Maserati Health Check

maserati health check

Remember Maserati's mid-80s offerings? The Biturbo looked hotter than Christie Brinkley in a Ferrari 308, but was awful in every other way a car can be. The boxy yet steroidal Quattroporte was a stunner– whose name still pops-up as an antonym for reliability in Microsoft Word. By 1991, even barge pole-toting Italian car lovers wouldn't touch Maserati's heavy metal. The company's empire collapsed. Twelve years later, Maserati re-entered the US market bearing gifts: a studly, gutsy two-door and then, a swaggering, voluptuous four-door. And?

Maserati's new rides have found a warm welcome amongst wealthy American car collectors. In 1998, Maserati sold 518 cars worldwide. In 2005, the company sold 2114 cars in the US alone. While it would be premature to conclude that these figures indicate that Maserati has slain the mechanical gremlins that chased them off the North American continent, England's What Car magazine recently awarded all three Maserati models three out of five stars for reliability. (Wassup JD?) Equally reassuring (at least theoretically), Maserati now submits every single US car to a final, final inspection. And they're adding another $19m to the brand's expanding quality control program, on top of the $50m they've already spent in the pursuit of perfection.

More empirically, I joined a dozen other auto-journos at Road Atlanta to beat the hell out of dozens of Masers in 95-degree Georgia humidity. Aside from a busted speedometer, all press cars performed perfectly. To reiterate, my caravan of four GranSport GT's decelerated from 125mph to ten miles per hour for two hours apiece, without any failure of any sort. Two decades back, the preceding sentence would have been the prelude to a punch line.

The junket also launched the company's new flog-a-rific driving school: "Master Maserati." Upscale pistonheads know the drill: skill building exercises (lane change, slalom, skid pad, etc.), follow-the-leader laps, hot-laps in some monster machine piloted by a cruel psychopath (a.k.a. driving instructor) and a chance to humiliate yourself with psychoburger riding shotgun. Unlike Bondurant or Barber, Maserati shelters, feeds and inebriates its customers in the style to which journalists should never become accustomed.

So, is it all good news for the Trident's resurrection? Er, no. In automatic-mode, Maserati's transmission system is a dog. Drifting around Deliverance country in a Quattroporte (QP), making them tires squeal like a pig, the DuoSelect gearbox seemed hung-over. On an uphill section of the racetrack in the two-door GT, with my right foot planted, the damn thing upshifted. Manual mode works just fine; it blipped the throttle for me on downshifts and rocketed through the gears when asked. But I've come to the conclusion that all modern sports cars deserve a DSG paddle shift or a stick.

Although the Quattroporte's depreciation has been known to give its owners nosebleeds, the Sport GT variant should help reduce the initial collapse. The tighter-handling QP looks, feels, smells and sounds like a $155k sedan– which is roughly $40k more than it costs and the first year's hit. Anyway, the Sport adds more of what Quattroporte drivers are looking for: control. It's like a Shrinky Dink. The more you scorch it, the lighter and smaller it feels. One misstep: a two-inch tall piece of blingy-brightwork reading "Maserati" visible to the rear passengers. It's about as classy as those greasy adverts inside fast food joints. I'm not a big fan of carbon-fiber interiors, either. They look… w/cheese.

Perhaps the Quattroporte's most amazing attribute is the fact that it's already here; one generation ahead of Porsche's Panamera and Aston Martin's Rapide. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, Maserati should get tooled-up to assassinate the foreign pretenders to its throne. The car needs to ditch its tortuous gearbox and install a modern, seven-speed automatic. Which is the brand's next move, bless their Machiavellian little hearts.

Unfortunately, a tranny transplant will not save the Maserati GT Coupe. Compared to anything in its price range, it's a distinctly enigmatic choice. It costs twice as much as the equally powerful C6 Corvette, it's 500 pounds fatter and a lot uglier. Compared to a Porsche 911, the GT drives like a block of ice. No wonder Maserati is dumping the decade-old two-door for an all-new machine. The upcoming 'DuoPorte' should have more power (from a bigger V8), better everything else (DSG?) and a sexy body from Pininfarina.

After spending some quality time in the Quattroporte Sport GT, I can state without hesitation that Maserati will be selling cars stateside for many more years to come. While the Coupe plowed the field for the brand, the QP is the corn that's as high as an elephant's eye. The Quattroporte shows us Yanks that Maserati has what it takes to mix it up with the big boys. Benvenuto mi nuovo amore.

Photos courtesy Richard Dole/Maserati North America.

[Maserati paid for Mr. Lieberman's round-trip airfare from LA to Atlanta; local transportation, accommodation and meals. They did not, however, give him a $277k Audemars Piguet Millenary MC12 Tourbillon timepiece.]

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