November 18, 2002
by Jim Kenzie
The Fratelli Maserati would turn in their graves, if they could figure out
what to turn them in for.
To think that the legendary race- and road-car making company they founded in 1914 has fallen into the hands of that upstart Ferrari, their arch race-track rival since the 1930s.
But neither the Maseratis themselves, nor the variety of corporate and individual saviours and charlatans which ran the outfit from 1937 when the Maseratis were forced to relinquish financial control, were ever able to profit from the firm’s heritage, which included Grand Prix wins and championships from the likes of Nuvolari, Fangio and Moss.
Maybe Ferrari, which acquired Maserati in 1997 through their common parent, Fiat, can succeed where the others have failed.
The most recent “new Maserati” took the shape of the 3200 GT coupe, launched in 1998 with the United States market clearly in the mid-term cross-hairs. That car still had Maserati’s own bi-turbo V6 engine, a scary piece of work whose power curve was an all-or-nothing thing.
Three years later, the Spyder convertible arrived, with a shorter wheelbase and a Ferrari-designed and -built, naturally-aspirated 4.2 litre V8.
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This past January, a revised GT coupe with the V8 debuted at the Detroit show. The eight-cylinder Coupe and Spyder are now sold alongside their corporate cousins in most of Ferrari’s North American outlets.
Fear not, Ferrari fanatics – the relative stature of the two famous Italian marques was made clear by Luca de Montezemolo, boss of both companies. “People who can’t afford a Ferrari might be able to get a Maserati and enjoy a similar driving experience,” he said. “I want them to see a car so beautiful that you fall in love with it before you even start the engine.”
Maserati, then, is intended not to cannibalize Ferrari, but to steal sales away from such as the Jaguar XK coupe and convertible, and the Mercedes-Benz SL. In other words, Maseratis are to be “grand touring” machines, not outright sports cars.
The “car so beautiful” theme expressed by de Montezemolo originated with the Giugiaro-designed 3200GT coupe. It was a handsome piece, if perhaps a trifle thick through the middle of the engine bay. Its most controversial detail was the boomerang taillights. Apparently, American focus groups put the end to those, so we get units that look like they could come from any of a variety of mundane family sedans. A shame, really, although the originals weren’t that easy to see from anywhere except directly behind the car.
The interior is conservatively but beautifully styled, and very well finished – especially the gorgeous analogue clock in the centre of the dash. As I know from personal experience, owning Italian cars often means having to apologize for various ergonomic idiocies. Power window switches on the ceiling (a certain mid-’80s Alfa); a driving position requiring arms like a gorilla and feet growing out your knees (any pre-1990 Italian car).
No such worries in the Maserati. Apart from the dead pedal being perhaps too close to the driver, anyone can sit in here and feel right at home. OK, you can’t see the digital read-outs on the instrument cluster or the central Maserati Info Display which monitors audio and HVAC functions when wearing polarized sunglasses, but the Maserati is far from being the only
car with this problem.
The seats are well-shaped, comfortable, and supportive. A fixed pair of hoops behind the passengers’ heads should provide some protection if things go horribly wrong… A wind blocker between these two hoops helps reduce in-cabin turbulence with the top down.
The roof fits snugly when up, and visibility isn’t too bad. But the plastic rear window is a disappointment at this price level.
The top takes about 20 seconds to electrically disappear into a bin in front of the trunk. The spec sheet says 10.6 cubic feet of cargo space remains, but you and your travel pal better pack light.
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That engine is an engineering tour de force, with all the right stuff – alloy block and heads, four valves per cylinder, dual overhead camshafts, variable valve timing, Bosch ME7 3.2 engine management system, and racing-style dry sump lubrication.
They’ve turned the wick up pretty high too – 390 horsepower come galloping out of it at 7,000 r.p.m., just ten fewer than Jaguar gets from the same displacement WITH a supercharger. The Maser is a bit lower on torque than the Jag – 333 lb.-ft. at 4,500, versus 408 lb.-ft. – but it still is excellent for a naturally aspirated engine.
It is a fabulous engine, strong, powerful, smooth, torquey, completely untempermental. Not quite as raucous to listen to as a Ferrari, but an aural treat nonetheless. Maserati claims a 0 – 96 km/h sprint time of 4.9 seconds – that’s plain old fast…
No matter which of the two transmissions you choose, it’ll be mounted en bloc with the rear axle. The aim is improved weight distribution for more predictable handling. You can order a conventional six-speed manual, or what Maserati calls “Cambiocorsa” – as far as my Italian goes (not far), that means “racing change”.
By any other name, it is Ferrari’s F1 paddle shift system, adapted from their Formula One cars. Pull on the paddle located behind the steering wheel’s right side, and you upshift; tug on the left, and you downshift. This is definitely not a manually-shifted automatic like so many cars have today; rather it is a mechanically-shifted manual, complete with automatic clutch. The tuning of the shifts is somewhat softer, more gentle, than in comparable road-going Ferraris, as befits the Maserati’s more genteel nature. The official recommendation is not to try to modulate the throttle in up- or downshifts, that it’s better to let the car do it for you.
No it isn’t; especially in normal, fairly sedate driving, it is smoother if you learn how to release throttle pressure between shifts yourself. But the harder you drive this car, as with Ferraris with this gearbox, the smoother the shifts, which seems counter-intuitive. When you’re coasting to a stop, it’s also fun to listen to the transmission downshift itself through the box, expertly blipping the throttle between each downshift like some sort of mechanical Schumacher…
Punch the Sport button, and the shifting gets more aggressive in a hurry. In all but hard-core sporty driving, I found this mode unacceptably harsh. A third transmission program alternative is fully automatic; it’s still pretty harsh in this mode, but it can be useful if you’re stuck in traffic. There’s a Winter mode which keeps you in a higher gear than usual to reduce
the chance of wheelspin.
Finally, there’s a built-in drag racing function – hold the brake pedal, raise the revs to about six grand, release the brake and hold on – you get a perfect just-enough-wheelspin start to impress the neighbours and awaken the cops. I did not try this, in deference to the 700 km on my test car when I picked it up. Trust me – it does work…
The Sport button also firms up the suspension, but even on the Kabul-by-Night pavement of Montreal, the Maserati still rides very comfortably. The rotten pavement does show that the structure isn’t as rigid as the new Mercedes -Benz SL, but is probably on a par with the
Jaguar XK convertible.
Too bad you can’t have Normal shift mode and Sport suspension mode… The steering is modern-day light, but direct and communicative. The Maserati exhibits more body roll than a Ferrari, but that’s sort of the point. Grip from the giant tires is prodigious, so while the Maserati isn’t supposed to be a blood-and-guts sports car, you can certainly drive it fast
enough to scare your friends and probably yourself too.
With a starting point around $132,000, the Maserati Spyder is far from cheap. But it is a lot less expensive than a Ferrari 360 Modena Spyder. More to the point, if your budget can reach a Mercedes-Benz SL or Jaguar XKR cabriolet, it can probably stretch this far too.
Doing so will put you into a gorgeous car which offers all the luxury, performance, and apparent quality of the competition. But it also offers peerless heritage. And, you won’t see yourself coming down the street every time you pull out of the country club. And isn’t “exclusivity” one of the main things money is supposed to buy?
Thanks to Ferrari Quebec in Montreal for the loan of the Maserati Spyder.