Maserati: Life in the fast lane

By Matt Greenop

The Maserati name is synonymous with leather-bound luxury and performance. Photo / Supplied
The Maserati name is synonymous with leather-bound luxury and performance. Photo / Supplied

My Maserati, Joe Walsh's song says, "goes 185". I glance down at the speedo on the Maserati MC Stradale as we cross the start/finish line at Phillip Island. It's 230km/h.

Walsh was, of course, referring to 185mph, quite creatively too considering the top speed of Maseratis in the 70s when Life's Been Good came out.

That said, jumping on the brakes at 230km/h before pushing through that first complex of corners on this challenging bit of bitumen is plenty, thanks, especially with $350,000 worth of metal under my bum.

We're at the famous Victoria circuit to sample the latest GranTurismo Sport models - an upgrade over the outgoing S model - on the track and in the surrounding countryside.

Despite being home to some fantastic four-wheel racing, Phillip Island is known for its motorcycle madness including the upcoming MotoGP round that will see Aussie hero Casey Stoner's last race on home soil before he retires from the sport.

It's also known for being extremely windy and for some corners that have an ability to turn men of steel into quivering wrecks. It was my first outing here.

To break us into the new model range slowly, the assembled scribes were paired up and sent out into the wilds around Phillip Island - the natural habitat of that most evil and humourless of beings, the Victorian Police Officer. These creatures are known for their ability to write you a massive ticket before you even know they're there. The previous day one hapless writer had been stung for 82km/h in an 80km zone.

There are two new models above the standard 4.2-litre V8-powered GranTurismo, both packing the stroppier 335kW 4.7-litre V8, one mated to a six-speed auto, the other to the fantastic robotic six-speed MC Shift sequential manual.

The MC Shift is fitted to the rear transaxle as opposed to the automatic's more traditional engine-attached spot - giving the added benefit of more rear-weight balance, moving the backward pork to 47 per cent front, 53 per cent rear for the roboclutched machine. The 4.7 has gained 7kW over the S model, and also sits in the aforementioned MC Stradale - the ultimate road and track variant of the GranTurismo, very closely related to the Trofeo racecar. This mean machine forgoes some creature comforts and Maserati lux to trim its fat by 110kg, becoming a hard-fettled road weapon that is, frankly, more at home on a racetrack.

Both the automatic and "manual" version of the GranTurismo proved perfectly able out on the road, with the slight weight bias change and minuscule gap in shift times the most notable differences. The auto changed cleanly in fully automatic mode but, as I've noted before, if you're driving a performance coupe you really should drive it.

The roads we were testing on did have some similarities to New Zealand's and there was a definite stability advantage when running the auto in manual mode. Scrubbing speed off when heading into a corner was far easier when using the paddle shifter to knock back gears before getting back on the gas.

The manual, on the other hand, was undoubtedly the better handling of the two, with faster downshifts and quicker response on the upshift, although changing midway through the rev range with half-throttle on wasn't the smoothest.

It's the 520Nm serving of torque and screaming 7500rpm redline that makes the GranTurismo experience feel like you're at the wheel of a purposeful Italian coupe, although there's 1880kg to push along.

The Maserati name is synonymous with leather-bound luxury and performance, and getting the balance between comfort and sheer driving enjoyment is never an easy task. Either way, none of these machines are going to save the planet - combined consumption is 14.3L/100 for the auto and 15.5L for the manual. The C02 action is pretty impressive as well - 331g/km in the auto, and a bunny-killing 360 for the manual. .

Maserati is occasionally scorned for claiming every slightest change as a revolution, and while the Sport designation of the new car is valid, there's not a huge jump from the S.

The new front seats, electrically adjusted on both sides and supportive for both the back and legs, especially when cornering fast, proved a worthy addition; even when sitting in the passenger seat with a similarly motivated writer flexing his right foot, the car felt comfortable and stable. Rear seat room has been well engineered so normal-sized people can use them. The front seats electrically slide forward to allow for reasonably easy access but realistically, if you want to use all four seats all of the time, the beautiful Maserati Quattroporte could be a better option.

When you're feeling quiet, the car complies, its clever exhaust system following a serpentine route to the exits, losing noise and energy in the process. Hit the Sport button, and a pair of pneumatic valves open up before the rear silencers when it hits the rev range sweet spot, and it's all on.

Everything feels more comfortable than really seems appropriate when the V8 is bellowing from its redline. It is certainly a luxury machine, but despite its weightiness, the GranTurismo Sport is more than capable on winding backroads.

Absorbing some of the nastier bits of these demanding roads is the excellent Skyhook suspension system, with continuous automatic damping control, which includes anti-dive and anti-squat technology using the forged aluminium wishbone set-up front and rear to great effect.

It uses sensors to establish just what the road surface is doing and responds near-instantly, soaking up surface changes with aplomb. Surprise potholes - a staple of Kiwi motoring - don't give Skyhook enough notice, so slamming 1.8 tonnes of Italian craftsmanship into a hole doesn't really change from its usual jarring experience.

Ventilated, cross-drilled discs are shod with six-pot monobloc calipers at the front and four-pots at the rear, allowing for solid, stable braking and an extremely progressive pedal feel. ABS and electronic brake force distribution make for an incredibly comfortable stopping experience, even when in a panic from high speed, the clever suspension and well-sorted brake systems combining for exceptional stability while pulling the car up without too much unwanted feedback from the big 20-inch wheels and tyres.

Manhandling the big car through some of these roads, grabbing each upshift with the right foot buried in the deep carpet, the next line of that song kept popping into my head: "I lost my licence, now I can't drive".

So we headed back to the track with the promise of comparing the MC Stradale to its more refined stablemates.

The MC Stradale has no electric seats, no rear seats, far less deadening and a whole heap more attitude. It also has a Race mode, which sets the exhaust essentially as a straight pipe, making the 4.7-litre symphony the only driving soundtrack you'll ever really need.

Looking through the list of where the 110kg weight saving came from is very interesting. There's the 20-inch flow-formed alloys, 2kg less just from wiring, there's 25kg gone in excess sound deadening, 26kg with the new carbon fibre seats, and the carbon ceramic Brembo brakes are good for a 16kg trim.

When you get this car rolling it's a vital, living being, and for the first lap was like a bitey dog at the end of a chain while the Italian race driver next to me pointed out a few of the more technical issues - double-apex, massive elevation drop into a hairpin, anyone? - but once let go, it's simply amazing.

The lighter weight is obvious through the high-speed esses, and when punched on the exit of a corner, it fires into the distance with far more urgency - everything about the car feels, tighter, quicker and more responsive. Driving it on the road on a daily basis is probably only recommended for those with a miswired central nervous system - it's hard riding, stroppy as all hell, and allows less fine-tuning of seating position (courtesy of those featherlight seats). It's a track car that's road legal, really.

Jumping into the automatic GranTurismo Sport next really showed up the difference between it and its MC Shift-fitted robomanual counterpart. The six-speed sequential is more positive and faster on the upshift and allows for the same stable and straight stopping experience when downshifting into tough corners, the well-vented brakes maintaining their cool and the calipers allowing for a very progressive brake experience rather than the "bury it and hang on" approach. Slight adjustments could easily be made without drowning you in fear-bred adrenalin.

My pick is the $325,000 MC Shift - the rear transaxle siting of the gearbox adds to the balance, and helps to drive fast, while the gearbox is perfectly matched to that singsong V8. There's a $30K price-break for the $295,000 auto, and while it's a very tractable machine for an automatic, the robotic manual really does offer the best of both worlds.

But if you've got a spare space in your garage and want something that can be punted around country roads or Hampton Downs at pace, the MC Stradale is hard to go, or get, past.

- NZ Herald

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