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by Dan Carney
Tooling along the highway south of Modena in the 2003 Maserati Coupe and Spyder [no, I didn’t drive both cars at the same time — I traded cars with another journalist], I found these two improved cars deliver on the promise of stylish, comfortable grand touring.
Outwardly the cars are indistinguishable from their predecessors, but underneath they are firmed and stiffened for sportier, more responsive handling. The 390-horsepower 4.2-liter V-8 generates impressive thrust and a thrilling exhaust note, while the driver soaks in the luxury of the Maserati’s leather-wrapped interior.
Ferrari positions its Maserati division in not only a lower-priced echelon from Ferrari, but also with a distinctly different focus. While Maserati might have once been a mighty world championship racing company, today the Coupe and Spyder are grand touring cars rather than sports cars.
Consider the Maserati a worthy competitor of the Jaguar XK8 in terms of style, luxury, cachet, and performance. The Porsche 911 may be similarly priced, but its focus on performance over comfort really targets a customer with different priorities, although there is probably some overlap.
Major, useful improvements
However, even GT cars need a solid foundation and sharp handling, so for 2003 Maserati has made useful improvements that are familiar sports-car upgrades. The Spyder enjoys a 20 percent stiffer chassis than before, courtesy of “structural foam” (glue) in critical areas, along with some old-fashioned gussets and braces in the door sills that reduce cowl shake to a more tolerable level.
Both cars get quicker steering, stiffer anti-roll bars, stickier tires and new software programming for the active suspension system. The old steering rack slid 52 mm for each turn of the steering wheel, but the new one moves 60 mm, so steering is quicker than before.
Also new is the Maserati Stability Program, co-developed with Bosch, which gives the car stability control. The MSP works along with the “Skyhook” active suspension system and anti-lock brakes to tolerate and compensate for all manners of foolishness with the car, while keeping it pointed straight and providing a comfortable ride.
The Cambiocorsa computer-shifted manual transmission is upgraded so that it can now bang off shifts in as little as 150 milliseconds, compared with a full half-second before. Right foot flat on the floor, clicking off no-lift upshifts with the paddle shifter, the rumbling exhaust note and seamless forward propulsion barely hiccup.
The steering column-mounted shift paddles are the best solution for such manu-matics, because steering wheel-mounted buttons are out of position when turning the steering wheel, while the column-mounted paddles are stationary, so the driver can always find them.
The quick and effective system is vastly preferable to the available six-speed manual gearbox on the Maserati. Even die-hard H-pattern manual-shifter fanatics will find the Maserati’s hard to like, because the cramped footwell means only ballerinas can deftly operate the closely-spaced pedals. Clutch action is stiff and uncommunicative, while the shifter suffers long throws and notchy gear selection.
While the Cambiocorsa system flatters the driver, the manual makes him look worse than he is, which is unhelpful for a car that trades heavily on style and image.
That image is enhanced by the Maserati’s sensuous styling and sumptuous leather and wood interior that is available in ten different colors. The interior ambiance says “old world,” and the rest of the car is good enough that it isn’t a backhanded compliment. The Coupe’s rear seat is usefully spacious for children or adults for short hops, while the Spyder responsible skips the pretense of combining a rear seat with a folding top.
Eliminating the back seat on the Spyder lets Maserati shorten the wheelbase by 220 mm, so the open car is shorter for more nimble handling and a stiffer chassis.
The Spyder’s folding soft top is thickly padded and equipped with a new glass rear window, so the top is effective at muffling noise. There was no opportunity to test its ability to withstand a chilly northern U.S. winter, but the design promises to keep occupants snug in the car while the embedded rear defroster keeps the rear view clear.
The roof is available in four different fabric colors — black, blue, Bordeaux, and beige. To our eyes, the conventional black and beige worked well, while the blue and bordeaux only seemed suitable when they matched the car’s paint color. Sixteen paint colors are available, along with three possibilities for the visible brake calipers (black, red or silver), and briarwood and carbon fiber are available for interior trim. Even a leather headliner is optional on the coupe. Of course, in true old-world fashion, these are only the standard options. Complete customization is available to customers who request it.
Functionally, Maserati has improved dramatically under Ferrari’s stewardship, but the car can still be matched by a variety of less expensive alternatives. But aesthetically the Maserati rivals any car available from any competitor, and that is probably the most important criterion in this segment.
2003 Maserati Coupe/Spyder Evolution
Base Price Range: $85,561 (Coupe GT) - $94,972 (Spyder Cambiocorsa)
Engine: 4.2-liter V-8, 390 hp
Drivetrain:Six-speed paddle-shift manual or six-speed manual transmission, rear-wheel drive
Wheelbase: 96.1 in (Spyder), 104.7 in. (Coupe)
Length x width x height: 169.4 (Spyder), 178.0 (Coupe) x 71.3 x 51.4 in.
Weight: 3785 lb (Spyder) 3675 lb (Coupe)
Fuel economy (estimated): 11/17 mpg (Cambiocorsa), 12/17 mpg (manual)
Standard safety equipment: Anti-lock brakes, traction control, dual front airbags, and three-point seat belts.
Warranty: Four years/50,000 miles