2021 Ferrari Roma first drive review: Good feel, bad touch

It’s a defining moment in the life of any blessed car lover: the first time they stab the big red engine start button on a Ferrari and take it for a spin. I still fondly remember my first time, and if you’ve ever had the pleasure of doing it on your own, I guess it’s an equally revered moment.

If so, cherish that moment, because if the Ferrari Roma 2021 is any indication, it is a simple action that is now obsolete. See, the Roma doesn’t have a big red engine start button. It doesn’t have a button to start the engine at all, eliminated in favor of a new steering wheel filled with touch-sensitive capacitive pads. This, apparently, isn’t just a little sad, it’s a big mistake.

The Roma is the latest model in the Ferrari stable, and it’s also among the cheapest ways – indeed, make it less expensive – to get yourself a ticket to the Scuderia, with a starting price of $ 222,420, including $ 3,750 per destination. (The lovely Blu Corsa example you see pictured here has enough visual and functional options to push its price up to $ 316,240.)

It is also among the leanest and, in my humble opinion, perhaps the most beautiful of modern Ferraris. It is certainly the most distinctive, with a sharp, low nose and a pair of squinting headlights at both ends of a single, body-colored grille, which is an array of increasingly wider holes.

The rear, however, is even more of a departure from previous Ferraris. It’s understated and a bit plain compared to the nose, but punctuated by four tiny taillights integrated into a tiny spoiler. Only the four tailpipes and the oversized raw carbon diffuser are typical of Ferrari. Well, and the Prancing Horse badge.

Ferrari Rome 2020

Not the typical Ferrari interior and a somewhat problematic steering wheel.

Tim Stevens / Roadshow

To see the biggest changes of all, though, you’ll need to sit inside. Roma has the same abbreviated layout two plus two of the Portofino – that is to say it will do two with comfort and two more with discomfort – but despite those cars sharing a platform and engine, there is more difference here than similar. So much so that it’s hard to know where to start, but I’ll start with the new infotainment system, which looks like a large tablet wedged between the seats. It is not dissimilar in size and placement to what one might expect in a McLaren, its functions primarily for HVAC and multimedia as well. This means that the passenger can actually listen to some tunes, which is not that easy to do in F8 Tribute, for example.

Below that screen sits a selector lever that has a cheeky style to look like a gated gearbox of yesteryear, but is actually a row of three switches used to engage reverse and to shift from manual to automatic. This is the same design found on Ferrari’s other new car, the SF90 Street. Appropriate, since Roma and SF90 share a broadcast. It’s an eight-speed dual-clutch unit that’s lighter than the seven-speed unit found in the Portofino.

The engine, however, is the same basic lump. Ferrari’s 3.9-liter twin-turbo V8 produces 612 horsepower and 561 pound-feet of torque in the Roma, which is slightly more than what you get in its other applications and here driving the rear wheels alone.

Those wheels are as far apart as they are on the Portofino, but the Roma is nearly three inches longer and about two inches wider. Basically, it’s also around 200 pounds lighter, weighing in at 3,461 pounds. All of this comes together to create a car that is somehow comfortable and travel-friendly, yet lively and agile.

On the highway, the Roma is comfortable enough, its driving is more pleasantly damped than one would expect, given the ultra-light profile 245 / 35ZR20 tires at the front and 285 / 35ZR20 at the rear. Likewise, the steering isn’t quite as manic as that of the F8 and the brake pedal also has a relatively long, easy-to-modulate throw which makes rattling through the brake lights a nauseous affair for your passengers. There’s a generous amount of head room, a decent-sized trunk, and really just a bit of a buzzing exhaust note ruins the travel experience here. Roma does not give up anything compared to more touristic sports cars like the Aston Martin DB11, for example.

Ferrari Rome 2020

There is also a decent trunk.

Tim Stevens / Roadshow

This is even a Ferrari with a minimum of active safety features, including adaptive cruise control and a lane departure warning system. Mind you, there is no active lane keeping assistance here, just an obnoxious beep every time you stray somewhere near the lines at the edge of your lane, something you might do when you drive a new Ferrari in a winding road. “So, turn off the system,” I hear you say, but there’s a problem: you can’t do it while you’re on the go. You have to stop the car before you can access the various menus required to do such a thing.

And that brings me to the worst part of this machine: the interface. Roma borrows the same capacitive touch wheel found in the SF90. Usually, when a more accessible Ferrari shares a wheel with a sportier one it’s a good thing, an extraordinary point of contact that makes it feel more special. Here, that point of contact has the characteristics of a disaster film.

This new wheel takes the same approach as other modern Ferraris, filling the most important controls all on the wheel. I really like how it works on other cars, like the F8 or the 488 before. But I hate how it’s done here. Many of the previous touch controls have been replaced by a series of touch sensitive areas. This covers everything from starting the engine, now achieved by tapping the bottom of the wheel twice, to scrolling through the car’s various menus.

Some issues are unnoticeable, such as the delayed response from the thumb controller always making me scroll past the menu item I want. Other problems are more serious, such as the positioning of the touch control that activates the voice assistant in the car. Positioned directly below the left turn signal, it’s not a question of whether you will accidentally hit it, but rather when and how often. In my roughly six hours behind the wheel of the Roma, I accidentally activated the voice assistant eight times. Yes, I counted.

Tim Stevens / Roadshow

Even in the best of cases the integrated voice system is slow. I have to say “find me a restaurant” twice, once to go to the navigation interface and once to actually search for restaurants. The whole process takes 30 seconds. On my android phone, the same search takes less than five.

And that annoying lane keeping beep? The setting to adjust that’s buried in some of those annoying submenus, stuck while the car is in motion. Changing the next distance of the adaptive cruise also requires you to dig three submenus deep. This is neither easy to do while driving nor intuitive.

These menus are displayed on the large group of curved virtual gauges that sits behind the steering wheel and, at first glance, is quite striking. You’ll quickly realize it’s pretty slow too, the different tiles stutter as they lazily make their way across the display. This is the kind of performance that would be unacceptable on a budget $ 200 tablet. This is a $ 200,000 Ferrari.

Ferrari assures me that a software update will arrive before this car is shipped to customers, and hopefully this will fix the performance issues and possibly clean up the menus as well. I don’t see how the company will fix the voice assistant control placement problem, however, without some sort of redesign.

Ferrari Rome 2020

It is a special thing.

Tim Stevens / Roadshow

Thankfully, there is one, still physical, that works exactly as intended: the little red knob on the steering wheel that switches through the driving modes. Unfortunately, I spend a disappointing amount of time in the rain, as much of my experience was in the midst of a torrential downpour, not to mention the terrible traffic. But when I finally find free roads, moving from Sport to Race, Roma respond just as quickly.

While the steering in Race is still not as flirty as the company’s purest sports cars, it is light and sublimely sharp, the Roma effortlessly rotates and wags its tail with joy as it accelerates out of corners. The typically quiet transmission becomes ferociously fast and any doubts as to the origin of this car are immediately erased.

Roma is a sublime guide when piloted aggressively and surprisingly smoothly when your demands fall more on the touring side. It features a fundamentally underwhelming control interface, however, which makes the simple act of using the turn signals or adjusting the cruising distance that follows incredibly frustrating. This is a car that solves the hard things but sadly gets the easy things very, very wrong.

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