Closer to heaven

The best-looking Maserati in years has a couple of major flaws, but there could be a fix just around the corner
By Andrew Frankel

Iam not sure whether it has been achieved by careful strategy or sheer serendipity (though I have my suspicions), but despite decades of dodgy product and half a century of under or non-achievement on the track, Maserati now finds itself in a position it could not have conceived a mere 10 years ago. Then the company was close to moribund, making handfuls of sometimes charming but in general useless cars.

Now production is at unprecedented levels and expanding relentlessly as a new generation of fans, who wouldn’t know Juan Manuel Fangio from Stirling Moss, queue for the honour of putting a trident on their drive.

It’s all about image or, in Maserati’s case, a lack of an image with any serious negative connotations. Whatever the individual merit of any Porsche, Ferrari, Bentley or Aston may be, if you buy one you know that as you drive it down any street in any town, a large proportion of those looks you get will be far from complimentary. Without ever having met you, a sizeable chunk of the general public will suspect strongly that you are anything from a narcissistic poser to a gauche braggart, to whom the only really important ability a car must have is a talent for making ostentatious wealth statements.

You don’t have these problems if you buy a Maserati. I have a friend who has created a vast fortune for himself yet were you to pass on the street you’d very easily mistake him for a farm labourer. He bought his Maserati not for the things it said about him, but for those it did not: “I wanted a fast car that felt good to drive, felt I’d earned it, and the Maserati was the only car I both liked and felt comfortable about buying.”

And, if this new GranTurismo is any guide, in theory life should only get better for Maserati from now on. For a start it is Maserati’s prettiest car for at least 30 years and possibly of all time. To these eyes and restricting the search to pure road cars, I’d say only the Ghibli coupé and Merak even get on the same scoresheet.

I first saw the GranTurismo in the flesh along with the rest of the world’s automotive media at the Geneva motorshow last March and despite a large crowded hall with glaring artificial light being just about the most unflattering environment in which to reveal a new car, I was struck by its beauty. The greatest trick in contemporary car design is to create a thoroughly modern look, yet one that is clearly informed by the brand’s heritage, and in the almost 300S-like swoop of its front wing and that fabulous front grille, this is precisely what Maserati, thanks to a clearly on-song Pininfarina, has achieved.

But as Maserati has shown rather too many times in its history, certain cars are at their absolute best when parked (I once drove a Maserati Indy and, the interesting engine note aside, could not think of a single redeeming characteristic in the way it wallowed slowly and ineptly down the road), and I had to wait months to find out whether the GranTurismo also possessed an inner beauty or if, in fact, those looks served only to conceal a rather darker truth beneath.

On paper at least, it didn’t look good. The 4.2-litre V8 engine has carried over from the outgoing 4200GT in almost unchanged form and while its 405bhp output looks healthy enough in isolation, an engine’s power is a meaningless indicator of performance unless seen in the context of how much weight it must pull. In the GranTurismo’s case that’s a groaning 1880kg – you can buy a new Mercedes-Benz S-class limousine that weighs no more. It costs £78,500, making it distinctly more pricey than either the £68,750 Porsche 911 Carrera S or £70,097 Jaguar XKR, yet cannot offer anything approaching the power to weight ratio of either.

Why is it so heavy? Partly because there’s so much of it: those svelte lines cover its size so well that you’d never guess they clothe a car that is substantially longer than a seven-seat Land Rover Discovery 3. But at least this means that, unlike the Jag and Porsche, it is a genuine 2+2 in the proper, traditional sense.

So why, given all that space, Maserati has made such an appalling mess of the driving position defeats me. If you’re tall – not freakish but anything beginning with six or more – you’ll likely find yourself wanting to put the seat substantially further back and downwards than it is prepared to go. You feel perched on the car, rather than nestled within it as surely you should with any proper GT. Worse, the seats themselves are flat and hard and introduce a level of discomfort after an hour or so at the wheel that is genuinely startling to find in such a car.

These potentially fatal flaws would be merely sad rather than infuriating if the rest of the car weren’t so damn good. All the really difficult stuff it has cracked, tasks like perfecting the ride and refinement, which in car companies a thousand times the size of Maserati takes teams of people years to bring to a marketable level. The suspension is soft enough to comply fully with its Grand Touring role, yet is sufficiently well damped for its authority over the car’s body movements never to be questioned. Similarly, if you cruise at any speed compatible with the retention of your driving licence, the cabin is hushed and, were it not for those awful seats, a luxurious place to be. Yet call upon the V8 with your right foot and it replies with a voice of classic, Italian elegance and purpose.

Even its avoirdupois is not the problem you’d expect. The engine lacks torque low down, but the six-speed ZF gearbox’s valiant efforts to keep the motor spinning at speed prove largely successful, and when the noise is as rich as this, few people who chose to buy a Maserati are likely to feel inconvenienced. Best of all, the GranTurismo handles better than you’d possibly credit a car weighing this much riding on such gentle springs. I drove it through Wales on roads I’ve been down in cars far quicker than this and it acquitted itself with honour. It was fast, fun, forgiving and every inch the thoroughbred GT this marque has so often promised but so rarely delivered. Even the steering, which is usually the first attribute to suffer when installed in an overweight, front-engined car, is sharp, responsive and pleasantly communicative.

Only the brakes, which are wooden to the touch and barely up to the job of containing a car this quick and heavy, disappoint. For most of the time they are merely annoying, but if you were ever to do even recreational track work in one, my guess is that they’d prove inadequate.

All of which leaves me in something of a quandary. I’ve been waiting the thick end of 20 years for the moment when I can state unequivocally that going out and buying a brand new Maserati GT is a good idea, and I’m so nearly there with this one it makes me want to yell. But had I the means and motive to buy a GranTurismo, I’m afraid I’d leave the money in the bank. Those seats alone would provide all the grounds I needed to stay away.

But the end of this tale need not be gloomy, for the fact is, it’s not yet been told in its entirety. When Maserati said the GranTurismo had been made deliberately more compliant than the now defunct 4200GT and should not therefore be thought of as a replacement, it didn’t require much intelligence to figure out that this decision was not made because Maserati had gone soft in its old age. It was rather more likely there was something Maserati was not telling us.

And the biggest clue as to what that something might be is currently in residence under the bonnet of the Alfa Romeo 8C. It is a 4.7-litre version of the V8 (which, confusingly, is built by Ferrari) with 450bhp and a slug more torque.

It’s likely to be installed in a future version of the GranTurismo, one which will be substantially harder-edged. If so, we can expect it to be fitted not only with firmer suspension but, crucially, better brakes too. And if in addition, heaven be praised, they also see fit to install some slimmer, more curved seats that therefore provide your body with better location, legroom and comfort, all the significant criticisms of this car will have been addressed.

Then, I expect, Maserati will have created something it has yearned for since the day it started making road cars but has yet to achieve: a truly world-beating car.

Maserati GranTurismo

Engine: V8 4244cc petrol
Power/Torque: 405bhp at 7100rpm, 339lb ft at 4750rpm
Gearbox: six-speed automatic
Tyres: 245/35 ZR20 (f), 285/35 ZR20 (r)
Fuel/CO2: 19.2mpg, 345g/km
Acceleration: 0-62mph: 5.2sec, 0-400metres: 13.4sec
Suspension: double wishbones, coil springs, anti-roll bar
Brakes: 330mm ventilated discs (f/r)
Price: £78,500
Top speed: 177mph