that it makes you smile rather than fear. And the noise is excellent. Apparently, Ferrari engineers think the V6 engine sounds like a small V12 and call it a piccolino (little one). But I’m not sure about that. All I could hear was the exhaust and it sounded like a sad wolf. Then I tried various other modes and saw that none of them suggested that the 296 was a bit “fat”. It felt like a Ferrari and that is the best compliment for a car. The drive system is so good, I still don’t understand why every car manufacturer in the world hasn’t copied it. Then there’s the driving. It’s a bit tiring on country roads but on a boulevard, it runs like it has linear aero discs. Speaking of which, I must say that the trunk is large. You can get in and out easily and the seats are very comfortable. My main issue is the control system. I know it’s important to Ferrari to give drivers an F1 experience, but the control system is very complicated and obviously, the price is too.
The 296 GTB costs 276,600 euros, which is a steep price, but the model I tested had some optional extras, so it would cost almost 412,000. The awful stripe alone costs 16,500 euros. Is it a good car? I still hate hybrids, but thanks to the short-sighted thinking of the government they will be in our lives whether we like it or not. And it’s not the end of the world. Although, in a strange way, it will bring the end closer rather than delay it. It’s a stunning car to look at and drive. The engineers have done a great job hiding the hybrid madness. But it’s there and I know it’s there. That is my problem. Because that’s how I know that Ferrari didn’t build it to be as good as possible, but they built it to be as good as possible in terms of the current political mindset.