Road Test: Maserati Biturbo Spyder

Trident tested

Maserati— it is impossible even to say the name without relishing the promise of Latin excitement. After a lean time in this country, not because there were no customers, but because there were no cars, the trident badge is slowly reappearing on British roads, mounted on a small, restrained-looking sports coupe called Biturbo. Most are two-door, some four-door, but the most striking to look upon is the Spyder which we recently put to some rapid use.

This new generation of Maseratis represents a profound change of emphasis for a company founded on a racing heritage. Before the Biturbo there was a series of increasingly refined but nevertheless brutish sportscars culminating in the mid-engined Bora and the sensational Khamsin. An equally massive saloon, the prosaically-named and unattractive Quattroporte, and the pleasant Kyalami coupe completed the range of cars when Citroen’s share in the company was taken over in the late 1970s by Alessandro de Tomaso, the avid collector of Italy’s smaller sportscar, motorcycle and coachbuilding concerns.

With or without fuel crises, these hand-built and expensive vehicles were obviously unlikely to generate enough return to keep the company afloat in the Eighties, and so a smaller, mass-produced, car was conceived, aimed at the expanding market in compact but rapid saloons such as BMW’s 3-series. The Biturbo made its appearance in Italy at the beginning of 1982, boasting the attribute which Jaguar has always prided itself on—it was much cheaper than expected.

But a right-hand drive version has taken a long, long time to mature, during which time the hopeful importers got bored with waiting and gave up the concession. Now, however, a freshly-formed company, Maserati (UK) Ltd, aims to top 300 sales in the first 12 months, and subsequently reach over 500 per year, although the time and costs of RHD development now pitch the cars against very different opposition.

Because of the importance in the Italian market of the 2-litre tax-break, it made sense to develop an engine of this size, but with forced induction to endow it with the sort of performance the name required. While the capacity has since grown to 2491cc, the result is made plain in the car’s name: two water-cooled turbos, each spun by the exhaust from one bank of a light alloy 90° V6, whose single cam per bank operates three valves in each cylinder. Both blowers feed through intercoolers to a common plenum chamber atop a Weber twin-choke carburetter mounted in the centre of the vee, whence the mixture flows to the two unequally-sized intake valves intended to benefit both low and high speed gas flow.

Electronic monitoring of pressure and detonation allows the system to boost at up to 11.6 psi, despite the relatively high cr of 7.4:1, yielding torque of 220 lb ft at a healthy 3000 rpm, with power topping out at 192 bhp at 5000 rpm. This more than passes my personal yardstick that a sporting engine should have more lb ft than bhp (which sadly collapses in metric units), and the end product is a delightful, urgent, and responsive engine with the most spine-tingling rasp I have listened to since I last drove behind the Alfa Romeo V6 — a lightweight but hard-edged wail which turns to an exciting spitting and crackling when slowing down. That alone makes it essential to have the top down all the time on this Spyder.

Transmission layout is what used to be known as conventional, the rear wheels being driven by a longitudinal engine. ZF provides the five-speed manual box, which has the dog-leg first pattern, while the differential is unusual in that it is of the Torsen type which provides a variable locking effect rather than the fixed maximum slip of other types. Supporting the Maserati’s front end is a pair of MacPherson struts, balanced at the rear by semi-trailing arms with coil springs. Power assistance for the rack and pinion steering is standard for UK cars, as is air-conditioning. Four disc brakes plus servo look after deceleration, augmented by rear parking drums which provide a rather weak handbrake.

Unusually for a low-volume monocoque, there are three wheelbases in production: the four-door 425 is naturally longest at 102 in, with the two-door coupe some four inches less. In creating the Spyder, yet another four inches has been removed, and the effect spoils the Biturbo’s unexceptional but pleasant lines, the soft-top looking rather upright and dumpy. In fact the car already looks somewhat dated, especially around the bright metal grille, although updated styling is in the pipeline.

Zagato builds the Spyder, and assembly quality appears to be high, especially inside, which is just as well as the price of just under £29,000 puts the car indisputably into serious luxury territory, alongside such heavyweights as the Mercedes SL and the Jaguar XJ-S V12. It compares well when seated inside: almost everything which is not veneered in walnut is covered in leather as standard in the Spyder, and the hood is lined with a suede-cloth material. Even the little gold clock, while in dubious taste, repeats tile message of luxury.

A mysterious selection of equipment is included: electric windows but only one electric lock, electric backrest adjustment but not fore-and-aft travel, remote fuel-flap and boot releases with no locking at all, and air-conditioning but no radio. Comfortable seats are offset by the inevitably poor driving position: despite being adjustable in two planes, the wheel is much too close to the pedals, which in turn are far too high-set for the average foot.

A neat little housing contains the two major and four minor dials, plus a boost gauge in the centre. As usual for Italy, a stalk on the right controls the wipers — indicators and lights being on two others on the left. The dials are easy to see, although the row of warning lights at the top is obscured by the wheelrim.

Below the oval clock are buttons controlling a number of ancillaries, plus the air conditioning controls and a blanking plate where the customer’s own radio/cassette will go (the necessary wiring is already installed). This is strictly a two-seater, which leaves plenty of stowage space behind the seats to add to the roomy boot.

Zagato’s hood mechanism is very efficient: two handles release the front rail, whereupon the lid retracts in one smooth movement, taking the glass rear quarter-lights with it. A shaped cover pops in place over it, giving a particularly tidy appearance. When raised, visibility remains good, and the wind-sealing is effective (This, incidentally, is the hood which will be used on the forthcoming Aston Martin Zagato Spyder ).

Underway, it becomes clear that the car has been shortened in the search for rigidity, the perennial problem for a convertible, and that there in still room for improvement. The car shudders over bumps, an effect compounded by the unhappy combination of springs and damping: the springing has been softened to smooth out body movements, but the stiff damping makes for a crashy ride.

With its all-independent suspension and wide 205/55 tyres, the Maserati has the potential for good road-holding, but is is not fully exploited: profound understeer dominates, and while the power will level the car out, any bumps or holes cause the tail to skip out of line, the tyres chirping as the diff tries to compensate. Low-geared steering also impairs the Spyder’s ability to change direction quickly.

There cannot be anything radically wrong with the layout, as the factory race cars contesting the World Touring Car Championship prove; the chassis simply needs a bit of careful development, starting, I would guess, with some negative camber and reduced front roll stiffness.

Nevertheless, that lovely engine makes the Biturbo a pleasure to drive: the low inertia of two small turbos makes for quick response to the throttle, and the gearbox could hardly be slicker. It clicks effortlessly back and forth in its close gate, even through the dogleg first-to-second shift. Overall gearing is quite tall, so the intermediate ratios are in frequent demand.

This is certainly a rapid car, it was still accelerating at 122 mph at my braking point on our test straight, and I imagine that more brutal treatment would knock further fractions off the 7.6 sec which 60 mph required. But overtaking ability is impressive, and the brakes well able to cope, though they felt rather soggy. At cruising speeds the ride becomes more acceptable, and directional stability and steering feel are good. Fixed quarter-lights make even 80-90 mph quite comfortable with the top down; there is plenty of noise, but it is an exciting racket.

One serious problem afflicts the Maserati’s broad and complex-looking engine, and that is hot-starting. As usual on cars with Weber carburetters, a couple of prods on the throttle is enough to prime it when cold, but switch off for a few minutes and it is very reluctant to fire up again. Worse, once coaxed into life, it has the habit of suddenly dying with no warning until after several minutes of gentle use.

As well as the Spyder, I took the opportunity of driving the two-door coupe. With no shaking and shuddering, this also boasts a better blend of ride comfort, though with the same handling characteristics. It feels surprisingly different in character overall: its understated looks contrast strongly with the opulence of the interior, in which the cloth seat-covering actually looks more sumptuous than the leather which is standard on the open version. Priced at £24,795, it is way above the most expensive 3-series BMW, and even an M535i undercuts it, but neither of these comes close in conspicuous interior lavishness.

Similarly, the far more extrovert Spyder is almost £9000 more than a 325 Cabrio, a considerably more thoroughly developed machine of an efficient but unexciting mien, but buyers in this area of the market are seemingly more aware of prestige and image than outright value.

There are very few twin-turbo cars on sale, and although its electronics and carburation may not be state-of-the-art, the three-valve tag and Torsen diff endow the Biturbo with a certain technical interest. Yet the Maserati trident surely has more glamour than even a three-pointed star or leaping jaguar and the sheer rarity of the cars must be tempting for the driver who enjoys attention. As for the overall qualities of the Maserati, it must be said that many a family saloon will out-handle it, but it has real spirit under its stubby bonnet which for anyone who loves engines makes it much more desirable than paper specifications might suggest.

Summary: Offers the mechanical delights which the name suggests: lovely responsive engine, excellent gearchange. But rigidity, handling and ride all disappointing. Nicely built and trimmed, good hood and interior. GC