Review: 2012 Maserati Gran Turismo Convertible

The Good: Beautiful exterior and sumptuous cabin, the sweetest engine sound around

The Bad: Tiny trunk, cramped rear seat, a bit creaky on bumpy roads; costlier than competition

The Bottom Line: A gorgeous cabriolet, but check out the new BMW 650i before buying

Make: Maserati

Model: Gran Turismo convertible

Model Year: 2012

Body_Type: Two-door, four-passenger

Price_Class: Maserati Gran Turismo Convertible

Up Front

When it comes to making cars that are things of beauty, hardly any people do it better than the Italians. The 2012 Maserati Gran Turismo convertible is a case in point, with distinctive Pinifarina exterior styling and a sumptuous, drop-dead-gorgeous interior that can be trimmed in a variety of soft leathers and exotic hardwoods.

However, what I liked best when I recently test-drove the rear-wheel-drive 2012 Gran Turismo convertible was to cruise through the twisting, tree-lined back roads of upstate New York with the top down and the "Sport" button on the dash activated. Pushing that button stiffens the suspension, tightens throttle mapping, and opens a bypass valve in the exhaust system—turning the elegant luxury car into a real beast. There are few sounds more satisfying than the growl of the GT convertible’s engine bouncing off the trees on a sun-dappled afternoon.

The question is whether that sound and the Maserati’s singular good looks are worth an extra 45 or 50 grand, which is how much more the Gran Turismo costs than the newly redesigned 2012 BMW 650i convertible. It’s a big premium to pay for a car that’s slower, less fuel-efficient, and has a smaller trunk than the BMW. To justify the $140,000-plus price of the Gran Turismo convertible, you have to really want that touch of Italian elegance no German or Japanese car maker ever seems able to match.

To be sure, the Maserati is no slouch when it comes to performance. Under its hood is a 4.7-liter V8 rated at 433-horsepower, which is actually bigger than the BMW 650i’s 4.4-liter, 400-hp V8. However, the Bimmer has more oomph because its engine generates 450 lb.-ft. of torque, 89 more than the Maserati and only 15 less than the huge, 518-hp V8 in the Mercedes-Benz SL63 AMG.

As a result, the Maserati isn’t quite as quick. The Gran Turismo convertible is rated to accelerate from 0 to 60 in 5.3 seconds, compared with 4.9 seconds for the BMW 650i convertible and 4.5 seconds for the Mercedes SL63 AMG.

Despite its power, the BMW also is more fuel-efficient than the Maserati: The 650i is rated to get 16 miles per gallon in the city and 24 on the highway with an automatic transmission, significantly better than the Gran Turismo convertible’s 12 mpg in the city and 20 on the highway. One reason for the better mileage is that the Maserati comes with a six-speed automatic while the BMW comes with a more modern (and efficient) eight-speed automatic.

For many buyers, however, the Gran Turismo’s good looks and the exclusivity of the Maserati brand trump other concerns. While the $100,000-plus luxury car market was slumping in the first half of this year compared to the preceding year, Maserati’s total U.S. sales were up 20.3 percent, to 1,097. That’s largely because sales of the Gran Turismo convertible, which made its debut in April 2010, nearly doubled during the period, to 450 units.

One concern for the future: Parent company Fiat is planning to dramatically expand Maserati’s worldwide sales to around 50,000 units annually by introducing new models. That may reduce the brand’s cachet.

Behind the Wheel

For a heavy (4,365 lbs.) luxury car, the Gran Turismo convertible is a joy to drive. The engine is positioned behind the front axle, creating nearly perfect 49 percent/51 percent front/rear weight distribution (48/52 with the top down), which makes the car remarkably stable in the curves. Sport mode—which is where I kept the Maserati almost the entire time I drove it—very noticeably hardens the suspension without making it unduly harsh. The car’s throttle mapping in Sport mode keeps the engine near red line much of the time, so that gorgeous engine growl is always in your ears when you have the top down. The big Brembo brakes really bit hard.

As with other cars in this segment, you can do the gear-changing yourself in the Maserati, either by pushing the shift lever to one side (which puts the car permanently in manual mode) or by grabbing the steering-wheel-mounted paddle shifters (right for upshifting, left for downshifting), which temporarily activates manual mode.

The Maserati’s paddle-shifters have the best ergonomics of any I’ve tried. They’re unusually large—they must be eight inches long—but are also shaped to follow the contours of the steering wheel, so they’re never in the way. You can reach them with your hands positioned anywhere along the sides of the steering wheel and instantly start doing the shifting yourself.

The Gran Turismo’s cabin seats four. My test car was genuinely beautiful, with creamy beige leather seats, black leather dash and doors, and the roof lined in soft beige cloth. The front seats are capacious, but (as in most convertibles) rear-seat head and knee space are likely to be very tight for passengers 6 ft. tall or over.

The canvas top adds only 143 lbs. to the car’s weight but is thick enough to keep the cabin quiet in highway traffic. I clocked the top at 31.5 seconds, going up or down. That’s a bit slower than Maserati’s rated time, but includes the automatic re-raising of the windows once the top is stowed or up.

One of the Gran Turismo’s big downsides is that trunk space is a mere 6.1 cu. ft. with the top up or down—about enough for one golf bag. On overnight jaunts, you’ll need at least one of the rear seats for cargo. Maserati sells luggage specially fitted to the car. It also provides special straps to hold bags in place in the rear seats.

One of the things setting Maserati interiors apart is the selection of distinctive colors and materials you have to choose from. Wood trim can be had in everything from rosewood, dark walnut, and a light moonwood to blue lacquer and piano black. Leather colors include black and dark blue, a bright red (Rosso Corallo), yellow (Avorio), and a deep Bordeaux.

The same holds true for the exterior. My test car came in deep Bordeaux with a matching, wine-red convertible top. It was gorgeous.

A couple of quibbles: The Gran Turismo felt solidly made on smooth roads, but noticeable creaks developed when the road got a little bumpy. The steering also may be a little heavy for some drivers. I drove the Gran Turismo and BMW 650i convertibles back-to-back, and one of the greatest differences was evident in the steering, which required noticeably greater effort in the Maserati.

Buy it or Bag It?

The 2012 Gran Turismo convertible’s starting price is $140,800, including destination fees and gas-guzzler tax, which makes it competitive with the $142,525 starting price of the Mercedes SL63 AMG convertible, but well above that of the $92,375 BMW 650i convertible. The German cars are more performance-oriented; the Maserati is a luxury car that’s surprisingly sporty.

While pricey compared to a BMW, the Gran Turismo is a bargain compared to rival prestige convertibles such as Bentley Motors‘s Continental GTC, which starts at $211,195, and the Aston Martin DB9 Volante convertible, which starts at $206,330 with an automatic transmission. The Maserati also comes relatively well-loaded, so the price is unlikely to climb much above $150,000 when you add options.

If elegance, exclusiveness, and a touch of sportiness are your priorities, the Maserati Gran Turismo convertible is an excellent choice. If bang for the buck is a top priority, check out the new BMW 650i.

Click here to see more of the 2012 Maserati Gran Turismo Convertible.

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