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.