Gran designs
7 September 2004

When you have a 400bhp Maserati V8, it’s quite nice to be able to hear it. And I can certainly hear the engine where I am right now, standing at the edge of a road that winds through verdant, soft-contoured Italian hills spangled with the kind of terracotta shoppertunities that have we Brits rushing for a second mortgage. I’ve taken station on the inside of a tight hairpin at which a Maserati will shortly be launched for the camera, and though the squeal of tyres is pleasing, it’s nothing to the thrill of that V8 exhausting itself on the over-run, gusts of spent gas spitting and gurgling through a quartet of tail-pipes. Hairpin speared, the pearlescent white coupé plunges toward the valley below, its V8 drumbeat rousing a dog on a distant farm as the engine’s staccato pulses ricochet off the landscape. It sounds absolutely magnificent. And I don’t mean the dog.

Pearlescent white? If that sounds a little exhibitionist from Maserati, well, it is. But you’re looking at the Maserati GranSport, a slightly hotter version of this mature Modenese charger, and it wears some of the oddest sill extensions this side of a Cadillac Escalade. It also has a tiny boot spoiler, a more protuberant front bumper bearing an enlarged mesh grille, and rides on bigger 19in wheels whose spoking pattern ingeniously repeats the Maserati trident. These changes are chasing at defter dismissals of corners – the Maser’s ride height has been dropped 10mm to the same end – and more satisfactory penetration of the air. Not only is the coupé more slippery – its Cd drops two points to 0.33, those sills contributing significantly – but aerodynamic lift has also fallen by 12 per cent, and it’s more evenly spread across the axles, too.

But back to that less-subtle look. Glance inside and you could be shocked to see swimming pool-blue seats. Not with every colour combination, but amid Maserati’s usual sumptuous leatherings are ‘High-Tech’ fabric inserts. The material resembles Sparco and, like the racewear, it’s fire resistant, says design chief Frank Stephenson, who discovered it at an Italian fashion show. Not only does it happen to resist incendiary incidents – not always a sartorial priority – but it also wears well and is very grippy. Happily, if you don’t fancy pool blue, it also comes in grey or black; sections of the dash, ceiling, seats and door casings similarly trimmed. The front seats are substantially reworked to secure you more completely through hard-charged corners.

Which this Maserati has been equipped to charge all the harder, making use not only of the lower ride height, bigger tyres and aerodynamic tweaks, but also of modifications to the Skyhook electronic dampers which better resist pitch and dive. The springs and anti-roll bars are unaltered, as are the brakes for that matter. The engine is only lightly modified, the extra 10 horsepower teased out via a combination of hotter cams, the hand-finishing to closer tolerances of some areas (such as the union of inlet manifold to head) and reduced exhaust back-pressure. Not surprisingly these small changes don’t produce a vast improvement in acceleration – they shave half a second from a standing kilometre – although the original intention was to extract more go by paring weight.

In fact this project, triggered by Ferrari-Maserati president Luca di Montezemolo, was to have produced a Maserati in the mould of the Ferrari 360 Challenge Stradale. But adding lightness costs, and it soon became apparent that tooling carbonfibre door casings and the like would have added unsustainable sums to the price. In fact, some of the interior is carbonfibre, such as the console between the seats, but the weight saved here was lost to the bigger wheels and tyres says engineering chief Roberto Corradi. Yet the modifications make a significant difference to the coupé’s ability to cover ground. The GranSport will lap the short Varano race track near Parma a not insignificant two seconds faster than the standard car.

Or at least, it will if you’re Gabriele Tarquini, current European Touring Car champion, who is demonstrating the car. Unsurprisingly, he pilots the GranSport with tidy zeal, leading you to wonder whether his skills mask the Maser’s well-catalogued deficiencies. Have a go yourself, leaving the traction control on, and such suspicions barely evaporate, the electronics intervening often enough that the car feels as if it is repeatedly snagging in brambles. But turn the button off and you’re in for a surprise: the GranSport not only resists understeer very effectively – as promised by Corradi – but it also requires a deeply-thrust throttle to have the tail sliding, at least on dry surfaces. The brakes are strong, too. Above all, it feels balanced, composed and very usable, even if there is some body roll.

And these positives translate well to the road. The GranSport comes only with the Cambiocorsa semi-automatic transmission, and further refining of its software has produced shifts that, though thumpingly harsh at full throttle, prove acceptably smooth most of the time. Downchanges, accompanied by intoxicatingly feral throttle blips, are excellent and, best of all, it’s easier to modify your driving style to achieve smooth shifts. All of which makes the Sport mode, which quickens gearchanges, stiffens the dampers and opens a valve in the exhaust’s back-box for a wailing V8 serenade, a hard thing to switch off.

The right gear is no more than a finger-flick away – ideal on sinuous roads – and with 400bhp to dispense you will make streaking progress. On dry surfaces you’ll struggle to break traction or over-tax the brakes, but if the road is bumpy you will occasionally unearth a remaining flaw: the Maser’s apparent lack of wheel travel. Sometimes that produces a thudding crash into potholes, or a tyre will loosen its grip under braking, triggering an anti-lock moment. It’s not serious, but on taxing roads your heart might flutter.

More likely, though, it will flutter with pleasure. At last, this is a Maserati coupé that can be pushed with confidence. True, the steering hardly teems with feel, but it no longer seems vague and oddly weighted. Nor do you sense that the back-end may suddenly break away. You can rely on this car, and that makes it an immensely satisfying road weapon. Especially with that trumpeting exhaust.

Before now, this handsome, charming coupé has never really lived up to its promise on the road. The original 3200 GT, with its lunging, twin-turbo V8, never felt less than a throttle-prod away from a heart-in-mouth moment, its slightly vague steering and rolling, pitching suspension leaving you at sea as you gathered momentum. Over the years the manners of this surprisingly practical car have improved – though not by the crude stiffening that created the supposedly sportier Assetto Corsa of 2001– until today, as the 4200, it is civil enough for its not inconsiderable charm to shine. The GranSport, however, is the best Maserati coupé yet, even if some of the restyling troubles its elegance. For the first time it really can be driven hard and fast down a twisting road and, more than that, it will deliver high entertainment while doing it. No, it’s not as accomplished as a Porsche 911. But I doubt whether it serves any less entertainment, and it’s a hell of a lot more exclusive.

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