Maserati Masterpiece

The new Maserati GranTurismo S sports coupe is coming to the States. Why should Italians have all the fun?

My personal tastes tend toward the Italian. In food—anything Tuscan except rabbit. A great restaurant—Mamma Gina's in Florence. Wonderful wine—Castello Banfi's Brunello. Superb suits—Brioni. Smart shoes—Testoni. Cool sweaters—Loro Piano. And colorful socks—Missoni.

And when it comes to automobiles, especially one I might someday be able to afford (my wife says "Ha!")—one name: Maserati! Say it the way the Italians do lovingly…leisurely…luxuriously…Maasseraatee! Today the name is synonymous with style, status, and smartness.

But it wasn't always the case. Despite the marque's fame, getting to this point has been a journey of several years and millions of dollars, lire, or euros depending on the year, since Italian auto giant Fiat's (FIA) Ferrari division bought the distressed company at a distressed price in the early 1990s.

Past Disasters

Putting it mildly, the 1970s and '80s had not been good for the motoring machines from Modena. One specific automotive example comes to mind: the Maserati-Chrysler TC. Then-Chrysler chief, the legendary Lee Iacocca, invested millions in the convertible, hoping it would create a racy new image for the beleaguered company. It was a sales disaster.

Even worse, it torpedoed Maserati's image in the U.S. There were lawsuits, unhappy customers, complaints, significant grievances, and eventual withdrawal from the U.S. marketplace. Mamma Mia, it was a bad car.

The past is not prologue for the new Maserati, fortunately. More than a decade of ownership by Ferrari and a new management team led by CEO Roberto Ronchi, a former consumer goods marketing executive for Seagram's and Bayer, who has been with Fiat since 2002, has resulted in a revitalized, renewed, reinvigorated carmaker. Its new GranTurismo S represents the some of the best in Italian automotive design, engineering, manufacturing, and international driver/owner appeal.

Masterati's domestic rivals, Lamborghini and Ferrari, make wonderful high-performance sports cars. The Maserati GranTurismo S is different: It's a luxurious sports coupe—a daily driver for about 300 potential owners in the U.S.—that defies superlatives. Well, not all. Spectacular and stunning seem pretty appropriate.

Updated Features

The S, introduced at the Geneva Auto Show in March (, 3/4/08), is the updated version of the GranTurismo, which premiered last year at the Swiss show. Updated really means little and not-so-little tweaks, changes, improvements, and additions to the standard GranTurismo, adding the "S" for among other items, special.

A quick review of the techno-engineering highlights includes:

• New 4.7-liter V8 engine with 433 hp

• Electro-actuated six-speed gearbox with paddle shifters

• Six operating modes: manual normal, sport, sport in MC shift, auto normal, auto sport, and ice

• Top speed: 185 mph; zero to 60 in 4.

9 seconds

• High performance (huge) Bembo brakes

• Transaxle layout with weight balance of 47% front, 53% rear equals great handling

• Special 20-inch wheels and wheel covers

• Dual-level exhaust system

The GranTurismo S's Pininfarina exterior has a few discreet modifications:

• An integrated spoiler on the luggage compartment door

• New-design side skirts add to aerodynamics and flow

• Big oval exhaust tailpipes

• Adjustable exhaust sounds, from race-car deep and throaty on a race track, to subtle and special, like Pavarotti hitting a high C

• Grille and headlamp area are black and somewhat mysterious-looking and cool

Inside the GT-S, it's lush and luxurious:

• Fine leather is used throughout: looks great, feels good, even has a nice fragrance

• AluTex, an aluminum-coated fiberglass adds a high-tech modern look to the trim

• Fully adjustable seats are very comfortable

• Fully padded and semi-oval steering wheel is easy to handle

• Nice, big paddle shifters are easy to work and add to driving joy

• Good-looking, easy-to-work knobs, buttons, and controls

• Understandable, quick-to-change (when needed) navigation system

Following an orientation at the Maserati factory by a former F1 race driver, the 300-kilometer ride and drive began, assisted by a fine-tuned navigation system and a guide book that was not much help on the famous A1 Italian superhighway. Often four lanes in each direction packed bumper to bumper at a reasonably fast speed.

The new speed guns used by the polizia della strada principale, Italian highway police, are extremely accurate, we were warned. The old days of giving the speeding driver a 5-kph bit of slack are fatto, sopra, rifinito (done, over, finished). "You speed, you pay very big ticket," I was warned. (Bear in mind that in Italy the top legal speed limit is still a fairly generous 130 kph, which is just a hair over 80 mph. Although in a car like the S, driving it at 80 mph is practically an insult to the car.)

Effortless Cruising

So there was no real speeding on the A1, alas. Ah, but when we ventured off the main road to well-paved, two-lane roads, it was time to push it just a little bit. The six-speed automatic with paddles for manual shifting were outstanding, and with no effort we were cruising along well above the Italian speed limit. Well above! But nowhere near the Maserati's top speed of 185 mph.

The ride was effortless; there was little or no road noise even on some grooved, semi-rough road surfaces. The GT-S was agile, quick, and nimble, with lots and lots of power to spare. Sight lines from both the driver's and passenger's seats were very good with a wide windshield. The car's width called for some optical adjustment when driving on a narrow cobblestone road going back several centuries. Aside from that, I could have spent all day behind the wheel. And enjoyed every minute of it.

Oh, the price. In the U.S. it's going to be in the $115,000 area, subject to options. My wife may have a point.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.