Maserati returns with a masterpiece

Maseratis have long been known for their frustrating quirks. But with the new GranSport, the granddaddy of Italian supercar makers has emerged from the long shadow of Ferrari to produce perhaps its finest car ever. John Simister reports
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Maserati is 90 years old this year. It has had its ups and downs, so often living in the shadow of its near-neighbour from Maranello, but the lack of exotic V12 engines has not stopped Maserati's name from resonating richly through the ages.

Maserati is 90 years old this year. It has had its ups and downs, so often living in the shadow of its near-neighbour from Maranello, but the lack of exotic V12 engines has not stopped Maserati's name from resonating richly through the ages.

Nowadays Ferrari, that Maranello neighbour, owns Modena-based Maserati anyway, and both are tied in with the Fiat group (which does not mean they are owned by Fiat Auto, by the way). And, as if to celebrate its great age, this most senior of Italian supercar makers has just launched its best car ever.

That might not have been the intention, especially as a) this best-ever car is based on a model due for replacement quite soon and b) the best Maserati is supposed to be the Quattroporte saloon.

But the GranSport, reviving a name used in past top-end Maseratis, has turned out rather well. Most Maseratis to date have been flawed in some way, which can add to their character and your frustration in equal measure, but this one - by design? By chance? - gets it just right.

The GranSport looks like a harder-edged, stripped-out, racetrack-optimised version of the rather beautiful Maserati Coupé, a car with a fabulous, Ferrari-designed, sculpturally beautiful V8 engine but an odd unwillingness to allow its driver the tactile driving sensations expected in such a machine. There are parallels with past Porsches with the Club Sport treatment, cars which made you pay more to receive ostensibly less apart from the heightened thrill quota.

Maserati did indeed approach the GranSport project with the idea of saving weight without spending too much in the process, but the extra £6,350 over the Coupé (making £66,600) does not so much buy you less mass as a sharper focus.

That extra £6,350 is by comparison with a Coupé equipped with the Cambiocorsa ("race-change") paddle-shift, sequential transmission that has become a Maserati Holy Grail. They "will" make it work, they "will", they "will", and the GranSport has yet another version of the control software for the purpose. Is it right this time?

Let us find out. Already the anticipation is growing as I climb into the GranSport at the little Varano racetrack near Parma. Laps of the track will come later; first I shall try this reinvented Coupé on the road. It definitely looks more menacing, although the makeover is quite subtle: a deeper nose with a larger grille, strange aerodynamic strakes on the sills which look like running boards - "Don't stand on them," counsels Frank Stephenson, now head of design at Maserati and Ferrari and a past driving force in the shape of today's Mini - a deep rear valance and a lip spoiler on the bootlid.

Then I notice that it sits a little lower on bigger wheels, whose skeletal spokes are grouped in threes to hint at Maserati's trident logo. Pirelli P Zero Rosso Asimmetrico tyres surround these wheels, tyres said to contribute 80 per cent of the GranSport's improvement. Who would have thought that round pieces of rubber can have such an effect?

Inside, the vibe is very different. Where hitherto there has been an entire cow-herd of leather we now find "BrighTex" fabric, a sort of carbonfibre lamé such as you might see on certain types of extreme sportswear. At least that was the idea, but the fashion industry shunned the new invention and the fabric came Maserati's way instead. Enough peripheral leather remains to remind you of the cheque you wrote.

The seats hint at a racing car's, the centre console is slimmed down, the pedals are hunks of machined aluminium and the steering wheel is a major collision of fast-car motifs. Carbonfibre top third, leather bottom two-thirds, shaped handgrips, even a marker at the top off the wheel's almost-circle to remind you where straight-ahead is as you wrestle with a powerslide. Actually that is more a rally-car motif than a racing car's. The references get a little confused here.

They become clear again when you press the starter button. Valves in the exhaust silencers open to let loose an inspirational vrroooom of potential energy, signalling an extra 10bhp (making 400) and the revised intake and exhaust systems of the 4,244cc engine that can speed right up to 7,600rpm (and 180mph). Normally those valves close again unless you are working the engine vigorously, but if you select the sport mode they stay open all the time. You then have to endure a penetrating resonance around 1,800rpm, after which the engine note soars into the chattering, blustering climax that is the voiceprint of a potent V8. Or one with these cylinder-firing intervals, anyway; Ferrari's V8s do it differently, and sound instead like a pair of screaming four-cylinder engines.

The GranSport is sensationally fast, and its transmission is highly responsive in sport mode. Paradoxically, it is easier to drive it smoothly when so switched; the downshifts are nearly always neat with an automatic blip of the accelerator to match the engine speed to the lower gear, but it is easier to gauge how much to ease the accelerator for a smooth upshift when that shift is fast.

There is an automatic mode, too, which is at last smooth enough to make it worth trying in heavy traffic.

Switching to sport has yet more effects. The accelerator becomes more sensitive, and the "Skyhook" adaptive suspension damping, which alters its stiffness according to the forces acting on the Maserati, moves to a firmer range of settings. The results of this, the tyres and the lower stance together transform this ultimate Coupé into something far beyond what must now be regarded as the base model. The aloofness of the steering, the floating and flopping over bumps, the feeling of not being quite connected, all these have gone. Instead the GranSport feels nailed to the road, incisive, responsive, intimate.

You can track through bends and ease the tail out under power at the exit, you can hit a bump and feel how the suspension copes like never before. The ride is firmer, but it is also more comfortable because the movements are so neatly controlled. Far from being a hardcore monster, the GranSport is how the Coupé should have been from the start.

The point is rammed home back at the track, where we are shown a video comparing the GranSport with a normal Coupé, which squeals its tyres and lollops its body much more. When a really potent, rear-wheel-drive GT car is so easy and rewarding to drive quickly, you know its creators have got it right. Maserati flounders no more.

THE MAKING OF A MARQUE

Maserati has had a turbulent ride since Alfieri Maserati, one of seven brothers, set up his company in Bologna in 1914. It started by modifying other people's racing cars, but in 1926 the brothers designed their own - the Tipo 26. Alfieri died young in 1932, but the other brothers continued to build successful racing cars even after the Orsi family bought the firm in 1937.

By 1947 the factory had moved to Modena and the brothers had left to set up the racing-car maker OSCA. Meanwhile, Maseratis, including the 4CLT and the 250F, won many races, and the marque was one of the few foreigners to race at the Indianapolis 500.

Maserati's first GT car was the A6 of 1946, but it was the 3500GT of 1957 that set the future road-car template. In 1959 the 5000GT sported the first roadgoing four-camshaft V8, and series of more GTs (Sebring, Mistral, Ghibli, Indy and Khamsin) and Quattroporte saloons followed.

The prettiest were the V8 Bora and V6 Merak mid-engined cars designed during Citroën's ownership of the company, a period that also produced the crazy and complex Maserati-engined Citroën SM. Citroën's 1975 bankruptcy led to a takeover by De Tomaso, under whose ownership Maserati moved to the square-cut and often wayward Biturbo cars in a search for higher sales volumes.

Fiat Auto took control in 1993, passing it to Ferrari in 1997. Since then, a rebuilt factory and a handsome model range has rekindled the Maserati fire; the 3200GT, first of the new generation, was a car of deeply uneven ability but now, at last, Maseratis are back where they ought to be.

No luxury-class car is more charismatic than today's Quattroporte, and the GranSport is a surprising masterpiece. And, for the first time since the Tipo 61 "Birdcage" of 1961, there are proper Maserati racing cars again. The MC12 owes some underpinnings to Ferrari's Enzo, but it will be good to see the trident back on track.

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