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184

This is the 3200GT, the car charged with returning Maserati to its former glories. It’s easy to fault, argues Andrew Frankel, but it’s still the most capable car to wear the trident for twenty years.

Buy a new Maserati 3200GT and, as you hand over your cheque for £59,925, you will be handed not only the keys but also a 42 page brochure. The car I shall come to in a minute, but much is to be learned about it and the way its makers wish you to feel about it from that glossy pamphlet in your hands.

Most striking is the fact that, despite 42 pages not being a lavish amount of space to describe an all new car tasked with the revival of one of the world’s great marques, the first 30 are occupied by pictures and one line sentences to illustrate the single word Maserati has decided is the value by which the car must stand or fall. That word is ’emotion’. The emotion of Maserati, the emotion of a Maserati, the emotion of the chassis, the engine, the cabin… You get the idea. This is a car Maserati want located firmly under your skin.

The next ten pages are less attractive but more useful and contain the car’s basic specification and an explanation of the challenge which faced Giorgetto Giugiaro’s ltaldesign team when charged with creating a safe, aerodynamically efficient, spacious and unforgettable shape for the new Maserati. But what really caught my eye was the final two pages, a simple spread of black and white shots of the road and racing cars from Maserati’s history. All the great racers are here from the 4CM past the 300S and 250F to the Birdcage and some of the less successful ones too like the V12 250F. The road car names trip off the tongue with similar ease: Mistral, Indy, Ghibli, Bora… and then you turn the page and, nothing. End of brochure. In all, five cars are included from Maserati’s first 21 years as a road car constructor and not one from the last 21 years. Half of the marque’s history in the only field in which it competed after the early 1960s has not been deemed worthy of inclusion, a fact all the more remarkable given that it is the most recent half.

I mention this now because it is important to understand the context of the new car, just how big a break from the Maseratis of the all too recent past its new masters at Ferrari wish to make. Even so, it’s not quite as clean cut as that. For a start, the 3200GT is not a Ferrari car, it is Maserati’s, Maranello coming along too late to influence its fundamental design. Secondly, Maserati must now subscribe to the same Fiat-decreed strategy that has dictated the way things are at Ferrari for a generation. There is a hierarchy. There are the massed production marques, Fiat with its respectively luxury and sporting spin-offs, Lancia and Alfa-Romeo upon which stand the low volume, prestige marques, Maserati representing the grand touring market and Ferrari the ultimate presence among supercar buyers. That is why, despite the fact that few people seem prepared to wax lyrical about it, the old Maserati Quattroporte Evoluzione remains in production.

Before we start, therefore, you need to know the one towering ramification of all of this: The 3200GT is not a sportscar, nor was it ever intended to be so. Approach it without this knowledge and I would not bet on your relationship getting off on the correct foot. It is an alternative to Jaguar XKR, and most emphatically not a baby Ferrari.

I didn’t like the shape at first. It seemed too curious and insufficiently classical fora car such as this, one which tied too hard to be quirky (I’m still not sure about those LED tail-lights) and not sufficiently hard to be pretty. But, having seen it on the move, my views have softened. Follow one for a few milts, see how the shape flows over the road, try to avoid comparing its backside to that of the Maserati-powered Citroen SM and you’ll see the shape has more than a certain presence, it’s actually rather attractive.

Better still is the interior, particularly if you avoid the expensive temptation of covering the centre console in wood or carbon fibre. The upholstery is magnificent, while the controls and instruments strike a near perfect note of classy clarity. The seats are big, supportive chairs, the steering wheel adjustable for all shapes of driver so a perfect driving position, not something you’d even look for in any previous Maserati, should be attainable. Except it’s not Having got the basics right, Maserati forgot about your left leg which, given that it is completely redundant in this automatic car, is a sizeable omission. Try putting it on the thin ledge that seems to have been provided and you’ll likely as not hit the brake pedal unless you have either small feet or thin shoes. I have neither and ended up driving in my socks.

Even so, first impressions are broadly positive. The cabin is spacious (even if the boot is worryingly small) meaning two parents and two single-figure children should not find long-distances unduly irksome; the whole exudes an air more opulen than extravagant which is exactly how it should be.

Better still is the engine, a reworked version of the twin-turbo V8 which first saw service in the quick but brutal Karif. It’s a 3.2-litre, 32-valve quad-cam motor, producing 370bhp backed by a convincing 362lb ft of torque, almost all of which is available throughout the bulk of the rev-range. Two gearboxes are available, a six-speed manual is standard while a four-speed automatic can be chosen for another £2000, something Maserati thinks most customers will select. But while this latter transmission works undeniably well, it’s puzzling to note that the semi-automatic transmission technology used to such great effect by both Alfa Romeo and Ferrari has been denied the Maserati.

The engine sounds superb at idling. A deep, woofling burble, full of class and purpose, promises great things to come and as you trickle out into the traffic for the first time, the sense of occasion is almost palpable. Road users react inquisitively, not with green eyed envy and at motorway velocity, you are struck by how calm is the ride and how muted is the wind noise around the frameless doors. So far so good. On a crowded M4, the 3200GT was proving itself a pleasantly capable cruising device.

Which is all very well as far as it goes but, fraddy, if all you want is a car which sits quietly and comfortably on the motorway I could give you a list as long as you liked of alternatives available for under half the price. It was pleasing that the Maserati, unlike so many exotic Italians of years gone by, did not fall at the first by concentrating on the dream not the reality but this, really, was no kind of test at all. So we headed for the mountains.

Cut loose from the shackles of commuters and salesmen, over the border into Wales and on to the Brecon Beacons, it was time to extend the 3200GT. Not yet to drive it as fast as it would go but, more representatively, to dig a little further into the reserves of those abilities to see if the depth was there to accompany the breadth that I no longer doubted.

Disappointingly, the engine sounds less interesting with every passing revolution. It may seem a shame that such a powerful Italian V8 should sound best at idle but, considering the method of its forced induction, it’s not a surprise. Throttle response is good (but not exceptional as Maserati would like you to believe) for a turbocharged unit but it is still a world away from a normally aspirated engine or, for that matter, the supercharged and identically powerful V8 under the bonnet of the jaguar XKR. That said, there’s no doubting the performance. It’s strong rather than savage and I’d take a sizeable bet this automatic 3200GT would no more reach 60mph in the 5secs flat alluded to by its maker than it would jump over the moon. Still, you’ll not find it sluggish. Overtaking performance, if the transmission is left in its Sport setting, is flashing and while I am in no position to confirm or deny its claimed 174mph top speed, I can tell you it accelerates rapidly up to any speed a sane person could deem sensible on most public roads. By the time the paint on the rev-counter turns yellow at 6000rpm, there’s little more than a muted and unappetising blare coming from beneath the bonnet and you need again to remind yourself again that this is not a sportscar to avoid disappointment.

The final proof of the 3200GTs role in life comes when you take it to traditional supercar territory and throw it across the scenery really very hard. At medium effort, the Maserati handles superbly. Grip from the 18in Michelin tyres is never an issue in the dry and even if its mining fast progress is usually interrupted only by a gently blinking light on the dash telling you the effective traction control is silently keeping watch, trimming the rough edges off your driving. The steering is direct and devoid of kickback, the brakes massively powerful.

Try harder however and the Maserati will slowly relinquish this admirable fluency It never gets ragged or even uncomfbrtable but the time comes, sooner than some drivers will wish, when it’s travelling as fast as it cares to. First, the steering refuses to weight up in fast turns, denying the driver the meaty helm response such corners command, then the body control starts to be undermined; it wallows a little too much in the dips and find one which also includes a curve and you will hear a gentle rubbing under the car, probably as tyre meets wheel arch. ultimately the car is too soft, even with its dampers set to Sport, too heavy and insufficiently communicative to make a joy out of such conditions.

Given this, it would be both easy and legitimate to construct a case that said the 3200GT is a brave effort but ultimately one which fails to move the game on even to the point its rival firm Jaguar mached some time ago. The Jaguar is at least as Est and has a considerably more charismatic engine; it handles, rides and steers a little better, comes with a five speed auto ‘box and a longer list of standard equipment. People will argue which is better looking (I prefer the British car’s appearance) and without having both side by side, I am not in a position to say which is more refined and spacious but there is little in it. I do know the jaguar has the bigger boot and the Maserati massively better brakes. This, however, does not begin to make up for the shortfalls, particularly when you consider the fact that the jaguar is, in real terms, cheaper too. In the end, the bottom line is the Jaguar is the better car, pure and simple.

Yet I do not feel ill-disposed towards the 3200GT and, on the contrary, welcome both it and what it represents. For while in no objective sense could you call it a great car it is equally apposite to observe that it’s the best Maserati in the last 20 years and, as steps in the right direction go, they don’t come much bigger than that. Moreover, while it lacks the onpaper and, many of the on-road credentials to beat the likes of the XKR, there’s another quality, less tangible but still important which the 3200GT possesses by the bucketload. It’s everywhere from the curve of the dashboard to the smell of the leather; from the artfully crafted Maserati-script on the bootlid to those beautiful ten-spoke alloy wheels; The people who built it call it ’emotion’ and, after two days pondering, I now, finally, know what they mean.

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