Ferraris aren’t exactly a dime a dozen (well, unless you’re at Pebble Beach) but if there’s any place where you might expect them to be relatively thick on the ground, it’s the company’s hometown of Maranello, Italy. Yet as I drive through the compact city center in the new Ferrari 296 GTS, I’m getting nothing but dropped jaws and double takes. Surely this can’t be the first time these people have seen a Ferrari.
On second thought, perhaps it’s the first time they’ve seen one without hearing it first.
Just like its hardtopsibling, the Ferrari 296 GTS has a plug-in hybrid powertrain that offers 15 miles of fully electric driving range. It’s definitely a weird brain boggle seeing an exotic Italian convertible making the same sounds as a golf cart, but I love this wild juxtaposition. The future is very cool.
On its own, the 296’s electric motor makes 164 horsepower and 232 pound-feet of torque, which aren’t the sort of headline specs you normally associate with a Ferrari. Still, this is more than enough shove for brisk, silent, low-speed driving on the narrow streets of Maranello. And selecting the 296’s Hybrid setting on the digital Manettino drive mode selector will fire up the internal combustion engine when needed, at which point, wow, are you in for a treat.
Ferrari calls its 2.9-liter twin-turbo V6 “the little V12” largely because of its 120-degree layout and the fact that you can rev it to high heaven, mimicking the sound of an engine with twice as many cylinders. I can kind of hear the similarities, mostly in the V6’s upper register, though it doesn’t quite get the hairs on the back of my neck moving like a true naturally aspirated V12. Even so, kudos to Ferrari for understanding the importance of aural delight with a sports car — even a plug-in hybrid one. The company actually redesigned the 296’s “hot tube” exhaust resonator specifically for the GTS convertible, piping more natural sound into the cabin when the retractable hardtop is closed.
Switch the 296 over to its all-systems-go Qualifying mode and there’s 818 hp and 546 lb-ft of torque at your disposal, which is enough to scoot the 3,396-pound GTS to 60 mph in less than 3 seconds. Heck, even without any hybrid assist, the V6 offers a healthy 654 hp. It’s fantastic. 10 out of 10, no notes.
Performance mode is where the 296 GTS is at its best, keeping the V6 engine alert and using the e-motor for assist as needed. In this setting, the engine and brakes can send supplemental energy back to the battery to recharge it on the go, so if you, I don’t know, drive the bejesus out of the 296 on a scenic Italian mountain pass, you’ll have enough juice to politely toddle through town at a whisper’s volume. No one’s the wiser, despite the “little V12” echoing through the hills.
It’ll come as no surprise that the 296 GTS is great to drive; what Ferrari isn’t? But what impresses me most about this convertible is that it’s so incredibly easy to push. The steering is beautifully weighted and the rear end offers just enough slip to let you have fun in a corner without getting into trouble. Even the brake-by-wire system — an electronic setup that’s fussy on other cars — is perfectly tuned here. The pedal travel is short, there’s a predictable bite point and stopping pressure builds progressively. The harder and faster you drive the 296, the more rewarding it is.
The folding hardtop is operated electronically and takes just 14 seconds to neatly stow behind the cockpit. The small rear window in the roll hoop behind the seats — something Ferrari calls the “flying bridge” — can be raised or lowered depending on how much airflow you want inside the cabin. But even on the freeway with all the windows down, the 296 GTS is pleasant. You could have a conversation with a passenger without needing to shout, and crucially, you can hear turn-by-turn navigation directions clearly without needing to crank the stereo.
You can order the 296 GTS with the same Assetto Fiorano package that’s available on the GTB, but honestly, I wouldn’t. The AF pack adds things like stiffer (and adjustable) Multimatic shock absorbers, carbon fiber exterior appendages that help with downforce and Michelin Pilot Sport cup 2 R summer tires, which aren’t really designed for daily street use. This upgrade might make sense if you plan to routinely track your 296, but if that’s the case, you’re probably buying the GTB coupe. On the GTS convertible, which really lends itself to breezy grand touring, the Assetto Fiorano pack seems like it’d only detract from that open-air bliss.
Convertible top aside, the GTS’ cabin is the same as the GTB, which is great. I love the center console’s low height and the way it doesn’t angle up toward the dash. You can see the expansive footwells right up to the firewall — kind of like a— and this really gives the interior a vastly spacious feeling, despite being quite compact. The seats are mostly comfy, though the bottom cushions are a little flat, but everything inside the GTS is beautifully appointed and great to touch.
The tech inside the 296 GTS is a little overwhelming on startup, I’ll admit, mostly because it’s all managed through what feels like a million controls on the steering wheel. Little pads on the side spokes control the screens that flank the digital tachometer, the lower-left display handles drive modes, the lower-right dial changes the traction control. And all of this is before you get to the various toggles for the headlights, wipers, etc. Even the turn signals are buttons. It’s a lot.
But that’s a small complaint, all things considered. Besides, after an hour or two behind the wheel, you don’t care about things like ergonomics or blind spots or the fact that the 296 GTS costs somewhere in the $350,000 range. This Ferrari is a car that’s surprisingly easy to drive and it’ll charm you right from the start. It doesn’t even need to shout to make a statement. Just ask the folks in Maranello.
Editors’ note: Travel costs related to this story were covered by the manufacturer, which is common in the auto industry. The judgments and opinions of CNET’s staff are our own, and we do not accept paid editorial content.