2021 Ferrari SF90 Stradale First Drive: We Didn’t See (or Hear) It Coming

When I first learned Ferrari was offering up a plug-in hybrid supercar with hypercar aspirations, I didn’t think much of it. I knew a bit about the sausage-making, and in some ways the SF90 Stradale is yet another update of the F8 Tributo platform, which dates back to the decade-old 458 Italia—and truthfully there’s some circa-2004 F430 marrow and sinew to be found within the new car’s anatomy. I assumed it would be nothing more than a heavier iteration of the same old, Maranello-flavored, mid-engine V-8 supercar with much too much power for anybody’s good. Boy, was I wrong.

How It All Works

Our own European bureau chief, Angus Mackenzie, wrote up an incredibly detailed first look of the SF90 Stradale, which you can read here. I’ll try to stick to the big-picture notes before getting to what it’s like to drive. There’s a comprehensively reworked version of Ferrari’s twin-turbo V-8 behind the passenger compartment. Displacement is up from 3.9 to 4.0 liters, and power rises from 711 to 769 horsepower, along with 590 lb-ft of torque. This engine is mounted remarkably, drastically low to the pavement: The tops of the rear tires are above the cylinder heads. This is possible for two reasons. First, the overall height of the engine has been reduced by 12 percent. Second, there’s a new eight-speed dual-clutch transmission that mounts 15mm lower than the seven-speed version in the F8. Also, there’s no reverse gear, so the smaller, more compact gearbox weighs less.

How can you sell a car with no reverse? Let the electric motors handle backing up. Mounted between the engine and the dual-clutch gearbox lies a compact “pizza motor” (what non-Italians might call a “pancake motor”) good for 157 hp and 196 lb-ft of torque. There are two other motors found in the SF90, one driving each front wheel and making 97 hp and 62 lb-ft of torque apiece. It’s these two motors that handle reverse duty, and although they don’t make a ton of power, the two combined are stout enough to propel the SF90 to speeds up to 85 mph in pure electric mode, spinning only the front wheels. That said, I couldn’t keep the V-8 turned off beyond 77 mph. Still, that’s good. There’s a battery that you plug in to charge, mounted low behind the two seats, and it provides 15 miles of pure-EV driving. Below 130 mph, the engine and all three electric motors power the SF90; above that, the front motors disengage. This means that depending on what you’re up to, the SF90 Stradale can be FWD, AWD, or RWD. That’s nuts.

There are four driving modes selectable via capacitive buttons found on the lower left part of the steering wheel. They are eD (Electric Drive), Hybrid, Performance, and Qualifying. eD is self-explanatory—it prevents the V-8 from firing up unless you run out of juice or exceed the aforementioned 85-mph limit. Hybrid means the SF90 defaults to EV mode, but the gas engine freely starts up when more performance is requested or if the battery is drained and needs to be charged. Performance keeps the V-8 burbling and the battery charged, and it’s probably how most drivers will enjoy their SF90s. Qualifying taps everything for maximum power output, allowing for full power output from the electric motors. This is the quickest, most powerful driving mode, where draining the battery is part of the fun.

The Good Life

A typical use case scenario: You silently roll out of your gated driveway/hangar and make the trip to your favorite canyon road, which is let’s say 8 miles away. The battery shows 7 miles of range left. You pop the SF90 into Performance mode to warm everything up, and hey, look at that—after a few miles of hard driving, the battery’s range has gone back up to full. The gas engine is spinning the three electric motors while also keeping the battery juiced. Into Qualifying mode you go, driving especially hard for a few miles. The battery is drained. Once you tire of limit-handling shenanigans, you drop back into Performance mode to cool things down. By the time you’re at the bottom of the mountain, the battery is nearly fully charged, and you drive home in electric mode, making it back to your villa with 5 miles of range left. The above isn’t marketing bologna. I spent six hours driving the SF90 all over L.A. This is what I experienced while picking up and dropping the car off from Beverly Hills Ferrari.

I need to mention that I did not drive the standard SF90 Stradale. I drove the even sportier and track-focused Assetto Fiorano iteration. Hand Ferrari an additional $56K, and you get a significantly upgraded car. The standard adjustable dampers are replaced by fixed Multimatic shocks. Steel becomes titanium for the springs and exhaust system. The underbody and the door panels are fully carbon fiber. (This all results in a 66-pound weight reduction. Ferrari claims the SF90 weighs 3,454 pounds, which would put Assetto Fiorano models below 3,400 pounds. Emphasis on the word claims. That’s the dry weight; it’s more like 3,650 in the real world.) The carbon-fiber spoiler delivers 858 pounds of downforce at 155 mph. Lastly, the standard tires are replaced with Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2s specially designed for the Assetto Fiorano. These meats are a bit softer of compound, to partially compensate for the Assetto’s stiffer ride. Ferrari says roughly 50 percent of SF90s have been ordered with the Assetto Fiorano specification. One caveat: You cannot spec a front-end lift system on the Assetto Fiorano, which will no doubt turn off some buyers. However, the car rides much taller than others of its ilk. Case in point, I only scraped the lip once.

SF90 Style

As for the design, the SF90 looks like it was born in a wind tunnel, rather than on a someone’s sketchpad. That’s largely because it was. I’ll probably get shot for pointing this out, but Toyota used a similar wind-cheating strategy when styling the fourth-generation Prius. Stare long enough at the SF90’s doors, and you’ll see a line that kicks up at the same angle as a line on the Prius’s rear door. That’s just how air works. Although the SF90 looks 50 to 70 thousand times better than a Prius, I wish this Ferrari had more of the neoclassical presence of the knuckle-bitingly beautiful Roma. However, there are 14 paragraphs in the press release related to aerodynamics. I suppose this is what happens when an F1 manufacturer builds a street car.

What are those 14 paragraphs about? Turns out a lot. Some highlights include the struggle between downforce and aero efficiency. Anything this powerful needs to stick to the ground; but EVs and PHEVs must be slippery. Additionally, the engine, the three electric motors, the battery, the brakes, the fluids—even the passengers—need to be kept cool. Air needs to be moved around in ingenious ways. Additionally, sometimes you want 858 pounds of downforce, and sometimes you don’t. This means you can stall both the front and rear wings. The rear section is particularly trick. The wing is in two sections (one fixed, one on electric actuators) suspended between the rear fenders. In normal driving conditions, air flows over and under both pieces. When downforce is needed, the lower section (a.k.a. the shut-off Gurney flap) drops down to close off the flow underneath and create a totally new tail geometry. It’s so innovative it’s patent-pending.

One of the more surprising parts of driving the SF90 is how long the car stays in eD, or pure electric mode. True, there’s only 15 miles of EV range, though the car can charge itself quickly and easily by burning gas. What I’m talking about, rather, is how long you can drive in a manner that resembles aggressive driving and the gas engine remains switched off. Most performance PHEVs snap the engine to life if you move the accelerator pedal more than a few degrees. Not here. The car even remains in eD going uphill. Again, I saw as fast as 77 mph with nothing but the two front motors spinning the front wheels, and to be fair, at that point the car was on a slight incline. When the SF90 Stradale is in eD mode, it’s a FWD mid-engine supercar.

It’s Remarkably Livable

The SF90 Stradale’s ride is surprisingly good, though the Assetto Fiorano package means there’s no bumpy-road mode. Seeing the phrase “Multimatic dampers” is typically a big red flag for me, as some of history’s worst-riding sports cars (Camaro ZL1 1LE, AMG GT R) are so equipped. But that’s not so here. Likewise, the stiffer titanium springs don’t feel all that stiff. Please don’t get me wrong, this ain’t no Rolls-Royce. It’s just that the SF90 is remarkably civil, living up to the Stradale moniker both in name and function. Furthermore, I’m amazed by how quiet the cabin is and the low volume needed to talk to the person sitting next you. (Copying Bugatti, Ferrari stuck a pro racing driver in the passenger seat whose sole job was to make sure I didn’t turn traction control off—’sup, Patrick.) You’ll be in Hybrid mode most of the time, and for most of that time the gasoline engine is off. Stealing a line from a friend of mine, when running around as a front-wheel-drive EV, the SF90 sounds like a magical spaceship.

When the engine fires up, the reworked 4.0-liter V-8 is sonically thrilling. True, it’s missing the bass notes you’d get from a twin-turbo AMG V-8, the snarl of Aston Martin’s version of AMG’s V-8, or the sizzle of Lamborghini’s naturally aspirated V-10. But the SF90’s gas-fueled powerplant has a sweet bravado to it, a midrange punchiness better than whatever McLaren’s cooking with its 4.0-liter twin-turbo V-8. Not only is the Ferrari V-8 a treat to the ears, but the luscious sound of gasoline being immolated also totally obscures the EV noises. Ferrari’s been rather clever here. Once the V-8 bellows to life, you’d never know you’re driving a plug-in hybrid. Especially in Qualifying mode, pushing the throttle doesn’t give you any hint of battery-powered anything. I’ve not driven a LaFerrari or a McLaren P1, though I have spent a good amount of time in various Porsche 918 Spyders. The 918 feels and sounds like a science experiment compared to the holistic integration of the SF90 Stradale’s powertrain. The experience is nothing but good old Italian V-8 roar, albeit with double the horsepower you’re used to.

Power For Days, Son

Yes, 986 horsepower is bananas. Particularly when you say the number out loud. From behind the wheel, however, the power just plain rocks. The acceleration is predictably brain-melting. Forget 0–60 mph (which Ferrari claims happens in under 2.5 seconds) and instead think about how in 6.7 seconds you’re going 125 mph. One, two, three, four, five, sixish, 125 mph. That’s bonkers, a tick quicker than a McLaren Senna and on par with the old 987-hp Bugatti Veyron 16.4. Did it feel that quick? Yes. Yes, it most certainly did. Also, I’d bet the Assetto Fiorano is quicker still. However, the SF90 felt impossibly controlled, too. In cars like the Senna and the equally quick 765LT or 918 Spyder, a sense of terror arises as you get near redline in third gear. The pace of acceleration isn’t slowing down; in fact it’s increasing as your knuckles whiten. Only modern Bugattis, both Veyrons and Chirons, and now the SF90 Stradale, can do the freaky-quick acceleration trick calmly, without all that bat-out-of-hellness.

As for stopping, the brakes are incredible. Poring over the press release the night before my drive, I saw something about how the SF90 Stradale features Ferrari’s first-ever brake-by-wire system. My expectations sank. Turns out my fears were unfounded. Not only are the massive (15.7-inch front, 14.2-inch rear) carbon-ceramic brakes incredibly effective, but they’re also the best I’ve ever experienced on any Ferrari despite the integration of electric regeneration. First, a car this psychotically quick needs real, big-boy-pants stoppers. Job done. Second, just a smidge of pedal travel perfectly reweights the nose, allowing you to get back on the throttle that much quicker. No wasted energy here. Zing. Moreover, never in a million years would you think that the brakes are by-wire and/or linked to a battery in any way. Brilliant execution.

As leveled up as both the powertrain and the brakes are, what impressed me most of all about the SF90 Assetto Fiorano was its handling. Similar to how Ferrari hid the car’s electric elements vis-a-vis straight-line stuff, it’s damn near impossible to tell that there are two electric motors powering the front wheels in the corners. And the SF90’s steering is as good as a McLaren’s. There’s a reason this is surprising. Woking’s finest all have hydraulic-assist steering, and your typical McLaren is 100 to 200 pounds lighter than the comparable competitor from Ferrari. Example: On our scales, a 711-hp Ferrari F8 Tributo weighs 3,398 pounds, whereas the 711-hp McLaren 720S clocked in at 3,167. Say what you will about McLarens in any other regard; in my experience they have superior steering feel to their prancing-equestrian counterparts. Save for the SF90, which has truly and almost unbelievably phenomenal steering feel.

A True Dream Car

I spent the pandemic driving dream cars. For me, it’s been better than therapy. One car that keeps popping up in my dreams is the Ferrari Roma. There’s a sophistication and a maturity to the Roma absent from Ferrari’s other offerings. The 812 Superfast is a howling madman—rigid, unruly, and decidedly not a GT in the classic sense of the term. The F8 Tributo’s a handful, albeit a lightning-quick one, but by some metrics the opposite of what a driver’s car should be. Then, seemingly out of nowhere comes the lovely, back-to-basics little Roma. Its fingerprint-accumulating interior controls notwithstanding, it’s the Ferrari supercar masquerading as a GT that’s stolen my heart. That out of the way, I’m thrilled to report that the SF90 Stradale flows from this branch of Ferrari DNA. It’s elegant. Yes, this nearly 1,000-hp, AWD, four-motored hypercar is damned elegant. Daily driver? The frunk’s a little small, but yes you can. More important, yes, oh lordy 110 percent yes, you’d want to.

Now comes the weird part. Ferrari is pitching the SF90 Stradale as the successor to the LaFerrari. That’s a big claim to make. Among the cognoscenti, certain Ferraris are holy objects. Supercar enthusiasts see a direct lineage flowing from the 288 GTO to the F40, the F50, the Enzo, and, finally, the LaFerrari. Each of those five incredible cars were limited editions, though admittedly some (273 288 GTOs were built) are rarer than others (there are approximately 1,200 F40s). But here’s the thing, the SF90 is a regular production car. Ferrari will build and sell as many of the $511,295 things as it can. Remember, kids, that’s the base price. As tested? Right around $704,000. Insert low whistle.




The question becomes: Is the SF90 special enough to join the pantheon of really, truly, unquestionably select Fezzas? In terms of performance, this occasionally front-wheel-drive plug-in hybrid beats up on all of them. The SF90 is 0.7 second quicker than the LaFerrari, and more than three seconds better than an Enzo. Will it be fleeter of tire than the upcoming 812 Competizione? Seeing as how the 812 Superfast is already 2.5 seconds off the Stradale’s pace, I’ll guess yeah, 29 extra horsepower and a skosh more aero ain’t gonna cut it. The SF90 is and will remain the quickest-lapping roadgoing Ferrari yet built. Keep in mind, 1:19:00 around Fiorano is the time for the regular car, not the Assetto Fiorano, which is no doubt quicker. So, I dunno. Do Ferrari purists value outright performance, cutting-edge technology, and refined manners over the traditional notion of a wild horse that needs a good breaking in? Time will tell. As for the SF90 Stradale itself, I remained stunned. It’s near magic.

2021 Ferrari SF90 Stradale Assetto Fiorano Specifications
BASE PRICE $511,295
LAYOUT Front- and mid-motor, mid-engine, AWD, 2-pass, 2-door coupe
ENGINE 4.0L/769-hp/590-lb-ft twin-turbo DOHC 32-valve V-8, plus 157-hp/196-lb-ft front & 2 x 97-hp/62-lb-ft rear electric motors
TRANSMISSION 1-speed auto (fr), 8-speed twin-clutch auto (rr)
CURB WEIGHT 3,600 lb (est)
WHEELBASE 104.3 in
L x W x H 185.4 x 77.6 x 46.7 in
0-62 MPH 2.5 sec (mfr est)
EPA FUEL ECON Not yet rated

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