After all the excitement, we arrive in Pienza and stop for coffee in the Piazza Pio II. This is a land where cars - particularly Italian ones with names such as Ferrari, Alfa Romeo, and Maserati - are revered. Every spring, the Mille Miglia convoy comes to town and trickles through timekeeping before lining up for the next stage. We start chatting to Angelo, who has spotted the new Maserati and the Audi A8L we have brought along for the ride. He used to be a schoolteacher, his boyhood idol was the great Achille Varzi, and he has been a Maserati fan ever since he witnessed Tipo 26s running the 1000-mile road race in the early 1930s. In broken Italian, we take the old man through the specification of la favolosa ammiraglia nuova: the V-8 engine, electronically controlled Skyhook suspension, 13.0-inch-diameter front and 12.4-inch-diameter rear vented Brembo brakes with ABS, stability control, and the six-speed F1-style gearbox. Chain-smoking short filterless cigarettes, Angelo gives short shrift to the Audi, even if it can match the Maserati for bells and whistles and has all-wheel drive: bella macchina but not enough emozione.
We have to do some low-speed maneuvering in town, which reveals another couple of items on the Maserati's debit side. The ridiculous 40.4-foot turning circle is no ally here, and, as is true of all Italian sequential manual transmissions, DuoSelect is not particularly slick at engaging reverse. To do so, you have to lift and pull back a small toggle switch positioned next to the hand brake. The maneuver works most of the time, but it takes too long, is accompanied by an irritating warning chime, and requires a further push at the toggle to return to drive. On the credit side, we noticed a clever hill holder that stops the car from rolling backward for about three seconds, which gives you enough time to move your foot from the brake to the accelerator.
The Superstrada 146, toward Montepulciano, must be the road to paradise. Ahead of us lie a sweeping valley dotted with cypress trees, rolling hills capped with hamlets, and winding lanes leading to farmhouses flanked by vineyards and lush fruit orchards. The only thing missing is a tunnel to magnify the beautiful noise emitted by the Maserati's quad chromed tailpipes. Acoustically, a normally aspirated V-8 is hard to beat - especially one that has been tuned by Amedeo Felisa, general manager of Ferrari/Maserati's GT area, and his team. Adorned with fire-red crackle-finish cam covers and a beautifully sculptured matte-black intake plenum, the 32-valve unit lip-reads throttle orders like an expert simultaneous interpreter. Tip-in is casual, and tip-out is relatively rough, but once the motive force hooks up with the drivetrain, there is nothing stopping this car from peeling tarmac big-time. Although it doesn't always make sense to let the tachometer's needle swing past the 4500-rpm mark, it's good to know that you have 2500 rpm to play with between maximum torque and game over. And even if it doesn't make sense, it sounds bloody marvelous.
As we meander back into Florence, we muse over the Maserati. It is hardly the biggest car in its class, its rear quarters being relatively cramped compared with the commodious rear cabins of the Audi A8L and the long-wheelbase BMW 7-series. It is expensive, at a base price of $90,000, well beyond the Jaguar XJ8 or the Lexus LS430 or even the A8L. The interior is distinct from those of its competitors and is beautifully trimmed, but it lacks equipment compared with, say, the Audi. It has no keyless start/stop system, no soft-close doors, no self-releasing electric parking brake, no trunk lid that pulls itself shut at the push of a button. The Quattroporte can be ordered with a rear entertainment center, Bentley-style wooden picnic tables, and a choice of ten different shades of leather courtesy of Poltrona Frau, however.
On our drive through this most beautiful part of Italy, it's easy to see why the A8L is the top of the luxury class at the moment. The big Audi is very user-friendly compared with the Maserati, thanks to an excellent six-speed automatic transmission, a compliant suspension, and a navigation system that the average technophobe can deal with, rather than the Quattroporte's multibutton, multiswitch annoyance. For good measure, the long-wheelbase A8 has a more conveniently shaped trunk that's twenty percent larger (19.8 cubic feet versus 15.9), an even higher standard of fit and finish, and a whopping $20,000 price advantage.