You have to admire the Italians.
They won’t let a little thing like logic get in the way of passion. So when Maserati decided to build a four-door luxury sports sedan, its sporting focus, of course, mandated a manual gearbox.
It didn’t matter that most luxury cars are sold with autos; it didn’t matter that the biggest market – the US – was also likely to be the laziest. No, a Maser needed a manual and a manual it would get.
Fast forward a few years, and the Maser men were hoisted by their own petard. They need to sell more cars to survive, and to sell more cars, their biggest seller needed an automatic gearbox. But so determined
had they been that a manual would suffice, that the whole driveline was ordered around that plan. To fit a self-shifter required a major overhaul of the car’s design.
To move the gearbox from the rear meant a new floorpan, changes to the rear suspension, and a fair bit of fiddling about with the weight to retain a rear bias, however slight.
It also meant a lot of changes to the Ferrari-sourced 4.2-litre V8 engine up front. It’s mounted completely behind the front axle to aid nimble steering, and the weight is now lower – which drops centre of gravity.
Meanwhile, this powerplant was converted to wet sump operation to improve efficiency – fewer pumps are needed.
Torque nudges up to 460Nm, at slightly lower revs, though power is the same.
Oh yes, and the soundtrack’s throatier thanks to the damping action of the oil in the engine.
Cruise, and there’s barely a sound from under the bonnet. But plant your boot and you’ll hear a feral bark that suits the sporting part of the equation.
Meanwhile, ZF was fettling the gearbox to cope with relatively high revs. It’s not much different from ZF’s gearbox in rivals like BMW, Jaguar and Mercedes. Not to mention Ford’s Falcon, which is where Paul Frickers, in charge of chassis and drivetrain engineering for Maserati, first sampled it.
Other changes? There’s an electronic park brake – sat on the altered centre tunnel that now also features two cupholders. For yes, Maserati’s been selling a car without them to the Yanks. That they sold any is testament to the pull of the brand name. That the Italians struggled with the requirement to fit cupholders in a car – it’s not a cafe – is now a matter of record. Goodness knows what they thought when they realised that American coffee cups come in different sizes…
Having done all that, Maserati didn’t want this car to slip in under the radar. Hence, no doubt, the Monte Carlo, Monaco, launch.
There’s no shortage of automotive exotica here, indeed Bentleys are more numerous than Hondas, and Ferraris are almost common. Don’t believe me?
The valet parkers at our hotel left Lamborghinis and Ferraris parked outside the hotel – but any “humble” Bentley Continental GT was quickly whisked out the back, alongside the ordinary fare.
Not so the Maseratis, still rare enough to turn heads. It’s that rarity which buyers like, hence Maser scrapping its plans for an SUV and an entry-level car.
Presumably owners also like the styling – which grew on me once I saw it in the flesh – and the car’s undeniable talent at making you feel a bit special. Perhaps it‘s the lashings of cream-accented blue leather embossed with the company logo. Perhaps it’s the slightly quirky ergonomics designed to remind you you’re not in any old mass-market sedan.
Fire her up and there’s a suitably macho wuffle from the V8, and you’re off.
Effortlessly off, for this gearbox slides smoothly through the cogs with the greatest of ease – despite the precipitous switchback of tarmac we followed to the crest of the hills.
Tap it into sport and the engine note hardens, there’s more urgency to those gear-changes – enough urgency to hone the sporting feel.
Frickers ssyds he didn’t want total smoothness from this gearbox – you may as well buy a Lexus. I think he’s found the right balance between sporting turning on the twisties and effortless travel
on the motorway.
Not to mention round town. I got stuck in a jam in some tiny back streets – trying to dart into side roads, having to reverse back up them – and make a few cheeky and not entirely legal manoeuvres at junctions to get back on track.
Throughout, the car supplied the right gear at all times, and in the completely unflustered manner of a dowager duchess who’s determined you won’t realise the depths of your social gaffes.
Of course, you expect all this for $249,500 and up. Still, given the extent of the changes made to accommodate this gearbox, one might not expect how well the result has turned out.
This is as complete a luxury sedan as its manual predecessor – if not more so, given the expectations of luxocar buyers.