Wheels: Four Score

Maseratis are probably the prettiest, nimblest, and most enjoyable little cars that American buyers have never considered. Shame on us, for any Maserati carries a competition lineage that, over a four-decade span, is peerless. From the 1920s through the ’60s, legends Nuvolari, Shaw, Fangio, Moss, Hawthorne, and Gurney earned countless victories on the world’s grand prix circuits driving Maseratis.

Today, no high-performance luxury sports car can compete squarely and fairly with the slick but snubbed-butt Maserati Spyder roadster, the better-looking 3200 GT Coupe, or the lavishly handsome Quattroporte, which will be arriving in the United States later this year. All sell for about $90,000 yet deliver much of the pure dash and clean elegance, if not the same aura and handcraftsmanship, of Ferraris costing twice as much. But this should be expected now that Maseratis are designed and built by Ferrari. They have been since 1997, when Ferrari acquired its former rival so that Maseratis could serve as stepping-stones to its own richer and redder machines. You know, buy a Tudor Submariner until you can afford a Rolex Submariner, because they appear the same and offer similar precision.

Yet despite all of its promise and pedigree, and two years of prodding and promoting purchases of its Spyder and Coupe, Maserati remains a miniature on the American scene, and its scant image is not difficult to explain. The blunt-force traumas of the September 11 attacks and a recession inspired a new sense of what was relevant and, for some, rendered luxury purchases irrelevant. These catastrophes, and the soul-searching that followed, formed a devastating coincidence with Maserati’s introduction of its new cars to the American market. Bear in mind, too, that this is the same market from which the Italian company, under the earlier mismanagement of De Tomaso and Chrysler, was dishonorably discharged in 1989 for trying to lumber Americans with shoddy hybrids and shade-tree service.

Maserati’s production continues to fall short of projections. Indeed, Chevrolet builds and sells more Corvettes in a week than Maserati sends to America in a year, and there are more states in the Union than there are U.S. Maserati dealers. “The reality is that we have only been in the United States for two years, and overcoming the past is taking a little longer than we thought,” says a Maserati executive who will be granted anonymity to protect his job security. Translation: We didn’t figure on America not adoring the reborn Maseratis at first sight. “We still don’t have a realistic marketing budget,” the executive adds. “We could add two more zeros on to our existing budget and still not be close to what we really need.”


Other Maserati officials rephrase a line from The Tempest, insisting that the recent past is not necessarily a prologue. They say that cautious production is vital to establishing exclusivity and maintaining a tight grip on quality control, and that it is better to take this conservative stance than again sour a critical but gun-shy market. (Maserati projects that by 2006, 40 percent of its sales will be to U.S. customers.) Unlike 15 years ago, when Maserati scurried out of the U.S. market, the company now appears to be in capable hands. Under Ferrari-Maserati of North America’s new president and CEO, Maurizio Parlato, total sales for both badges, albeit mostly Ferrari, were up 13 percent last year.

There is additional cause for optimism. Two designers with impressive credentials—Ken Okuyama, the creator of the Ferrari Enzo and the new Ferrari 612 Scaglietti, and Frank Stephenson, father of the immortal-in-a-month Mini Cooper and Okuyama’s classmate at Pasadena’s Art Center College of Design—are multitasking with both Maserati and Ferrari. And taking a lead from Bentley, which bolstered the reputation of its highly successful Continental GT with victories at Le Mans, Maserati has built and is testing a car for international endurance racing.

For shoppers concerned that $90,000 is too much for a little Italian sports car, September will bring the 2005 Quattroporte, a relatively large four-door saloon for about the same price—but with comfortable seating for four adults and a shape that is historic at one end, powerful and sophisticated at the other, and thoroughly seductive every inch in between.

This is the Italian job that should stir far more motoring excitement than the movie could. It stretches 17 feet, or about as long as the Ponte Vecchio is wide. Taddeo Gaddi did a splendid job on the bridge, but Pininfarina may have set a higher standard with the car. And this edifice moves, really moves. Its zero-to-60 time is 5.2 seconds, and its top speed is 170 mph.

Of course, these days such pace and power from a 400 hp V-8 is greeted with a yawn. Heavens to Henry, the SVT Mustang Cobra is quicker to 60, and if its governor were removed, it too would top 170—for far fewer euros. Such comparisons, however, are about as fair as placing a Harris Tweed suit on the same rack as an Attolini chalk stripe. One is clearly Italian, fine, elegant, and so obviously superior in craftsmanship and carriage that it really does not matter where the other outfit came from. There is a freshness to Italian designs that cannot be emulated. The creator’s signature, the mood of an item, even a national character are allowed to shine through, whether it is a fountain, a violin, or an espresso machine. So while German cars plod, British vehicles are snooty, Japanese cars bare no soul, and American cars search for some characteristic, Italian cars are nostalgic, affable, understated, feisty, and emotional.

All of these attributes are apparent in the Quattroporte, beginning with nostalgia. Its grille is large and broad with horizontal bars, and if you think that it looks like the business end of Wilbur Shaw’s 8CTF 3000 that won the Indy 500 in 1940, you win a bottle of milk. Maserati’s famed trident is mounted large, bold, and dead center in the grille, as it has been for eons.  But do not be taken in by another apparent trace of antiquity. As far as we know, the trio of portholes on each side of the car has never appeared on any other Maserati, but it was an appealing designer touch on Allards. The silhouette—low, smooth, and magnificently proportioned—will revive memories of the old Italian poster featuring three identical shadowy outlines: the curves of a car, a wine bottle, and a woman’s back, which some in Italy consider to be the three essentials of life.

The Quad’s living quarters are five-star in their taste, simplicity, and refusal to indulge today’s preoccupation with brushed aluminum and titanium tidbits. There is a central waterfall of fine wood, curving from dash to floor, and matching strips above the glove box and to the left of the steering wheel. That is it for the lumber. It is an interior package that is incredibly soft and easy on the eyes, unquestionably comfortable and convenient for all aboard, which should allow more attention to focus on a delightful analog dash clock that suggests someone within Maserati remains hooked on Benvenuto Cellini. Great sounds emanate from a Bose system, and the rear seats recline. There is also a limousine package offering heating, cooling, and a massage mode for those backseats.

The Quattroporte’s power comes from the same 4.2-liter, 32-valve, four-cam V-8 that is in the coupe and convertible, but it has been tweaked to produce 400 hp and 332 ft lbs of torque at 4,500 rpm. This is an increase of 10 hp, but it is a bonus needed to budge the extra weight of the 4,200-pound four-door.

The car is constructed of a steel unibody with aluminum for the boot and bonnet. The wheelbase is long, and the track is wide. The engine is mounted slightly behind the front axle assembly—as with the new Ferrari 612 Scaglietti—distributing the pounds in a fashion that is ideal for any car built to toss its weight around.  The Quattroporte is a pure sedan with the pure élan of a sports car. It is beautifully balanced, equipped with all the adaptive suspension bells and stability whistles, and even on Tuscany’s mountain roads left slick by muddy tractors, the car sticks flat as though both ends and all four corners were riveted to the road.

Transmission is a 6-speed, shift-by-wire system called the DuoSelect. You can set it at full automatic or use the fingertip paddles behind the steering wheel for manual operation. The paddle shifting is perfect, but the automatic mode lugs and tugs. Maserati engineers are reluctant to discuss the problem. Their initial explanation during the Quattroporte’s recent launch and romp from Modena to Florence to Parma was that Italian drivers consider automatic to be a backup transmission reserved for rush-hour traffic, beginning drivers, and little old signoras. So why does it need to be perfect?

After the media members’ smiles faded, the engineers acknowledged that the problem could be related to automatic shift times programmed to a leisurely eight-tenths of a second. Maybe, they suggested, such a delay in electronic sensing and instructing allows revs and clutch plates to become mismatched, hence all that hunting and slapping. Whatever the cause, they eventually agreed, it is a gremlin that has been noted, and the automatic will be remapped in the months between now and American deliveries.

If so, Americans can look forward to a warm, rich involvement with an able and distinctive Italian automobile that will set them apart from the luxury pack. Note that the Quattroporte was born in northern Italy, close to Florence, the crucible of the Italian Renaissance. Perhaps this is an omen signaling the rebirth of Maserati. 



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