We're caught in the morning rush hour with a flock of aggressive Vespas, Fiat Puntos, and Fiat Ducato vans swarming around us. Even in this mess, the new Maserati Quattroporte is the undisputed center of attention. Maserati enters the luxury-car field against the likes of BMW, Mercedes-Benz, and Lexus with the Quattroporte, a cocoon on wheels that features the usual blend of soft leather and rich wood inside with taut Pininfarina styling. The technical package is stunning, too, with a 4.2-liter, dual-overhead-cam V-8 engine that's good for 394 horsepower and 333 pound-feet of torque. Mounted far enough back in the engine bay for an equitable 47/53 percent front/rear weight distribution, it's mated to a six-speed sequential manual gearbox that has an automatic mode.
On a good day, the 199-inch-long five-seater will accelerate from 0 to 60 mph in 5.1 seconds and top 170 mph. But despite a cosseting interior, the first six or seven stop-and-go miles in the city of the Medici are a huge disappointment. The choppy ride around town borders on unacceptable, the Brembo brakes are heavy and lifeless, and, in automatic mode, the Duo-Select transmission is about as well mannered as a Fiorentino soccer hooligan after a lost home game. It makes you wonder if the new supersedan from Modena will be able to chase down its illustrious competition. To find out, there's an Audi A8L 4.2 driven by photographer Richard Newton about three car lengths ahead of us. Interestingly, the Volkswagen Group has just inked a joint venture with Maserati, a move that has apparently irked the top brass at Audi.
We think we'll get a respite from the clustering traffic by heading onto the A1, the autostrada between Florence and Rome. As is typical for this busy road, the trucks and buses that seem to make up most of the traffic are going slowly. Less typically, it is beginning to snow. Great! The constant speeding up and slowing down is a good opportunity to gauge the DuoSelect transmission, known as the Cambiocorsa in the Maserati Coupe and Spyder. In drive, the gearbox blips the throttle deliciously during downshifts, as in the Ferrari 575M, and the unit actually will hold a chosen gear all the way up to the redline when you absolutely lead-foot the loud pedal. Upshifts, on the other hand, are depressingly clumsy and slow, and the throttle response is hesitant most of the time. This is hardly a classic, hands-off, smooth, fuss-free automatic transmission, but there is compensation. Hit the manual button, start working the shift paddles that are attached to the steering column, and the Quattroporte becomes an enthusiast's car. It certainly does not take long to learn the right rhythm for paddle-shifting, and you'll delight in the instant up- and downshifts. A highly intuitive transmission like this is out of place in a conventional luxury sedan, but you soon realize that the big Maserati is hardly a conventional luxury car. As we are about to find out, this car is hard-core, and hard-core drivers are reluctant to let a computer coordinate such vital parameters as revs, torque, and vehicle speed.
The scenery changes as we take a country road from Arezzo to Siena, through Tuscany at its picture-postcard best. In the homeland of Brunello and Pecorino, the Quattroporte excels, the local hero tackling the challenging gradients with the ease and sure-footedness of a much smaller car. The Maserati owes its compelling composure and corner-greedy handling to its layout more than anything else, because the tail-heavy balance frees up the steering while providing extra drive-wheel traction. Assisted by prudently sized Pirelli P Zero Rossos - 245/45ZR-18s in the front, 285/40ZR-18s in the back - the mighty Modenese carves through bends as swiftly, elegantly, and unerringly as Italy's famed slalom skier Alberto Tomba.
Even on wet, knobbly blacktop, the Quattroporte holds the road as if it were a mobile suction cup. It follows the chosen line brilliantly and tracks with the precision of a laser gun. And it is gifted with near-perfect steering that's in the pantheon with the Porsche 911, the BMW M3, and the Mitsubishi Evolution. The power-assisted rack-and-pinion arrangement has absolutely spot-on weight and feel; it is communicative, accurate, and responsive; it knows when to filter and when to enhance; and it constantly scans and verifies the surface. It's the ultimate man-machine interface. Here in g-force heaven, the double-control-arm suspension - with Skyhook continuously variable damping - copes well with surface changes, in marked contrast to its behavior around town, where the stiff low-speed ride erases the smile on your face faster than the traffic lights can change color. In Sport mode, the suspension setting is stiffer and the damp-ers, along with the gearshifts, act faster, so that the around-town roughness returns. Deactivating stability control instantly converts the Quattroporte into a loose cannon that needs a lot of room when its considerable mass starts swinging.