It’s been said that all roads lead to Rome — but for the moment, we’re headed in the opposite direction, racing up the autostrade in the general direction of Modena. You could call that part of Italy “Speed Central,” because it’s the home of more high-performance automotive marques than any other city in the world. Ferrari and Lamborghini are the two most likely to come to mind, but not long ago, you’d have also mentioned Maserati. And you may again soon.
There’s a generation of Americans who likely don’t even know the name Maserati. Founded in 1914 by the four Italian brothers who gave the company their name, Maserati earned a justifiably fearsome reputation on tracks around the world during the first half of the century. Piloted by the likes of the legendary Juan Manuel Fangio, Sterling Moss and Phil Hill, its racecars captured a procession of Grand Prix championships, as well as two pre-War wins at the Indianapolis 500.
Even after the automaker abandoned the sport, road cars like the Ghibli Coupe, Quattroporte and Bora created a mystique that made Maserati a favorite among affluent performance aficionados. But the automaker’s fortunes took a tumble in the 1980s and ‘90s. Eccentric owner Alessandro de Tomaso made a series of dubious business moves, including one linking Maserati to Chrysler in an abortive effort to produce a reasonably priced roadster, the dubious TC. Quality problems led to a collapse in sales and a decade ago, nearly bankrupt, the marque was forced to pull out of the U.S. market entirely.
2002 Maserati Coupe
No easy comeback
Considering the competition, staging a comeback is no easy task. Certainly not for a car with a price tag topping $83,000. But Maserati is making the attempt. A few months ago, it rolled out the first new model designed with the U.S. in mind, the Spyder, a sleek, two-seat convertible. Now comes the four-passenger Coupe. (A third model, a four-door sedan reviving the Quattroporte nameplate, will be rolling off the line in 2004.)
2002 Maserati CoupeEnlarge Photo
In Europe, where Maserati hung on through the hard times, the Spyder has already shown some modest success. But it’ll be far more difficult to get Americans to accept the reborn brand. Nonetheless, time has a way of softening unpleasant memories, and that’s all the more true if an exciting product is part of the new equation. It also helps that Maserati is now owned by the marque it spent decades sparring with on and off the track.
Since acquiring its long-time rival in 1997, Ferrari has invested millions designing new products for Maserati, engineering a new powertrain, and even building a high-tech plant to produce engines for both brands. Maserati’s ancient assembly plant, near downtown Modena, has been thoroughly modernized, and as the “Qualita!” signs hanging at every work station underscore, there’s a big emphasis on getting things right. Reversing the automaker’s reputation for dismal durability is likely to be a tough challenge—but one long-term success will hang on.
Voluptuous and Italian
With a body penned by Ital Design Giugiaro, the new Coupe is quintessentially Italian, a blend of voluptuous curves and bulges that suggest the power hidden beneath its long hood. It’s not a shape that wins everyone over. The rear end, in particular, seems a bit too chunky for the rest of the body. But it is a car that tends to turn a lot of heads, whether you’re racing up the Autostrade, or standing in line for your turn at the gas pumps.
2002 Maserati Coupe
The passenger compartment has the sensual feel of custom-designed Italian furniture and indeed, a buyer can personalize the cockpit through a choice of 10 different interior colors. The front seats wrap around you like a cocoon. You can fit two adults in back, but they probably wouldn’t want to sit there through the course of a long trip. One of the most notable features is the Maserati Info Center, which integrates audio, climate and navigation systems and puts key controls within easy reach. The Coupe we drove also featured a pair of large paddles mounted just behind the steering wheel. But more on them in a moment.
Under the hood is a Ferrari-designed, 4.2-liter V-8 making an impressive 390 horsepower. That’s a good number, one becoming commonplace in cars of a lot less cost these days. The power comes on quickly and holds all the way up through the gears until you’re well beyond street-legal speeds anywhere in the U.S. We found ourselves comfortably cruising at just over 200 km/h (about 125 mph).
To get that power to the wheels, Maserati has come up with two different transmissions. There’s a slick, short-stroke six-speed manual or, for the more adventurous, the Cambiocorsa package includes a Formula One-inspired six-speed manual with clutchless sequential shifting. Flip one paddle to upshift, the other to drop a gear. This gearbox offers four modes: Normal, Sport, Auto and Low Grip—the latter for snowy or gravelly surfaces. Like learning to drive a stick, the Cambiocorsa takes a bit of time to learn. But for F1 wannabes, it’s likely to prove one of the most enticing features of the Maserati Coupe.
We wish we could say our experience matched expectations. Even in the same mode, we found the transmission to be notably erratic from one moment to the next. At times, shifts occurred quickly and seamlessly. In other instances, there would be surprisingly long lags where we could hear the electronic control module slow the engine, shift, then wind up the revs again. Stopped at an uphill intersection in a small Italian village, the transmission seemed to be totally confused, bucking for a moment before finally settling into gear and driving away. We hope such problems can be worked out before the Coupe reaches American shores because we really do like the Cambiocorsa concept.
2002 Maserati Coupe
The transmission is linked, incidentally, to the automatic Skyhook suspension. Sensors monitor each wheel to quickly adjust damper settings. The result is a constantly changing ride that adapts to the conditions of the moment. At moderate speeds, that means a smooth and comfortable ride. Pushing the limits on the autostrade or tearing through some steep and winding Italian hillsides, the suspension hunkers down, providing a solid and predictable ride with the car’s 18-inch wheels firmly hugging the road. A set of oversized Brembo brakes provide the stopping power you’d expect for a package like this.
Some observers have called Maserati “the poor man’s Ferrari,” and in one sense that’s true, considering the price tag is half what it would cost for a Maranello special. But company officials insist these two brands appeal to very different buyers, and they’re likely right. The Maserati is not nearly as flashy and ostentatious, though it is still an eye-catcher. It’s easier to drive, especially on a long and leisurely cruise.
The Coupe’s two rear seats also offers an advantage, not just over Ferrari, but when compared with the limited-purpose Spyder that beat it to the U.S. by a few months. Maserati originally expected to sell at least twice as many cabrios as coupes, but that proportion may be reversed if initial, advance orders are any indication. Overall, first-year sales forecasts are modest, according to the American importer, and for good reason. Maserati’s not just a new brand: it’s an old one coming back and hoping to overcome some unwanted baggage. So sales will likely have to build slowly over several years as Maserati proves it has a reason to return.
2002 Maserati Coupe Cambiocorsa
Base Price: estimated $83,000
Engine: 4.2 liter V-8, 390 bhp
Transmission: electronically shifted six-speed manual, with F1-style paddle shifters Wheelbase: 104.7 in
Length: 178.07 in
Width: 71.7 in
Height: 51.4 in
Curb Weight: 3,700 lbs
EPA (city/hwy): n/a
Safety Features: front and side airbags, pre-tensioning seat belts, inertia fuel cut-off switch
Major Standard Features: driver and passenger power seats with memory, electronic alarm with anti-tow protection, cruise control, CD player, trip computer
Warranty: Four years/ 50,000 miles
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