Nobody does car names like the Italians. Maserati is one of the all-time greats, right up there with Ferrari or Lamborghini. Just by the sound of the name, people know it's fast, exotic, and expensive, even if they've never seen one and wouldn't know if they had. That last fact is probably a blessing for Maserati, given the stuff it was peddling before it decamped from our shores in 1990.
But time, that great mind eraser, has been kind to Maserati. In 1997, the company came under the control of Ferrari, an ideal scenario. Under the warm sunshine of Ferrari management and nourished by its plentiful money, Maserati blossomed. The company introduced the 3200GT coupe in 1999, opened a modern new factory, and now is returning to the United States.
Stop by your local Maserati store, and you'll see the Maserati Spyder (deliveries of which began in March) and two versions of the Maserati Coupe, which should be arriving as you read this.
An evolution of the 3200GT, the Coupe GT and Coupe Cambiocorsa have a stiffer body sporting restyled front and rear ends. The nose and tail look good, but we have to second-guess the rear quarter area, which, to our eyes, prevents the Coupe from looking like a proper Italian beauty.
Happily, the Coupe's new 4.2-liter engine is everything you'd expect from a bucks-up Italian exotic. This naturally aspirated, DOHC, all-aluminum V-8 made its debut in the Spyder and replaces the 3200GT's twin-turbo 3.2-liter. Not only is the new engine lighter, freer-revving, and more powerful, with 385 horsepower and 333 pound-feet of torque, but it also gets the sensual elements exactly right. With its red cam covers and sculpted intake cover, it looks great. Better yet, when you zing it toward its 7500-rpm redline, it sounds for all the world like a Ferrari engine.
Slaves to the intoxicating sound, we kept sending the engine into the upper rev ranges, but that's hardly necessary for rapid progress. With the 4.2-liter's broad torque band peaking at 4500 rpm, this engine is always ready to fling the Coupe down the road with as much urgency as any Porsche 911 or Jaguar XKR.
The Coupe GT has a conventional six-speed manual transmission, but all the cars on hand at the launch had Maserati's Cambiocorsa servo-shifted gearbox. The Cambiocorsa doesn't make a very good automatic, but it's a neat manual. There is no clutch, and, in automatic mode, the transmission will do all the shifting for you, although the shifts can be awfully slow. During hard acceleration, there's a real break in momentum while the clutch disengages, the gear is changed, and the clutch reengages.
It's a different story when you shift for yourself, particularly if you've pushed the button for the sport mode. Tapping the steering-wheel-mounted paddle snaps off upshifts far more quickly than you could do them. The neatest trick of all is on downshifts, where the controller blips the throttle to match revs. Very cool.
The transmission modes also are integrated with the traction control, which allows more wheelspin in the sport setting than in the normal or automatic modes. There's also a low-grip setting for extra-mellow starts.
The brakes are by Brembo, vented discs all around. They shrugged off our twisty, hilly Tuscan workout but don't quite have the ability to reverse the earth's rotation the way a 911's do.
The steering feels properly weighted for a hi-po GT, not too heavy in town, not too light on the road. Despite the wide tires, the steering has a good sense of straight ahead. Linearity, however, is less than ideal, with the gain as you move off center increasing too rapidly. In corners, though, it feels perfectly natural.
Our car, with the standard suspension, gripped tenaciously, felt nicely balanced, and exhibited little body roll. An adaptive-damping system, called Skyhook, is optional. Skyhook has two damping settings, which are tied in with the traction control and the Cambiocorsa gearbox. Maserati characterizes the Skyhook's advantage over the standard dampers as one of greater comfort rather than improved performance. We thought the standard suspension supple enough, although Italy's gentle roads hardly provide the same test as the mean streets of Detroit.
The seats are comfortable as well, as is the driving position, except for a too-close dead pedal. The Coupe is a proper two-plus-two, although the rear is best suited for those who are small of stature. The entire interior is swathed in gorgeous leather. If the ten standard hues and various contrasting elements don't suit you, you're invited to fashion your own custom scheme. Your good taste won't be sullied by cheap plastic anything, because there's not a cheesy-looking or -feeling switch anywhere.
The Maserati Coupe snuck up on us. Its unassuming shape deceptively suggests that this car is not as sporty as a Porsche 911 or even a Jag XK8. That notion dissipates the first time you wind out the four-cam V-8, and it's erased completely when you attack your first series of tight corners. This is a true GT car with a beguiling Italian accent. If Maserati is as serious about quality and dealer service as Ferrari/Maserati's very British U.S. honcho, Stuart Robinson, claims to be, it should have little trouble peddling 1200 Coupes and Spyders in America this year.
After all, "I drive a Maserati" has a pretty seductive ring, don't you think?