Bologna, Italy - The sun soaks the Futa Pass in warm, late-summer light. This is Mille Miglia country: stunning scenery, light traffic, and the friendliest cops on earth. The carabinieri know an interesting car when they see one, and they haven't seen too many Maserati Spyders yet. We are happy to indulge their curiosity. The show starts with a display of the power-operated top, which retracts noisily and stows behind the twin roll hoops beneath a rigid cover. Then, up goes the hood, displaying a beautifully detailed mechanical landscape that is dominated by gigantic intake runners and a pair of red-painted cam covers. The carabinieri want to hear the deep, full voice that hums and drums, gasps and rasps, bellows and roars.
Time to say ciao: My right index finger selects first gear with a poke of the paddle shifter behind the steering wheel, the tach needle swings skyward, and we're off.
Maserati's existing 3200GT coupe uses a twin-turbo 3.2-liter V-8, but the Spyder--which will lead the brand's return to the American market it abandoned in 1991--carries a new, normally aspirated, 32-valve 4.2-liter V-8 that shares much of its design thinking with the 3.6-liter V-8 in Ferrari's 360 Modena and 360 Spider--not surprising, since Ferrari controls Maserati. Rated at 385 horsepower, the Maserati V-8 is just 9 horsepower shy of Maranello's unit but churns out 333 pound-feet of torque against the Ferrari's 275. Performance figures for the two cars are very close, with the 360 Spider about a half-second quicker to 60 mph and 7 mph faster at the top end than the Maserati. For 2003, however, Ferrari will launch an enhanced 360 with a 40-valve V-8 using the 4.2-liter Maserati engine's block. This new 360M--M for modificato--will put some serious performance distance between the two brands.
At a glance, the interior of the Spyder does not much differ from the 3200GT coupe. But the convertible offers slightly more legroom, the instruments have been given a fresh look, and the center console of our test car sported a new, larger screen for the navigation system, along with the secondary controls for the six-speed sequential manual transmission, which Maserati calls the Cambiocorsa gearbox. This evolution of the F1-style box introduced in the 360 Modena offers a push-button choice of four driving modes (normal, sport, auto, and low grip) and a small lever to engage reverse. Thanks to much-improved computer control, takeoff is a cinch, even on steep hills, and reverse can be activated much more quickly. Shifts in the automatic mode are executed more smoothly and more promptly, as well. In sport mode, the combination of high revs and a fully depressed accelerator pedal will automatically trigger the quickest shift speed; it makes the tires chirp not only at takeoff but also during upshifts into second and third gears.
Although the Spyder is quantifiably quicker than the 3200GT, its engine develops power and torque in a more relaxed manner. Meandering through tight bends in fourth gear at 45 mph is the easiest trick in the book, and you don't need to indulge in redline histrionics to get the brakes excited and the Michelin Pilot Sport tires up to working temperature. With the traction control system switched off, it's difficult to resist sliding the car through the second-gear corners that make this picturesque part of the famed Mille Miglia route so entertaining. Unfortunately, the Spyder's steering is a bit too light, its Brembo brakes are somewhat unresponsive, and the suspension tends to float over bumpy roads. Maserati plans to address these issues by offering an optional sport package.
To emphasize the more dynamic character of the two-seat convertible compared with the two-plus-two GT, the designers took 8.3 inches out of the wheelbase and fashioned a unique rear end that gives the Spyder sportier proportions and a more aggressive stance. They also lost the 3200GT's token rear seats and increased the luggage space by 35 percent to 10.6 cubic feet. The Spyder's more comprehensive specification includes four air bags, full leather trim, and power-operated seats. Perhaps most noteworthy is the great improvement in fit and finish.
After 220 miles and about 2200 corners, we returned the Spyder to Maserati with much reluctance. With a sticker price expected to be about $83,000, Maserati's latest Spyder offers a rare blend of character and competence that could make it a compelling alternative to the Mercedes-Benz SL500, the Jaguar XKR, and the Porsche 911 Carrera. The Spyder is not without its faults, but overall, the car is a great deal more soulful than its competitors. It also makes you wonder whether the Ferrari 360 Spider's $88,000 premium is money well spent.