Travel | ON THE ROAD

Maserati: The ultimate in automotive artwork

A howling work of kinetic craftsmanship — without the mechanical irks of forebears

by Peter Lyon

Ask any concert pianist whether they would rather play a Steinway & Sons piano or a Yamaha, and I’ll bet you a season ticket to the Opera House in London’s Covent Garden that they would nod for the former. When I chatted with just such a virtuoso several months ago, he was smitten with the Steinway. “It’s not that the Japanese brand is inferior,” he stressed. “It is world class, and the sound is superb. But, well, to be honest, it’s how the Steinway makes me feel inside. Special.”

Now, I’m no pianist, but I think I know what he means.

As I opened the door and lowered my 190-cm frame into the driver’s seat of Maserati’s Gran Turismo coupe, I felt all warm and fuzzy inside. I felt special, like I’d just been upgraded from economy to business class and was being waited on hand and foot.

That’s how the car makes you feel. And for the record, Sony PlayStation’s “Gran Turismo” driving game has nothing to do with the Italian marque. Not only is the latest Maserati arguably the best car the company has ever made, but it’s a fashion statement. It’s like wearing your most impressive suit and tie to your best friend’s wedding. It is a real occasion — one you are unlikely to forget.

Painstakingly penned by legendary Italian design house Pininfarina, the Gran Turismo is a howling work of kinetic art that caresses the senses and stirs the soul. Unlike the vast majority of Japanese sedans and minivans — which are built down to a price, resemble each other and struggle to stir the emotions — the Gran Turismo utilizes its uniqueness, drop-dead good looks and sensational on-road manners to reach inside, grab your heartstrings and touch every sense you have, except maybe taste.

A stylist at a design forum over 10 years ago suggested that every great car design was a combination of male and female attributes. He contended that the sharply styled front with its grille and headlights was the masculine end of a car, while the rear section, with its curvaceous lines, was the feminine part.

Design is the most subjective part of critiquing cars, and I don’t know about you, but I have to disagree here. I can only see feminine lines in this car, a rarity today. That huge, oval-shaped front grille bearing the company’s emblem (its floating trident) and those arresting headlights seem to have been inspired by the large lips and upslanting eyes of someone such as Angelina Jolie, while those curvy, shapely, bulging lines over the rear-wheel arches appear to draw from the likes of Jennifer Lopez.

Inside, the Gran Turismo is even more exquisite than its sexy exterior. Wrapped in wall-to-wall red leather, the coupe’s cabin seems ostentatious and gaudy at first. Surprisingly, though, four hours ensconced in a room full of red leather did not turn nasty and actually enhanced that deliciously warm and fuzzy feeling. Maserati has chosen its colors well. Another surprise was that the rear seats are usable — as long as you’re no more than 175 cm tall.

As carmakers worldwide scurry to downsize their product lineups and cancel plans for big cars and pickup trucks in response to rising oil and raw-material prices, Maserati remains unfazed. The manufacturer has nearly 100 years of history to fall back on, some of it glorious, part of it disastrous — but all of it prestigious. And at no time did it compromise on the design or exclusivity of the brand. You would not expect fashion giant Armani to start using second- or third-grade wool, or shoemaker extraordinaire Manolo Blahnik to switch to lower-grade leather just because raw-material prices went up. So we won’t be seeing that with Maserati now, even if oil prices and all the rest skyrocket. People who appreciate great design and quality, and who can afford it, will always buy such products.

Over the last century, Maserati has seen more restructuring than Pamela Anderson’s curves. It all began in 1914 with the Maserati brothers, who eventually sold to the Orsi family in 1937 — a transaction that led into a period bearing the company’s greatest-ever motor-racing victories, namely in the Indy 500 and Formula 1. Then, in 1968, French carmaker Citroen bought Maserati and built some of its best-looking cars — before the oil shock hit in 1973, leading to Citroen’s bankruptcy and Maserati’s liquidation. Italy’s government stepped in, keeping the company afloat before Argentine businessman Alessandro de Tomaso took control in 1975. Fiat took over Maserati in 1993, but Fiat subsidiary Ferrari was in charge by 1999. Then, when General Motors and Fiat split in 2005, Maserati fell back under the umbrella of parent company Fiat, where it sits to this day.

After spending two days in the Gran Turismo, I have to say that it is by far the best Maserati the company has ever made. While the supercar looks of the 1970s Maserati Merak might overwhelm the Gran Turismo for sheer drama, the new 285-kph coupe boasts exquisite lines that rival the best from Aston Martin or Jaguar, its main competitors.

But more than that, the Gran Turismo confronts the shortcomings of previous Maseratis such as the Biturbo and 3200GT. Drivers can now find their ideal driving position thanks to a well thought-out cabin, and the ride is no longer crashy but pleasant. Added to this, the interior quality is flawless, and improved reliability means this Maserati is not in the shop every second week with mechanical irks.

The Ferrari-supplied 400-hp 4.2-liter V8 engine offers a throaty, thunderous tone and plenty of go, while the 6-speed automatic with paddle-shift switches delivers smooth gear changes in manual mode but tends to wander slightly between gears in automatic. Flick the sport button on the dash and suspension stiffens up while steering and throttle response become sharper, making the big, 1,950-kg coupe a capable performer even on twisty mountain roads.

Priced at ¥15.5 million, the GT rivals the Jaguar XKR and Aston Martin V8 Vantage. So who will buy the Gran Turismo? Well, the answer is anyone wanting something more stylish than the current crop of Jags or Astons — or even current Mercedes and BMW 2-doors. But the bottom line is this: The Maserati is prettier inside and out, is a credible 4-seater and cannot be beaten for its sense of occasion.

Did I forget to mention that it’s a real looker?

Peter Lyon is a 20-year veteran motor journalist who covers Japan’s auto industry for more than a dozen publications worldwide.