One one thousand. Two one- The V-12 engine of Maserati's $800,000 MC12 supercar bounces off the rev limiter, and I belatedly tug on the paddle protruding from the right side of the steering column to engage second gear through the idiot-proof, shift-without-lifting semiautomatic transmission.One one thousand. Two one thou-
Damn! I'm into the rev limiter again before I can grab third gear. Note to self: Pay attention to the needle arcing wildly across the large, white-faced tachometer. This is, after all, a car based on the chassis, drivetrain, and mojo of the Ferrari Enzo. In other words, wicked fast. One one thousand. Two one thousand. Thr-
Fourth gear, and I continue to flatfoot it around the high-speed oval at the Balocco test track in Italy. Back in the day, Alfa Romeo Formula 1 cars were tested here. Which is only fitting, since the MC12 is a homologation special-the roadgoing version of the racing car that finished fifth in class in the 12 Hours of Sebring this year. One one thousand. Two one thousand. Three one thousand.
Pause, clunk, fifth gear. Over the intoxicating snarl of the exhaust, I can hear vast volumes of air being sucked down the gaping maw of the roof-mounted snorkel and into the ridiculously powerful 6.0-liter engine. You want numbers? How about 623 horsepower, 481 lb-ft of torque, 0 to 60 mph in 3.8 seconds, and a top speed-drag-limited-of 205 mph? One one thousand. Two one thousand. Three one thousand. Four one thousand. Five one thousand.
Sixth gear. The pylons funneling me into a makeshift chicane form an orange blur. I see 260 klicks-a tick more than 160 mph-on the speedo as I bomb past the you-might-seriously-want-to-consider-braking-here marker that Maserati officials have kindly erected to ward off disaster. A barrier at the end of the chicane appears to be approaching at warp speed. Brake!
I hammer the brake pedal. My torso lurches against the four-point harness, and the car hunkers down into the pavement as the ground effect produced by the rear diffusers takes, well, effect. Like something out of a cartoon, the barrier still seems to be doubling in size every nanosecond. Brake harder!
I pull back on the left paddle to go down a gear-and another, and another. With each downshift, the Cambiocorsa gearbox instructs the ECU to blip the throttle, and the successive blasts of glorious double-clutching twelve-cylinder fury make me sound like a hero. The brake pedal is pulsating like a cheap Magic Fingers mattress by the time I make it down to second gear. Pucker up!
The Maserati is long and wide, with compromised visibility. The chicane is tight and narrow, with a formidable band of Armco at the exit. It's a scary moment as I slice toward the apex. And then . . . nothing. No muss, no fuss, that is. A quick left-right flick, and before I can remember what I was worried about, I'm hauling ass down the next straightaway.
And that, in the end, is the most impressive thing about the MC12. Sure, it's stupid fast and crazy capable, but that's only to be expected when you're spending enough money on it to capitalize an entire rental-car fleet. The surprise is that it's so benign, compliant, and user-friendly-a supercar that Clark Kent could love. Think of it as a 200-mph, $800,000 daily driver.
With a two-year production run-recently completed-of a mere fifty units, the MC12 is obviously a halo car, but it's driven by more than corporate ego. On the contrary, it's designed to be a tangible symbol of a new and improved Maserati, a reinvented company that hopes to carve out a small but profitable niche between Jaguar and Porsche.
The MC12 was created to achieve three goals, one for each prong of the trident displayed so prominently on the car's grille. First, it reconnects with the marque's storied competition heritage and racing cars such as the Birdcage. Second, it signals the company's renewed determination to build serious sports cars as well as grand-touring machines such as the Coupe and the Quattroporte. Third, and most important, it sends the message that Maserati isn't just Ferrari Lite.
Maserati has long been the overshadowed middle child of Italian exotics. Ferrari is like the firstborn, proud to the point of arrogance. Lamborghini is the spoiled brat, the drama queen of the family. And Maserati? Well, you can pick up an achingly beautiful Maserati Ghibli for Volkswagen Passat money, or one-fourth the price of its great rival, the Ferrari Daytona. 'Nuff said.
Actually, Maserati is the oldest of the three companies. The marque dates back to 1914, and it began cranking out racing thoroughbreds in 1926. Maseratis have won hundreds of races, from the Indianapolis 500 (Wilbur Shaw in an 8CTF in 1939 and 1940) to a Formula 1 World Championship (Juan Manuel Fangio in a 250F in 1957).
The '60s and '70s were good times for Maserati road cars. But the '80s brought the unlovely, notoriously unreliable, and ultimately unloved Biturbo. In 1991, Maserati slinked away from the United States, and Americans hardly noticed. Raise your hand if you honestly miss the Shamal.
In 1993, the sad remains of Maserati were acquired by Fiat SpA, the Italian industrial conglomerate that owns Fiat, Alfa Romeo, Lancia, and Ferrari. Four years later, Maserati was bought by Ferrari. The 3200GT debuted in 1999, and Maserati returned to the United States in 2002 with the Coupe.
Worldwide sales now rival Ferrari's. Maserati's future seems so bright that Fiat, financially flush after its recent $2 billion divorce from General Motors, reacquired Maserati from Ferrari earlier this year and realigned it with Alfa Romeo. But despite its successes, Maserati, the new generation, had yet to build a genuinely hard-edged, high-performance car, much less a racer of the sort that was once the company's raison d'tre.
Until the MC12.
Three years ago, the company decided to return to Le Mans. The rules governing the GT classes require that a certain number of road versions of a racing car must be built before it can be homologated, or approved, for competition. So the MC12 road and racing car programs were planned and proceeded in lockstep.
Maserati didn't have the technical or financial resources to develop an outrageously expensive, don't-blink-or-you'll-miss-it run of supercars. So it did the next best thing: it took the technology underpinning the Ferrari Enzo and modified it for its own purposes.
The mid-mounted engine powering the MC12 is a 6.0-liter, 65-degree V-12 with four gear-driven camshafts, hydraulic lifters, dry-sump lubrication, an aluminum crankcase, and titanium connecting rods. It's redlined at 7700 rpm, 300 lower than the Enzo, which means it makes marginally less power than the Ferrari. Unless you've got a dyno in your garage, you won't notice the missing 27 horses.
The monocoque chassis is built up from a high-tech sandwich of carbon fiber and Nomex honeycomb, with aluminum sub-frames hanging off the front and rear. The wheelbase is 5.9 inches longer than the Enzo's, which translates into more high-speed stability than in the Ferrari. Passengers also benefit from the significantly larger dimensions of the Maser-17.4 inches longer, 2.4 inches wider, and 2.3 inches taller.
Maserati assigned the MC12 to Frank Stephenson, the American responsible for the new Mini and the Quattroporte. While working on the styling, Stephenson spent long sessions hanging out with the aerodynamicists during wind-tunnel testing. "As long as I didn't ruin the aerodynamics," he says, "I had a lot of freedom with the car."
Stephenson came up with a sensuously flowing long-tail design inspired by the Group C Le Mans cars of the '80s. The carbon-fiber body is covered in a blue-and-white paint scheme that pays homage to the American Camoradi racing team. The MC12 looks particularly striking from the rear three-quarters, a view that showcases the black louvers of the engine cover, an artfully integrated wing, and gigantic carbon-fiber diffusers. Oh, and the quad exhausts don't hurt, either.
Inside the car, Stephenson strove for a look that was racy without being Speed Racer-ish. There are plenty of carbon-fiber structural elements. But most of the accents are provided by a textured material called BrighTex, which resembles carbon fiber without looking as if it belongs in a nitrous-ized Civic. Aside from the incongruous oval analog clock-a Maserati tradition-in the titanium-colored center console, the interior has a stylish but purposeful look that matches the car's personality.
Climbing into the MC12 requires some modest contortions, but once you slide into the enveloping carbon-fiber seat, the world is an exceedingly pleasant place. Although there's ample headroom for anybody who's not playing in the NBA, the roof can be removed for top-down motoring. Of course, there's no place to stow it-or anything else, including a spare tire. So be prepared to use your Bentley as a chase vehicle.
Crank the key to arm the battery, pull both gearshift paddles simultaneously to select neutral, then punch the blue start button in the center console, and the V-12 sparks immediately to life. (It also shuts down instantaneously, just like a racing engine.) There's no clutch pedal, so engaging first gear is simply a matter of tickling the paddle shifter.
Opting for Race mode is a no-brainer. Besides producing more aggressive shifts, this also defeats the traction control, though the stability control system remains on. "This is our suggested position," technical director Roberto Corradi says, no doubt having a nightmare vision of wadded-up MC12s. For those so inclined, however, the stability control can be turned off manually.
Can the MC12 be driven in everyday traffic? In theory, you bet. In the real world, forget about it. The nose is too low to clear obstructions (though it can be raised from the cockpit to crawl over curbs and speed bumps). There's no rearview mirror. The chassis clatters horribly as rocks and gravel bounce off it. Oh, and God forbid if you had to parallel-park the thing.
Still, it's a remarkably civilized beast. The engine lugs endlessly without overheating, and it's tractable from idle to redline. It's not too loud, either, at least until you floor it. The steering is light and direct at low speed. (It loads up as the speed and the downforce climb.) The suspension, featuring double control arms and pushrods, produces an agile ride. And while the specially developed Pirelli P Zeroes-245/35 at the front and 345/35 at the rear-look appropriately ominous on the 19-by-9- and 19-by-13-inch wheels, they don't beat you up.
The MC12 is a hoot at low speeds and in tight corners. Big as it is, the car gives the impression that it can be grabbed by the neck and tossed around without biting you in the butt. The stability control lets the fun factor get reasonably high before kicking in, and even when it does, it's subtle and unobtrusive, not a teacher rapping your knuckles with a ruler but a conductor gently admonishing the orchestra, Piano! Piano!
But as the speed mounts, the MC12 enters a different regime. More miles per hour means more downforce, and mechanical grip is trumped by aero loading. Air running through the diffusers and under the wing sucks the car to the ground, and you're left with the weird sensation that the tires are literally burrowing into the pavement. At Balocco, a billiard-table-smooth racetrack, this is very cool. But we wonder how the car accommodates dips, crowns, ripples, and other road imperfections.
The racing version of the MC12, of course, is a still more violent creature, but not, ironically, because it's more powerful. On the contrary, thanks to the competition-mandated inlet restrictors, the racing and road engines produce similar peak power, though factory driver Fabrizio de Simone says the racing engine generates more of its grunt at peak revs.
The racing car benefits from bigger brakes, a stouter gearbox, stiffer suspension, and slick tires-the usual suspects. But its biggest advantage over the street car is aerodynamic. With its lower ride height, front splitter, and bigger and taller rear wing, the racing car generates exponentially more downforce, and that's what causes lap times to plummet.
The MC12 debuted last year in mid-season and impressively posted two wins in four FIA GT races against Ferrari 550/575 Maranellos and Saleen S7s. Two teams will contest this year's FIA GT championship. Also, a factory-backed car is racing in the American Le Mans Series (its class features Corvettes and Aston Martins as well as Ferraris and Saleens), though it isn't permitted to score any points.
Now the bad news: Maserati's entry for Le Mans, the world's premier sports-car race and a principal goal of the MC12 program, was rejected by the infamously prickly Automobile Club de l'Ouest because of a minor rules infraction. Somehow, this seems perfectly fitting for the perennially snakebit marque. "Can't win for losing" is the clich that comes to mind.
But with the MC12, at least, Maserati gets the last laugh. Here's a car that's more exclusive, more expensive, and arguably more attractive than even the Enzo. Ferrari owners, eat your conceited little hearts out.
Engine: 6.0L DOHC V-12, 623 hp, 481 lb-ft
0-60 mph: 3.8 sec
Top Speed: 205 mph
Engine: 6.0L DOHC V-12, 623 hp, 481 lb-ft
0-60 mph: 3.8 sec
Top Speed: 205 mph