In pursuit of the best driving roads, we drive a hybrid 830hp Ferrari to Himachal.
Published On Aug 07, 2023 05:30:00 PM
Chandigarh Airport, 11:15am. We wait for our bags. I get a message that the car is only 15 minutes out; perfect. Put on a car carrier by the good people at Ferrari New Delhi, the Rosso Imola 296 GTS actually gets to our meeting point before we do. Before we know it, a flash mob appears and everyone has their phone out. Looking at the world like a piece of automotive art sitting on an elevated plinth, one thing’s for sure: Ferrari has got its styling act together. No one asks what car it is, though; everyone knows the Prancing Horse.
Controlled aggression is what works best on the relatively tight ghat sections.
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Ferrari 296 GTS: interior and features
Climbing down into the car for the first time, with the crowd milling around, is a bit nerve-racking. The doors don’t open too wide, the seat is practically on the floor and I have to duck under the roof. Can’t immediately tell this is the convertible though; it looks so similar to the GTB.
Buttons for roof and windscreen.
Once I’m seated, the beautifully crafted steering wheel takes pride of place. Finished in carbon fibre and leather, it is just the right size and comes with a relatively thin rim. This helps deliver more feel and feedback when you wind on and off lock. I don’t like the confusing capacitive touch buttons and the same goes for the blower controls. The tachometer, however, gets pride of place on the insrtrument screen. Hello, BMW and Mercedes: why can’t you also have digital versions of your much-appreciated traditional dials? I also just love the view over the bulging front fenders.
296 GTS has no central touchsceen.
All set to go, I pull the steering in and adjust the mirrors; but the crowd refuses to move. I guess EV or hybrid mode is too polite. I switch to ‘Performance’, and the engine fires up with a crack and a boom. The crowd parts, and I slip out, chuckling.
Ferrari 296 GTS: urban ride
All heroes need to pass a difficult series of tests or tasks, and here, the 296 GTS faces the first of many. Unlike the Ferraris of yesteryear, which were only designed with European or American roads and conditions in mind, modern Ferraris are made to be driven just about anywhere. Be in no doubt, driving an 830hp rocketship in stop-start traffic is a huge challenge, but an electronic throttle and adaptive software mean getting on and off the gas doesn’t cause the 296 GTS to rear or buck, and what smoothens things out further is that brake-by-wire tech allows the Ferrari to provide you a relaxed and easy brake pedal. Even the twin-clutch gearbox gets into the Lotus Position when it senses low-speed running. And I absolutely love that the 296 has sufficient space around the pedals. I clearly remember having to drive a Ferrari 348 from the ’90s in my socks; my shoes just wouldn’t fit.
Traffic is always nerve-racking, but at least the 296 GTS is smooth and easy to drive.
Once out of the dense traffic, I point the wedge-shaped nose of the Ferrari towards the highway that leads out of Chandigarh. Conditions are rarely ideal in and around suburbs, however, and many questions pop up in my head. How bad are the roads? Are there any massive speed breakers? And will I keep getting cut off by phone-wielding bikers? The roads are pockmarked and full of potholes, but the 296 sails over them courtesy of Ferrari’s ‘bumpy road’ setting, activated by pressing down on the Manettino switch. The adjustable dampers manage to deliver a supple and absorbent ride, and the 296 GTS rides over Chandigarh’s worst stretches like a comfortable, well-set-up sports sedan; no unnecessary bounce, no kick, no hard thuds. Amazing.
With the nose lift, even XL-size speed brakers are not a problem.
Speed breakers are more of a challenge. This is especially true as many appear suddenly around corners and the nose lift needs more than a couple of seconds to do its thing. Once up, however, the 296 GTS sails over most speed breakers, an angular trajectory only needed for really large ones.
Ferrari 296 GTS: performance
After 30-odd minutes of stop-start and some of the most defensive driving I’ve done in recent memory, we reach the road that leads to the highway. But here too, initially, the going is slow. Fruit vendors, ice cream carts, people selling bottled water clog the left lane. Then, just as I begin to think this will go on forever, traffic thins, the straights become longer, and I can let the Ferrari run free.
Not much buffeting; 830hp needs all your attention.
I select ‘Qualifying’ mode on the steering, where the full complement of 830 horses are sent to the rear wheels, and plant my right foot to the floor. The 296 GTS departs like a leopard exploding out of the cage. The first hit of acceleration is so savage, my head makes contact with the headrest. And as I stay hard on the accelerator, I feel myself getting squeezed increasingly harder into the seat. Massaging seats? Who needs ’em? This physical abuse is accompanied by the manic sound of the 120-degree V6 blaring away behind my ear, charging up the gears with a vengeance that feels unhinged. The first few runs are so intense, my vision starts to blur at the edges. The GTS does 0-200kph in just 7.6 seconds. Count that out, please. So all I’m indulging in are mere five-second bursts at full throttle. But that’s enough to distort reality and get the scenery exploding in colour around me. To get more of that exhaust, I drop the small slot-like rear windshield and let the blare of the engine into the cabin; reminds me of the Ferrari 250LM. And what makes it even more immersive is that the savagery of the acceleration, the crazy blare of the exhaust and the g-forces as I get thrown back, all sync perfectly with every twitch of my right foot.
Ferrari 296 GTS: ride and handling
After a bit, the long straights begin to blend into sweeping uphill curves. And here too, I give the GTS full stick. I go from Sport to Race, which tightens up the chassis and helps point the car into corners. And here the quick steering and the super dynamics help deliver huge gobs of confidence. Braking hard into a long corner, braking hard while in the corner, coming off the brakes and transitioning to the throttle on the way out of a corner, the 296 GTS manages these unbelievably well. And the feel and feedback from the brake pedal is super. You’d think brake by wire would feel wooden and devoid of feel, but nothing could be further from the truth.
Roof takes 14 seconds to drop; can be done on the move under 45kph.
There are a few cars around now, so I let up on the pace. And since we are in the shadow of the mountains and there are few trucks around, I lower the roof as we round some tight and slow corners. The folding hard top takes 14 seconds to pack itself behind the flying buttresses, and what’s neat is that it will even do it on the move below 45kph.
Once the top is down, the driving experience becomes even more immersive. The exhaust gets louder, the whooshes and pops of the turbo blow-off valves can be clearly heard on either side, and then what adds to comfort is that there isn’t too much buffeting. I would have loved to have a louder exhaust, but still, the feeling of driving an open-top car with hypercar performance up a four-lane ghat is priceless. But then comes the rain and it comes down hard. So it’s roof up again; now the 14 seconds feel like 20.
Waiting out the storm made a lot of sense.
It rains so hard, we decide to wait it out; can’t shoot much in these conditions. In fact, the wait is so long we decide to divert to our night halt at the eclectic, minimalist, but still very luxurious Amaya in Kasauli. Situated on a hillside, the cluster of structures is made using cured lime instead of cement, and the connection with nature is so strong, the resort grows all of its own vegetables. It proves to be the perfect antidote to all the insane performance doled out by the 296 GTS.
Ferrari 296 GTS: Himlayan nirvana
The next day, we make the ‘trek’ up to our destination nice and early. Rain is forecast for mid-morning and we don’t want to get rained in again. Conditions, however, are perfect. A cool breeze is blowing, the sky is a shade of blue you only see in enhanced pictures, and the road from Kumarhatti to Nahan, the one we’ve come all this way to drive, is devoid of any traffic. What also makes it so attractive is that it is wide, beautifully surfaced and ducks, loops and dives in between the craggy cliffs and coniferous forest. And the crisp, clean air, tall pine trees and clear vistas make me open up the roof again.
270-degree corner? Yeah, bring it on! The 296 GTS just slays it.
Top-down, I get straight to it. I place the car in Race mode and choose ‘Qualifying’ for the engine and e-motor. The corners are tighter here than on the road coming up yesterday, so the first few minutes are spent going like a bat out of hell on the straight bits and then really standing on the brakes before the corners. And now, every time I place my foot on the throttle, it feels like I’m igniting a rocket motor in the back. The rush as the 296 hurls me from apex to apex initially feels just overwhelming, and the manner in which I’m driving is devoid of rhythm or flow. I need to get my head around the car. Be proactive, not reactive.
So I slow things down in my head, give myself time and space to get on and off the brakes smoothly, and think ahead. This allows me to smoothen out the apexes, get cleaner exits and make full use of the explosive power of the 830 horses, if only briefly. And upping the ante is the 167hp torque-fill from the electric motor, delivered almost instantly, and that makes it feel even more manic.
As the road winds on, I get more in tune with the 296 GTS. I feel my way into corners more, the turn-in feels crisp and accurate, and adding power on the way out also seems to aid directional control.
As I drive better, I also lean less and less on the driver aids. The throttle isn’t being taken away from me quite as much, I don’t feel individual brake calipers nibbling at the discs in an effort to stabilise the car, and as I get smoother, the Side Slip Control (SSC) allows me more leeway. The GTS, however, doesn’t feel quite as sharp or as fluid as the GTB on turn-in, and there is a bit of push from the front wheels before it balances itself out. It does weigh 70kg more than the GTB, after all, and Ferrari only says the GTS is stiffer than its earlier drop top, not how stiff it is compared to the GTB.
Early monsoons result in a lot of landslides.
What amazes me, however, is that juicing the 296 GTS for everything it has doesn’t feel intimidating, and that, to some extent, is down to some of the electronic driver aids. New hardware includes a 6-way Chassis Dynamic Sensor (6w-CDS) – a world’s first for the automotive sector. There’s also ABS Evo for the brake by wire system that feeds off data from the 6w-CDS and allows the driver to trail brake, and then there’s the latest version of Ferrari’s award-winning SSC.
Ferrari 296 GTS: verdict
It’s more thrilling than a rollercoaster ride, and the crazy bit is you are in charge.
What our drive up to the Himalayan foothills has proven is that despite their exotic nature and low-slung form, modern-day Ferraris can be used and driven out to some really amazing roads. Sure, there are places you need to avoid and conditions in other places are still a bit of a mixed bag. Still, with prior information on road conditions, access to good support and some careful driving, you can bring both great cars and great roads together. Isn’t that what it’s all about? Ferrari’s 296 GTS is certainly right up there when it comes to drop tops. What with its hypercar pace, its ability to tackle everyday roads and that mechanised roof that adds huge charm, it’s practically every supercar you want rolled into one.
Location Credits: Amaya Kasauli
|FERRARI 296 GTS|
|Price||Rs 6.24 crore Ex-showroom India|
|Powertrain||V6, 2922cc, turbo-petrol + e-motor|
|Max engine RPM||8500rpm|
|Gearbox||8-speed dual-clutch auto|
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