Maserati. It's one of those words you can roll around your mouth as if it were a succulent marble.

Maserati. It's one of those words you can roll around your mouth as if it were a succulent marble. More than just a name, it makes an exotically phonetic promise, and it's up there with Angelina Jolie, Emmanuelle Béart and Anouk Aimée in terms of the sheer eroticism of sound and image. We are not talking about meeting a woman called Mavis for a drive around Macclesfield in a Morris Minor.

Better still, it's a car company with a past that could have been scripted by Homer (the epic Greek poet rather than the Simpson). There were seven Maserati brothers, the eldest of whom, Carlo, built a single-cylinder bicycle as long ago as 1898, before joining Fiat and then Isotta Fraschini.

The seven brothers must have sailed the seven seas because they soon had a worldwide reputation for their driving and mechanical skills, but it was Alfieri Maserati who set up the company in its own right. Tuners, tweakers and racers for others, they finally constructed their own car in 1926. The company moved to Modena in 1939 - where it remains to this day - and the brothers ceded control to a new owner in 1947.

Whereupon, Maserati became the world's single greatest motor racing entity. Not even Ferrari has ever managed quite as spectacular an arc as Maserati did in the 1950s: the car was the 250F - surely history's most beautiful racing machine - while the driver line-up included Juan-Manuel Fangio (his victory in the 1957 German GP is routinely cited as the greatest ever), Alberto Ascari and Stirling Moss. Stellar is not the word.

Then, it all went to pieces. There were great road cars such as the Sebring, Mistral and Ghibli - the prototypical 1960s playboy GT.

But then Citroën bought the company, the oil crisis happened, Citroën sold the company, and the Maserati promise, name notwithstanding, became steadily less exotic. In fact, it withered so profoundly it took the whole bloody vine with it.

Why, then, would I sell my soul to get my hands on the latest Maserati Quattroporte? Actually, soul is the very word. More than anything else, this is the one thing that most modern cars conspicuously lack. It's also the one thing that even the world's greatest engineers - holed up in some glistening hi-tech bunker in Munich or Stuttgart or Osaka - simply can't lay their hands on.

The Quattroporte dribbles soul from its shut-lines. When Car magazine recently published its alternative Car of the Year list, I nominated the big Maserati. Not just to be controversial - though it's no Toyota Prius, I admit - but because it seduced me in a way that cars used to, but so rarely do now.

Of course, it's also a maddening motor car. In almost every important way, the BMW 7 series, Jaguar XJ and Mercedes-Benz S-class are objectively superior. Lay out 70 grand on your new Quattroporte and you will be haunted by the prospect of Olympic depreciation. And its semi-automatic trans-axle gearbox - now on its umpteenth software upgrade - remains a frustratingly quixotic thing.

But I've just spent five days with the Maserati, and every time I walked across the car park towards it there was a distinct frisson. It looks tailored, elegant and well cut; sinewy but sensuous; like no car with four doors has any right to look. It looks, God help me, like a beautiful woman. Or a four-door Ferrari (Maserati's custodians since 1997, coincidentally). And the Mercedes-Benz S-class doesn't.

It's expensive, extrovert and, driven hard, handles in a way that only a truly committed driver would fully appreciate. In an era when the Italian car industry doesn't know which way is up, Maserati builds the world's best saloon car. How the hell did that happen?

Jason Barlow is the editor of 'Car' magazine

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