By Thane Peterson
The Good Italian styling, excellent handling
The Bad Italian styling, relatively high sticker
The Bottom Line A distinctive, luxurious driver's car
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The folks at Italian auto maker Maserati like to portray their cars as "mainstream" vehicles -- "more of an everyday car" than, say, a Ferrari, as a Maserati spokesman puts it. Ferrari and Maserati are both controlled by Italy's powerful Agnelli family, and the companies cooperate technically, but Maserati is the more downscale of the two.
After all, the typical Maserati buyer has an annual household income of a mere $500,000, less than half of what Ferrari buyers nail down each year. And the Maserati GranSport sells for just $103,000, vs. $181,000 for Ferrari F430 and $275,000 for the top-of-the-line Ferrari 612 Scaglietti. So think of Maserati as a sort of economy car for the superrich.
If that's the case, the novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald said it best: "The rich are different from you and me." The GranSport is a magnificent car, a cross between a Mercedes/BMW/Jaguar-style European luxury car and the superhigh performance F430, which can leap from 0 to 60 in less than 4 seconds.
RACING LINEAGE. New for the 2005 model year, the GranSport is a sportier update of the somewhat less expensive Maserati Cambiocorse touring car. It's a roomy two-door, four passenger that from the outside looks refined and elegant. But the exterior design has clear hints of the car's power: The little lip spoiler on the rear deck, for instance, or the mesh-covered front grill that allows lots of air to ram into the engine compartment to cool the GranSport's big, 32-valve, 400-horsepower V8 engine. Or take a look at the massive 19-inch wheels sporting Pirelli racing tires.
Despite its greater weight and more luxurious appointments, the Maserati has a lot of Ferrari F430's Formula 1-inspired racing technology under its skin. Indeed, the name GranSport was chosen to recall Maserati's racing heritage: It was first used on an elegant 1950s-era Maserati racing coupe. Maseratis also have a slightly broader appeal than Ferraris: Only 80% of them are purchased by men, vs 98% for Ferraris.
While the F430's engine is in the rear, the GranSport's is up front, but positioned further back from the front axle than in most luxury sedans to give the car greater stability. The GranSport also comes standard with a Ferrari-style dual transmission: You can either use the semi-automatic paddle system, in which you up- and down-shift by manipulating two little paddle-shaped levers on the steering wheel, or at the push of a button you can switch to fully automatic shifting.
"SPORT" MODE. But why would you? As I said in my review of the F430, you can learn to use the paddle shifters in a minute of two (there's no clutch, so it's not hard) and soon be running through the car's six speeds like a pro (see BW Online, 7/8/05, "Ferrari's Fire-Breathing Stallion").
Maserati engineered the GranSport to have much more of a racing feel than the Cambiocorse. It's lighter, and rides a little lower to the ground. And the software in the paddle-shifting system has been recalibrated so that gear-changing when you put the car in the "sport" mode (which can be done at the push of a button) is lightning fast. The electronically adjustable dampers in the suspension system have been rejiggered to reduce pitch and roll when you're throwing the car into curves. In the sport mode, the car's engine also emits a satisfying race-car growl.
For a luxurious car, the GranSport is very speedy: It tops out at around 180 mph (vs. nearly 200 for the F430) and will do 0 to 60 in just under 5 seconds.
NEW WAVE DESIGN. While the GranSport's exterior styling is classic and refined, the interior is daring. It has a fair amount of carbon fiber and leather, but the dominant motif is a sort of techno-modern fabric called BrighTex that looks like it might be used one of the punkier high-fashion designers. It comes in silver, black and silver weave, or a striking baby blue and covers much of the interior, including the ceiling (which would be shocking in the baby blue).
My test car had the black and silver interior broken up by some red piping (to match the car's exterior) across the dash. I thought it was pretty cool, but it might be a little much for conservative buyers.
The car has bucket seats front and rear, with sizable bolsters that hold the occupant snugly in place. The rear has a fair amount of leg room, even with the front seats well back, and the front seats automatically move out, up, and back again as you're getting in, so it's easy to hoist yourself in and out of the rear seats.
IDLE CHOICES. Continuing the techno-fashion/racing theme, the brake and accelerator pedals are in brutal-looking ridged aluminum, like a race car's. And rather than push a button on the center console to put the car in reverse, as you do in the Ferrari F430, in the GranSport you maneuver a little lever.
Is this car worth 103 grand? You can get a close-to-top-of-the-line (and equally sporty and luxurious) Audi A8, BMW 745, or Jaguar XJ8 for $15,000 to $30,000 less. In the end, whether you shell out for the Maserati is going to be a matter of taste. Do you prefer the GranSport's more daring Italian styling to the cool precision of a BMW and Audi and the classic British luxury look of the Jag?
Another factor: How much is the exotic Maserati nameplate worth to you? Only about 1,500 GranSports will be produced annually worldwide, just a few hundred of which are expected to be sold in North America, so owning one puts you in a very exclusive club. But each Maserati is assembled in Italy as orders trickle in, so you'll have to wait several months to get yours.
Decisions, decisions. Fitzgerald's remark about the rich being different earned the disdain of the more earthy Ernest Hemingway, who famously riposted, "Yes, they have more money." But Fitzgerald had a point. All consumers face dilemmas, but the ones the wealthy face are a little different.
Peterson is a contributing correspondent for BusinessWeek Online