We’re caught in the morning rush hour with a flock of aggressive Vespas, Fiat Puntos, and Fiat Ducato vans swarming around us. Even in this mess, the new is the undisputed center of attention. Maserati enters the luxury-car field against the likes of BMW, Mercedes-Benz, and Lexus with the Quattroporte, a cocoon on wheels that features the usual blend of soft leather and rich wood inside with taut Pininfarina styling. The technical package is stunning, too, with a 4.2-liter, dual-overhead-cam V-8 engine that’s good for 394 horsepower and 333 pound-feet of torque. Mounted far enough back in the engine bay for an equitable 47/53 percent front/rear weight distribution, it’s mated to a six-speed sequential manual gearbox that has an automatic mode.
On a good day, the 199-inch-long five-seater will accelerate from 0 to 60 mph in 5.1 seconds and top 170 mph. But despite a cosseting interior, the first six or seven stop-and-go miles in the city of the Medici are a huge disappointment. The choppy ride around town borders on unacceptable, the Brembo brakes are heavy and lifeless, and, in automatic mode, the Duo-Select transmission is about as well mannered as a Fiorentino soccer hooligan after a lost home game. It makes you wonder if the new supersedan from Modena will be able to chase down its illustrious competition. To find out, there’s an Audi A8L 4.2 driven by photographer Richard Newton about three car lengths ahead of us. Interestingly, the Volkswagen Group has just inked a joint venture with Maserati, a move that has apparently irked the top brass at Audi.
We think we’ll get a respite from the clustering traffic by heading onto the A1, the autostrada between Florence and Rome. As is typical for this busy road, the trucks and buses that seem to make up most of the traffic are going slowly. Less typically, it is beginning to snow. Great! The constant speeding up and slowing down is a good opportunity to gauge the DuoSelect transmission, known as the Cambiocorsa in the Maserati Coupe and Spyder. In drive, the gearbox blips the throttle deliciously during downshifts, as in the Ferrari 575M, and the unit actually will hold a chosen gear all the way up to the redline when you absolutely lead-foot the loud pedal. Upshifts, on the other hand, are depressingly clumsy and slow, and the throttle response is hesitant most of the time. This is hardly a classic, hands-off, smooth, fuss-free automatic transmission, but there is compensation. Hit the manual button, start working the shift paddles that are attached to the steering column, and the Quattroporte becomes an enthusiast’s car. It certainly does not take long to learn the right rhythm for paddle-shifting, and you’ll delight in the instant up- and downshifts. A highly intuitive transmission like this is out of place in a conventional luxury sedan, but you soon realize that the big Maserati is hardly a conventional luxury car. As we are about to find out, this car is hard-core, and hard-core drivers are reluctant to let a computer coordinate such vital parameters as revs, torque, and vehicle speed.
The scenery changes as we take a country road from Arezzo to Siena, through Tuscany at its picture-postcard best. In the homeland of Brunello and Pecorino, the Quattroporte excels, the local hero tackling the challenging gradients with the ease and sure-footedness of a much smaller car. The Maserati owes its compelling composure and corner-greedy handling to its layout more than anything else, because the tail-heavy balance frees up the steering while providing extra drive-wheel traction. Assisted by prudently sized Pirelli P Zero Rossos – 245/45ZR-18s in the front, 285/40ZR-18s in the back – the mighty Modenese carves through bends as swiftly, elegantly, and unerringly as Italy’s famed slalom skier Alberto Tomba.
Even on wet, knobbly blacktop, the Quattroporte holds the road as if it were a mobile suction cup. It follows the chosen line brilliantly and tracks with the precision of a laser gun. And it is gifted with near-perfect steering that’s in the pantheon with the , the , and the Mitsubishi Evolution. The power-assisted rack-and-pinion arrangement has absolutely spot-on weight and feel; it is communicative, accurate, and responsive; it knows when to filter and when to enhance; and it constantly scans and verifies the surface. It’s the ultimate man-machine interface. Here in g-force heaven, the double-control-arm suspension – with Skyhook continuously variable damping – copes well with surface changes, in marked contrast to its behavior around town, where the stiff low-speed ride erases the smile on your face faster than the traffic lights can change color. In Sport mode, the suspension setting is stiffer and the damp-ers, along with the gearshifts, act faster, so that the around-town roughness returns. Deactivating stability control instantly converts the Quattroporte into a loose cannon that needs a lot of room when its considerable mass starts swinging.
After all the excitement, we arrive in Pienza and stop for coffee in the Piazza Pio II. This is a land where cars – particularly Italian ones with names such as Ferrari, Alfa Romeo, and Maserati – are revered. Every spring, the Mille Miglia convoy comes to town and trickles through timekeeping before lining up for the next stage. We start chatting to Angelo, who has spotted the new Maserati and the Audi A8L we have brought along for the ride. He used to be a schoolteacher, his boyhood idol was the great Achille Varzi, and he has been a Maserati fan ever since he witnessed Tipo 26s running the 1000-mile road race in the early 1930s. In broken Italian, we take the old man through the specification of la favolosa ammiraglia nuova: the V-8 engine, electronically controlled Skyhook suspension, 13.0-inch-diameter front and 12.4-inch-diameter rear vented Brembo brakes with ABS, stability control, and the six-speed F1-style gearbox. Chain-smoking short filterless cigarettes, Angelo gives short shrift to the Audi, even if it can match the Maserati for bells and whistles and has all-wheel drive: bella macchina but not enough emozione.
We have to do some low-speed maneuvering in town, which reveals another couple of items on the Maserati’s debit side. The ridiculous 40.4-foot turning circle is no ally here, and, as is true of all Italian sequential manual transmissions, DuoSelect is not particularly slick at engaging reverse. To do so, you have to lift and pull back a small toggle switch positioned next to the hand brake. The maneuver works most of the time, but it takes too long, is accompanied by an irritating warning chime, and requires a further push at the toggle to return to drive. On the credit side, we noticed a clever hill holder that stops the car from rolling backward for about three seconds, which gives you enough time to move your foot from the brake to the accelerator.
The Superstrada 146, toward Montepulciano, must be the road to paradise. Ahead of us lie a sweeping valley dotted with cypress trees, rolling hills capped with hamlets, and winding lanes leading to farmhouses flanked by vineyards and lush fruit orchards. The only thing missing is a tunnel to magnify the beautiful noise emitted by the Maserati’s quad chromed tailpipes. Acoustically, a normally aspirated V-8 is hard to beat – especially one that has been tuned by Amedeo Felisa, general manager of Ferrari/Maserati’s GT area, and his team. Adorned with fire-red crackle-finish cam covers and a beautifully sculptured matte-black intake plenum, the 32-valve unit lip-reads throttle orders like an expert simultaneous interpreter. Tip-in is casual, and tip-out is relatively rough, but once the motive force hooks up with the drivetrain, there is nothing stopping this car from peeling tarmac big-time. Although it doesn’t always make sense to let the tachometer’s needle swing past the 4500-rpm mark, it’s good to know that you have 2500 rpm to play with between maximum torque and game over. And even if it doesn’t make sense, it sounds bloody marvelous.
As we meander back into Florence, we muse over the Maserati. It is hardly the biggest car in its class, its rear quarters being relatively cramped compared with the commodious rear cabins of the Audi A8L and the long-wheelbase BMW 7-series. It is expensive, at a base price of $90,000, well beyond the Jaguar XJ8 or the Lexus LS430 or even the A8L. The interior is distinct from those of its competitors and is beautifully trimmed, but it lacks equipment compared with, say, the Audi. It has no keyless start/stop system, no soft-close doors, no self-releasing electric parking brake, no trunk lid that pulls itself shut at the push of a button. The Quattroporte can be ordered with a rear entertainment center, Bentley-style wooden picnic tables, and a choice of ten different shades of leather courtesy of Poltrona Frau, however.
On our drive through this most beautiful part of Italy, it’s easy to see why the A8L is the top of the luxury class at the moment. The big Audi is very user-friendly compared with the Maserati, thanks to an excellent six-speed automatic transmission, a compliant suspension, and a navigation system that the average technophobe can deal with, rather than the Quattroporte’s multibutton, multiswitch annoyance. For good measure, the long-wheelbase A8 has a more conveniently shaped trunk that’s twenty percent larger (19.8 cubic feet versus 15.9), an even higher standard of fit and finish, and a whopping $20,000 price advantage.
The Audi also has a separate Tiptronic gate, but once the novelty has worn off, one tends to stick the lever in drive and leave it there until the end of the journey. A similar approach works best for the standard air suspension, which feels too brittle in dynamic mode and occasionally lacks concise body control in comfort mode. In auto mode, the chips sort themselves out. Thanks to the standard Quattro four-wheel-drive system, traction is never an issue.
Despite four-wheel drive and a silky transmission, the A8 falls behind the hard-charging Quattroporte on Tuscany’s demanding secondary roads. The Audi is a letdown with its lifeless steering and excessive understeer at the limit. The A8L does not match the Maserati‘s level of roadholding, nor is it as entertaining. The German car duly goes where you point it and also benefits from more attentive brakes, but on these zigzag, undulating roads, it’s just doing its job, and it evidently does not have as much fun doing so. You won’t notice a significant difference in attitude until you press on, when the A8L begins to roll more and grip less. Instead of totally committing itself, the aluminum-bodied sedan leaves a bigger margin for error but rarely offers the same degree of tactility and feedback as the new barge on the block. The Bavarian 40-valve, 4.2-liter, dual-overhead-cam V-8 engine musters a more moderate 330 horsepower at 6500 rpm, along with 317 pound-feet of torque at 3500 rpm, which accounts for the more leisurely 0-to-60-mph acceleration time of 7.0 seconds. (The car’s top speed in the United States is limited to 129 mph.)
The Quattroporte is a very special, distinctive car that is hardly going to appeal to the mainstream luxury-car buyer. Maserati is aiming to sell up to 2000 in the United States every year, a mere drop in the bucket compared with the 23,000 S-class Mercedes-Benzes, the 20,500 7-series BMWs, or the 4000 Audi A8Ls that find buyers. This is a car for extroverted individuals, people who want something different, a car that occupies a different niche of the premium-luxury market. It’s definitely not a passive, intracity express that can be steered with two fingers while the brain is ticking along in neutral. Instead, the Italian highline sedan rewards a driver who has commitment, competence, and consistency. The gearbox and the ride quality are hardly top of the class, but the buyers of this car probably won’t care. This is a four-door thoroughbred sports car, a five-seater with the heart of a Ferrari, even if happens to wear a trident badge. You don’t have to be a Maserati purist like Angelo to fall for the Quattroporte, but an open-minded, nonconformist attitude certainly helps, as does a squirt of high-octane gasoline in the blood and a little love for all things Italian. Beyond that, you can trust your four-wheeled object of desire to make its own case convincingly.
The Audi comes across as a coat-and-tie automobile for those who prefer not to advertise that they have arrived. Its engine is supersmooth and hush-quiet, its throttle action is progressive instead of instant, and its torque delivery is inconspicuous. The A8L is all about speedy progress, effortless operation, balanced road manners, and strong performance that is supported by a top-class safety net. For the majority of luxury-car buyers, it is the clear choice over the Maserati, but it definitely doesn’t stir the soul in the same way.
Front-engined, rear-wheel-drive sedan
4-door, 5-passenger, steel body
> Price base/as tested $90,000 (est.)/ $95,000 (est.)
> Engine 4.2-liter DOHC V-8
> Power 394 hp @ 7000 rpm
> Torque 333 lb-ft @ 4500 rpm
> Transmission 6-speed sequential
> Steering Power-assisted rack-and-pinion
> Suspension Front: control arms, coil springs Rear: control arms, coil springs
> Brakes Vented discs, ABS
> Tires 245/45ZR-18 front, 285/40ZR-18 rear Pirelli P Zero Rosso
> Performance 0 – 60 mph in 5.1 sec Top speed 171 mph