It's easy to get the S63 totally crossed up, because a stab at the throttle kicks out the rear end like the tongue of a frog catching flies. In contrast, the Maserati behaves more like a BMW M5 at the limit. Assisted by its ultra-wide rear tires, the Quattroporte tends to hang on a little longer, and it prefers to slide all four wheels, which instantly redefines the real-estate requirements. Because of the superb steering, you always know exactly where you are in terms of intended direction versus momentary direction. The whole process is a lot creamier, and it lasts longer, too, compared with the Benz, which tries to electronically cut short the show. We'd love for the Audi to relay a little more excitement than what's provided by the recently introduced 40/60 torque split, but to do so, it probably needs a handbrake to trigger that perfectly timed change of balance.
The engine-gearbox combination that comes closest to perfection is the Maserati's blend of Italian V-8 and German cogs, which can be either superquick or supersmooth--or both. Redlined at 7500 rpm, the thirty-two valver works best in sport mode, which quickens the throttle response, increases shift speed, and combines later upshifts with earlier downshifts. In real life, the Maserati driver will hardly notice the nominal power deficit versus its Teutonic rivals. The same applies to the theoretical performance gap between the Audi and the Mercedes. True, the S63 is nearly half a second quicker to 60 mph. But in the real world--a place littered with loose gravel and patchwork pavement--the S8's Quattro eliminates this advantage in no time. While the Benz repeats the recipe of the original 300SEL 6.3 Q-car, the Audi represents an unexpectedly happy marriage between sports car engine and family cruiser. One more thing: all three vehicles allow you to downshift with your fingertips without first consulting the gear lever.
So, which of our three tenors takes the trophy? For the first time, the Maserati deserves to be taken seriously. It incorporates the flair we love about its home country, yet it has shed most of the idiosyncrasies that can make owning an Italian automobile such a chore. Especially in Sport GT guise, the Quattroporte comes very close to the mythical four-door Ferrari. If Maserati can straighten out that suspension, install bigger brakes, and claim Fiat's corporate 4.6-liter V-8 as soon as Alfa Romeo doesn't need it any longer for the 8C, the Modena squad should have a winner.
The Mercedes is almost too much of a good thing. It succeeds, but at a price. We're not only talking dollars and cents but also power-to-weight ratio and fuel consumption. Although the S63 shows what can be achieved when gifted engineers are given carte blanche, it needs good conditions to shine, and it needs an owner who is not only very rich but is also a competent driver. Despite the undisputed effect this car has on everyone it encounters, you may want to consider an E63 AMG instead. It costs less, is even quicker, and blends a certain stealth appeal with a lighter and more chuckable package.
In Europe, the 326-hp, 4.2-liter turbo-diesel A8 is a more economical and more torquey alternative to the S8. In the United States, the only potential argument against the S8 is its less than cushy ride. In all other departments, this car ranks with the best. Despite its shortcomings, Quattro is, in this league, definitely more pragmatic than rear-wheel drive. It might be the third-best car in this group for playing hooligan, but as an everyday, all-weather proposal that will reward you for being smooth and accurate, the throaty S8 has what it takes to sing the top part--if only by a quarter tone.