Strident Trident

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December 14 was an important date for Italy’s last remaining independent supercar manufacturer. It marked the introduction of the new 160 mph Shamal, Maserati’s first all-new model since the Biturbo coupé hit the Italian autostrade in 1982. But equally important was the announcement that, with effect from January 1990, Fiat was buying in to a minority 49% holding in Alessandro de Tomaso’s Modena firm — an ultimate twist of fate in Maserati’s oft-troubled financial history.

The Shamal is due to reach production sometime in the summer when it is expected to cost in excess of £60,000; considerably more than current production coupés and saloons. However, despite their small production levels and low profile particularly outside the home market, the limelight on the Shamal doesn’t mean that Maserati has been inactive over the years since the Biturbo’s launch.

The Biturbo range has been the object of continuous development and refinement with a progressive release of numerous variations on the same theme. Early in its history the Biturbo dropped its problematic single twin-choke Weber in favour of injection and subsequent variants included the elegant 4-door saloon, a spider built by Zagato on a shortened wheelbase, and a 2.8-litre version of the V6 to slot into models mainly destined for external markets.

Along with the improvements incorporated over the years has come a finetuning of the reliability in high-tech aspects of the cars — certainly of no small importance for anyone considering the purchase of such a performance car.

The most recent evolution of the coupé model has been available on the Italian market for nigh on a year. It’s the fruition not only of the constant perfection of the original Biturbo, but also of collaboration with both Weber-Marelli and Koni. The 2.24v is the most powerful 2-litre that Maserati has produced to date. In fact, at 245 bhp, it . is missing only two of the 2.8-litre’s horses (in non-cat form).

To produce this elevated power the Maserati engineers have designed a new head for the all-alloy V6, carrying over the twin overhead cams per bank to operate 4-valves per cylinder instead of the previous 3. There is a new Weber-Marelli injection system which, together with two new IHI water-cooled turbos, enables this engine to run at low temperatures despite having the thermodynamic efficiency of a competition unit. Thus it can also be run on unleaded fuel although, unlike its bigger sisters, a cat version is not yet offered.

Thanks to the new aerodynamic treatment, including new spoilers front and back, and the additional poke, the 2.24v reaches the respectable top speed of 142 mph which is some 3 mph faster than the less powerful 3-valve car. More significantly, torque climbs from 194 lbs ft at 2500 rpm to 219 lbs ft at a high 5000 rpm. But remarkably, 95% of that figure is already available at 3500 revs. To finish off the performance data, the Maserati will reach the benchmark 62 mph in 5.9 seconds and will proceed to cover a kilometre in just 26.1 seconds — not bad at all if you consider that the Porsche 911 Turbo Cabriolet, aided by greater power and traction off the line, will only beat it to the distance marker by some 1.7 seconds.

This is where the Maserati really begs comparison. In a mildly aggressive coupé body, the 2.24v provides Q-car ability with performance figures that make Latin, British and Teutonic supercars flinch. In the 0-62 mph stakes it can hold its own with monsters like the Ferrari Testarossa, Aston Martin Virage and Porsche 928. Of course, it loses out in top speed to all these competitors but then there has to be a limit after which a 2-litre GT cannot approach true big-engined supercars, especially considering its home market bargain price of £30,000.

That price includes an interesting £750 option fitted to our test car — a foursetting adjustable suspension system developed in conjunction with Koni. Via a button next to the gear-lever on the central tunnel, the driver can select from boulevard-soft to hard damping in sequence. A green LED indicates the position chosen. On starting up, the system automatically adjusts to the second position which is considered a good compromise for speeds up to 100 mph.

The rest of the suspension componentry is straightforward. While retaining the well-located semi-trailing arms of the rear suspension of the other models, the 2.24v incorporates a refinement to the front Macpherson strut set-up. A system of levers maintains a constant parallelism between the lower suspension arm and the steering track rods at whatever position the wheel adopts as it encounters bumps, etc. According to the technical bods, this constant convergence in all conditions offers significant advantages in stability on corners and on loose or rough surfaces. At the back, the car is equipped with the Ranger differential which is now standard on all models and which varies the delivery of power between one half-shaft and the other by up to 100%.

I have to admit that I approached the test car, one of the first five prototypes to have been constructed, with a healthy dose of traditionally British scepticism about Italian build quality. Instead I was pleasantly surprised. Panel fit was excellent and other external details were all of high quality while evidencing an essence of handbuilt craftmanship. Rather understandably then, the standard of the paint, although good, was not up to the level of Maserati’s German contemporaries. The new spoilers and skirts render the pleasing coupe body style even more low and wide, but the grey finish tends to make the effect look heavier than it is. A white production example standing nearby at the factory had body-coloured bumpers and spoilers and confirmed my feeling — it seemed somehow lighter and more modern looking.

The interior is identical to the other Biturbos and has remained virtually unchanged since their introduction. It is traditional, elegant and sumptuous without being overblown, with plenty of high quality leather and shiny elm veneer inserts. A typically nice touch is the suede on the top of the fascia in front of the passenger, where you can drop odds and ends without fear of them sliding around and distracting you whilst you drive.

The seats are also unchanged in form from the original Biturbo and are finished in black leather in the centres with grey alcantara in the side bolsters. They are comfortably supportive for both those in the front and in the back. Access to the rear seats is quite easy thanks to the generous forward travel/tilt mechanism of the front ones. Given the compact dimensions of the 2.24v (at 13’9″ it’s 5 1/2″ shorter than a 3 Series BMW), there isn’t a phenomenal amount of space behind, particularly from the point of view of headroom, but it is quite comfy for moderately long journeys.

The driver’s seat adjusts manually forward and back and electrically for rake via a button underneath the seat squab. I found myself comfortable in the position left by the Maserati test driver, so didn’t have to resort to moving chair or steering wheel. This latter requires a stretch to reach at the top but lowering the wheel means that you’ll lose visibility of the vicious warning lights arranged in a semicircle around the top of the instrument binnacle. However, all the instruments therein are clearly legible while secondary controls, such as those for the remote fuel cap release and boot lock, are all within easy stabbing reach in front of the gear lever.

Cabin ambience, then, is very pleasant and it continues that way after the turn of the key. Clutch and brake actions are light and smooth and the accelerator pedal has a satisfying firmness to it. The delightful ZF gearbox has a lovely chunky precision feel to its short throws and the padded arm rest soon encourages a very laid back changing technique, with a simple wrist action snicking the lever through its gate. Thanks to the standard power assistance, the steering is light at the speeds at which one can ease into the Modena traffic congestion but stiffens up to the right degree at speed.

One side of the appeal of this car becomes apparent very quickly. At the usual Italian jostling for places at traffic lights, you can do daft things with the Maserati without even having to try very hard. The impression is very like that of being on one of the large Japanese bikes, such as a Honda CBR 1000 — by the time the rest of the traffic has let their clutches out, you are already a hundred yards down the road. It doesn’t even require swage lines of costly rubber to weave your way around obstructing vehicles. That is a huge silly grin factor.

Obviously with a sedate start the initial acceleration isn’t burning but with 167 lb ft of torque feeding in at a low 2500 rpm, further pressure with your right foot soon has the speedo leaping around with gay abandon. The turbo has quite a dignified presence but starts to transmit its urge noticeably after 3000 rpm and by 4000 rpm in first gear you find you have to step off the pressure to avoid taking it too far over the red line. I saw 6500 without any fuss and without the rev limiter cutting in. Brakes too are an important factor in Italian traffic light dodgems and the Maserati’s all-round disc set-up was powerful and progressive enough not to draw attention to its functioning.

With the dampers initially set to soft, full power acceleration is accompanied by a certain amount of squat at the back. The hardest setting eliminates this phenomenon completely and increases the feeling of accuracy from the steering. As this setting doesn’t unduly compromise the ride comfort, I soon chose to leave it there for the whole of my test drive.

Once on the circular around Modena, my favourable initial impressions were reinforced. The lack of squat on breezing from 40 to 100 mph in no time at all is a lasting impression. So is the shove in the back you get when pushing the accelerator again after 100 mph and the modest hush with which the car executes such maneouvres. Cruising at that speed reveals very little wind rush with well-sealed doors but there is a bit of tyre rumble on poor surfaces. No turbo whistle penetrates the efficient sound-deadening and indeed you don’t hear the engine working until it approaches 5500 revs when it starts to emit a growl that only Italian engineers seem able to entice from their twin cams. The only other source of noise is the air-conditioning that, summoned to life on an abnormally warm February day, is rushing to fill the cabin with cooling air.

Heading south of Modena I quickly reach the rolling hills of the area around Abetone and Maranello. The 2.24v soon proves itself to be the model of agility on the twisting Modenese B roads. With the thumping torque on tap, you can leave it in third most of the time where it will trickle down to 2000 revs quite happily and then let you sprint up to the next corner.

A stretch of road that faithfully follows the topography of the underlying terrain throws to light one limitation in the ability of the car. Both the undersill skirts and sump enjoy a maximum ground clearance of 4 3/4 inches. Whilst negotiating a particularly lumpy lane with the dampers on soft, sump and tarmac came into noisy contact, to be borne in mind when contemplating excursions onto pavements, etc. But as long as you leave off-road antics to the jeep brigade, the Maserati allows you to maintain very fast and, above all, entertaining A to B times.

Roadholding of the Biturbo series has always been very high but grip on the early versions was a little critical when transmitting all the power. Subsequent models equipped with the Ranger diff. and more progressive turbo installations are more docile, driveable cars despite being more powerful.

Straightline acceleration reveals no axle tramp and even powering through tight corners with the internal wheel on a loose surface shows no wayward tendencies. Even on the hardest suspension setting the 2.24v tends to roll a bit, most noticeably on long sweepers, but this doesn’t compromise either handling or grip. The back can be wellied out of line at will but this no longer translates into a potential traitor in normal driving.

It goes without saying though that the Maserati is aimed very much at the experienced or expert driver who can appreciate and exploit its handling characteristics. For this reason it holds a very particular niche in the market — a habitual hot hatchback driver couldn’t easily change to driving a Maserati in the same way that such a driver wouldn’t easily make the transition to a Porsche 911 Turbo.

Similarly, there is nothing to be gained by pointing out that the Maserati’s grip in the wet isn’t going to be as high as in the dry. Planting 245 horses onto a wet roundabout via two wheels requires circumspection, be they at the front or at the back. Naturally, power oversteer is simpler to control on clean tarmac — the presence of dirt or water renders the arrival of the oversteer more brusque and therefore requires more care with the right foot.

The final word belongs to the topic of fuel consumption. When you extend the power output of a small capacity engine to this degree, the last thing you can expect is a world-beating mpg figure. That said, however, using the torque of this revised unit to drive in a relaxed manner, a style to which it lends itself as naturally as to a sporting one, cruising around 60 mph will eke 28-30 mpg out of it. But if you summon the turbos out of their roost too often, you can easily find yourself in the late teens or worse. But then Maserati are offering you quart-size performance from a pint pot and if you consider that you would need to buy anything up to a 5-litre car to equal its seamless performance, mpg figures drop into context more readily. Perhaps the only area in which this aspect could be improved is in the high-speed cruising capacity where the early 80s design is not aerodynamically efficient. Indeed, the four headlamp units seem designed to act as four nose-mounted aerodynamic brakes!

One of the forerunners in this application of turbos to production cars, Maserati can now draw on a considerable expertise in this field. This is evidenced by the performance of this ultimate V6 and by the new twin-turbo V8 housed in the Shamal. It is to be hoped that, with Fiat involvement, the R&D funds will become available with which to relaunch the marque in its traditional field of Grand Tourers onto world markets. We’ll find out in the next couple of years. JM