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

25 Oct, 2020 John Mendoza No Comments


It’s a defining moment in any blessed auto enthusiast’s life: the first time they get to stab at the big, red Engine Start button on a Ferrari and take it for a drive. I still remember my first time fondly, and if you’ve ever had the pleasure of doing so yourself, I imagine it’s a moment that is similarly revered. 

If so, cherish that moment, because if the 2021 Ferrari Roma is any indication, it’s a simple action that is now obsolete. You see, the Roma doesn’t have a big, red Engine Start button. It doesn’t have a button to start the engine at all, done away with in favor of a new steering wheel riddled with capacitive touch-sensitive pads. That, as it turns out, is not only a bit sad, it’s a big mistake. 

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

It’s also among the most svelte and, in my humble opinion, perhaps the best looking of the modern Ferraris. It’s certainly the most distinctive, with a sharp, low nose and a pair of headlights squinting out on either end of a unique, body-colored grille that’s a matrix of ever-widening holes.

The rear, though, is even more of a departure from prior Ferraris. It’s understated and a bit plain compared to the nose but punctuated by four, smallish taillights integrated into a diminutive spoiler. Only the quad exhaust pipes and the oversized, raw carbon diffuser are typical Ferrari. Well, and the prancing horse badging.

2020 Ferrari Roma

Not your 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. The Roma has the same abbreviated two-plus-two layout as the Portofino — that is to say it’ll seat two with comfort and an additional two with discomfort — but despite those cars sharing a platform and an engine, there’s more different here than there is similar. So much so that it’s hard to know where to begin, but I’ll start with the new infotainment system, which looks like a chonky tablet wedged between the seats. It’s not dissimilar in size and placement from what you might expect in a McLaren, its functions primarily for HVAC and also multimedia. This means the passenger can actually cue up some tunes, something that isn’t so easy to do in the F8 Tributo, for example. 

Beneath that screen rests a gear selector that’s cheekily styled to look like a gated shifter of yore, but is actually a row of three switches used to activate reverse and to switch between manual and automatic shifting. This is the same design found on Ferrari’s other new car, the SF90 Stradale. Appropriate, since the Roma and the SF90 share a transmission. It’s an eight-speed, dual-clutch unit that’s lighter than the seven-speed unit found in the Portofino.

The engine, though, is the same basic lump. Ferrari’s 3.9-liter, twin-turbocharged 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 exclusively driving the rear wheels.

Those wheels are situated just as far apart as they are on the Portofino, but the Roma is almost three inches longer and about two inches wider. Crucially, it’s also some 200 pounds lighter, weighing 3,461 pounds. All this conspires to create a car that is somehow comfortable and touring-friendly yet sprightly and nimble.

On the highway, the Roma is quite comfortable, its ride more pleasantly damped than you’d expect given the ultralow-profile 245/35ZR20 front and 285/35ZR20 rear tires. Likewise, the steering isn’t quite so manic as that of the F8 and even the brake pedal has a relatively long, easy-to-modulate throw that makes tootling through stop lights a nausea-free affair for your passengers. There’s a generous amount of headroom, a decent-sized trunk and really only a bit of a droning exhaust note mars the touring experience here. The Roma gives up nothing compared to more touring-focused sports cars like the Aston Martin DB11, for example.

2020 Ferrari Roma

There’s even a decent trunk.


Tim Stevens/Roadshow

This is even a Ferrari with a modicum of active safety features, including adaptive cruise control and a lane-departure warning system. Mind you, there’s no active lane-keep assist here, just an obnoxious beep whenever you stray anywhere near the lines at the edge of your lane, something you might be apt to do when driving a new Ferrari on a twisty road. “So, just disable the system,” I hear you saying, but there’s a problem: You can’t do that while you’re moving. You need to stop the car before you can gain access to the various menus required to do such a thing.

And that takes me to the worst part of this car: the interface. The Roma borrows the same capacitive-touch steering wheel found in the SF90. Usually, when a more attainable Ferrari shares a wheel with a racier one it’s a positive thing, a standout touchpoint that makes it feel more special. Here, that touchpoint has the makings of a disaster movie.

This new wheel takes the same approach as other modern Ferraris, cramming the most important controls all onto the wheel. I really like how this works in other cars, like the F8 or 488 before it. But I hate how it’s done here. Many of the formerly tactile controls have been replaced by a series of touch-sensitive areas. This covers everything from that engine starter — now accomplished by double-tapping the bottom of the wheel — to scrolling through the car’s various menus.

Some problems are subtle, like the lagging response from the thumb controller that always has me scrolling past the menu item I want. Other problems are more serious, like the placement of the touch control that triggers the in-car voice assistant. Positioned directly beneath the left turn signal, it’s not a question of if you’ll hit this accidentally but rather when and how often. In my approximately six hours spent behind the wheel of the Roma I accidentally triggered the voice assistant eight times. Yes, I counted. 


Tim Stevens/Roadshow

Even at the best of times the integrated voice system is sluggish. I have to say “find me a restaurant” twice, once to toggle over to the navigation interface and a second time to actually search the restaurants. The overall process takes 30 seconds. On my Android phone, the same search takes less than five.

And that irritating lane-keep beeping? The setting to adjust that is buried in a few of those annoying submenus, locked while the car is in motion. Changing the following distance of the adaptive cruise also requires digging a whopping three submenus deep. This is neither easy to do while driving nor intuitive. 

Those menus are displayed on the wide, curved virtual gauge cluster that sits behind the steering wheel and, at first glance, is quite striking. You’ll quickly realize it’s also quite sluggish, the different panes stuttering as they lazily make their way across the display. This is the kind of performance that would be unacceptable on a $200 budget tablet. This is a $200,000 Ferrari. 

Ferrari assures me that a software update is coming before this car will be shipped to customers, and hopefully that will fix the performance-related woes and maybe clean up the menus, too. I don’t see how the company is going to solve the issue of the placement of the voice assistant control, however, without some sort of redesign.

2020 Ferrari Roma

It’s a special thing.


Tim Stevens/Roadshow

Thankfully, there’s one, still physical, control that works exactly as intended: the little red manettino on the steering wheel that cycles through driving modes. I sadly spend a disappointing amount of time in Rain, as much of my experience was in the midst of a torrential downpour, not to mention awful traffic. But when I finally find some clear roads, toggling over through Sport and into Race, the Roma responds just as quickly. 

Though the steering in Race still isn’t as flirty as the company’s more pure sports cars, it’s light and sublimely sharp, the Roma rotating effortlessly and wagging its tail with glee when accelerating out of corners. The transmission, typically sedate, becomes ferociously quick and any doubts about this car’s provenance are immediately erased. 

The Roma is a sublime drive when piloted aggressively and surprisingly sweet when your demands fall more on the touring side. It’s saddled with a fundamentally disappointing control interface, however, that makes the simple act of using your turn signals or adjusting the cruise following distance incredibly frustrating. This is a car that gets the hard stuff right yet sadly gets the easy stuff very, very wrong.



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