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