What’s the big deal about Italian sports cars? A car is a car, right?
It’s the same type of query you might ask a foodie about reservations at El Bulli. Cognoscenti get their kicks in particular ways, few of which are readily attainable.
For the car nut, the ultimate kick is a Pininfarina- designed, Italian exotic with a handbuilt engine that purrs like the feline gods of ancient Egypt. Rare machines indeed.
To put it in perspective, Porsche sells 20,000 or so autos a year in the U.S. alone. Worldwide, Ferrari moved only 6,250 in 2009; Maserati 5,000.
No wonder I get a shiver as I enter the North American headquarters of Ferrari and Maserati in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey. Hidden from view in a lower garage are a dozen Ferrari 458 Italias waiting for their fortunate owners.
I’m not here for a Ferrari. Rather I’m scooping up an ice-white Maserati GranTurismo convertible, gleaming in the sunlight of the open garage door.
An airy machine derived from the GranTurismo coupe, this rag-top is far more elegant than the 458. If the Ferrari looks like a kick-ass Buck Rogers’ starship in the 25th century, the Maserati stands in classic counterpoint, best suited for a talented Mr. Ripley wearing a natty fedora while prowling the Amalfi coast.
Longer than even a Bentley Continental, the GranTurismo is sizeable, its design dominated by a curvaceous, sloping hood. It accommodates four normal-sized adults and luggage, so its aft looks rather hippy, swelling generously around the rear wheels.
The Italian design company Pininfarina exercised remarkable restraint crafting the grand-touring cabriolet. Maserati showed even more restraint pricing it.
While the Ferrari California convertible starts around $192,000 and the 458 at $225,000, the GranTurismo convertible has a recommended tag of $135,800. The coupe is even more accessible at $117,500. (Prices don’t include transportation charges, gas guzzler taxes or dealers demanding ludicrous markups.)
Only in the arena of Italian exotics does $140,000 count as chump change. In this Bizarro World, it’s almost a giveaway.
The folding top on my test car is brown, a bit senior-citizen for my taste. Fear not if your style skews younger. Maseratis are handbuilt and infinitely customizable. Even the brake calipers have five optional colors. Maserati says custom orders are usually filled in about four months.
The interior is flawless, with dashes of rosewood trim and baby-butt-soft leather, contrasting stitching and a burnished feel on the paddle shifters.
I immediately drop the automatic top to better hear the Ferrari-built, 4.7-liter V-8 motor.
Any auto aficionado will tell you there’s something special about the sound of an Italian sports car. They are warmer and more humanly vocal than any other make. A siren calling for your devotion and the contents of your billfold.
That purr gets a reaction. A 2008 study by Hiscox insurance indicated that female test subjects showed an increase in hormones when exposed to the sound of a revving Maserati motor. Engine noise from a VW Polo elicited the opposite effect.
What that means in the real world is anyone’s guess, but the GranTurismo’s gurgle sure does sound good.
This 433-horsepower engine is located just behind the front axle, lending a better front-to-rear weight balance. It’s mated to a six-speed ZF automatic, one of the best transmissions in the business, optimized here for smooth transitions. It moves silkily from gear to gear, even when you’re controlling the shifts via behind-the-wheel paddles.
What you won’t get are whiplash explosions of acceleration. Torque is a modest 361 pound-feet and zero to 60 miles per hour is achieved in 5.1 seconds, slower than some Mitsubishis and Cadillacs.
Too bad the gas mileage falls right in line with other exotics, at 11 mpg in the city and 18 highway. I make two stops at the gas station in one day.
It’s hugely comfortable even with the top down and at extralegal highway speeds. If I had to choose a convertible to travel across the country, the GranTurismo would top my list. The suspension is forgiving and there’s no noticeable flexing of the front windscreen.
There’s also no hiding its size and weight. I attempt to sprint through a tight cliffside road and am quickly disabused. Fighting to keep the car inside the yellow lines, I’m forced to go back to cruising speed. Obviously the wrong application of a fine tool -- you don’t hammer nails with a paintbrush.
According to Maserati, sales this year are up more than 50 percent from 2009, and they expect to sell around 600 GranTurismo convertibles in the U.S. this year.
The numbers seem low when compared to the Toyotas and even Porsches of the world, yet falls right within Maserati’s capacities and expectations.
That’s why Italian exotics are such a big deal.
The 2011 Maserati GranTurismo Convertible at a Glance
Engine: 4.7-liter V-8 with 433 horsepower and 361 pound-feet of torque.
Transmission: Six-speed automatic.
Speed: 0 to 60 mph in 5.1 seconds.
Gas mileage per gallon: 11 city; 18 highway.
Price as tested: $153,925.
Best features: All that room and the sound of the motor.
Worst feature: Relatively slow for an Italian sports car.
Target buyer: The aficionado looking for the Italian dream.
(Jason H. Harper writes about autos for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)