Stefano Pasini

   Le prove su strada  


Maserati Spyder (2002)


There are Marques, in the automotive world, that have a special mystique. An aura so grand that not even decades of neglect, of disappearance from the market and/or mismanagement can tarnish. Given the slightest chance, they will easily resurrect, propelled by the never unending enthusiasm of the connoisseur for the allure of that special name. Bugatti comes readily to mind in this respect, and so does Alfa Romeo. But Maserati?

Maserati was never technically dead; but it starved nearly to death for too many years, chugging out of its aging Modenese factory one disappointing car after another during the De Tomaso era. Some of the magic of the Trident evaporated as the second-hand yards became crowded with rusty, cheap Biturbos that went straight to the wrecker. But even after Fiat bought the firm from De Tomaso, in 1993, things didn’t seem to get much better; thus Ferrari itself, once the arch-rival of Maserati, bought six years later the lot. Its charismatic President, Luca di Montezemolo, vowed to resurrect it and transform it in a sort of Italian Porsche.


You had to expect this from the volcanic Italian top manager. Montezemolo had effectively rebuilt Ferrari, leading it to build the best top-level Gran Turismo in the world while winning the Formula One Drivers’ and Constructors’ Championship after decades of defeat, and now that he could be justifiably proud of Maranello’s going, he was clearly looking for new worlds to conquer. But there was a staggering amount of work to do; the ‘3200GT’, introduced in 1998, was a beautiful Giugiaro-styled 2+2 coupé with lots of power but a questionable build quality, temperamental engine and poor overall reliability. This ‘Spyder’ is the second product of the ‘new Maserati’ and is greeted with true anticipation by the enthusiast; the fact that it has a great new engine comes after the aesthetic pleasure of its roofless line, and the fact that this model will herald the return of Maserati in the USA is another reason to look at it closer. It has to be good, because the Spyder is aiming at a pair of ‘instant classics’ and category best-sellers like the Porsche 911 Cabrio and the Jaguar XK-XK/R. The German and the British rivals are both excellent sportcars, finely tuned to reach a unique compromise of performance, style, luxury and overall image, but the Maserati can succeed.


An open car offers a special type of driving pleasure, completely different from what you would expect from a car with a fixed top. A foldable roof, providing the excitement of open-air motoring, puts the owner-driver in a special frame of mind: he enjoys the scenery, the scent of the countryside, the musical voice of a noble engine. The ‘Spyder’ is not a car for the everyday drives to the local Wal-Mart; it is not built to help you carry home a boat, a trailer or the groceries. A saloon will do for that, or a Station Wagon. A ‘Spyder’ exists for the pure, unadulterated pleasure of driving a special car, practicality be damned. But it MUST be fast and aesthetically sexy; and if you understand this, then you’ll agree that the new ‘Spyder’ is great; it is a Giugiaro-designed masterpiece of style, whose long nose and truncated rear end look unique even in the exclusive club of its few peers. Its proportions and overall line may remember the Jaguar XK (after all, they use a very similar technical layout, front V8 engine, rear wheel-drive) but the style of the Maserati is different, it’s a slimmer car, less ‘rounded’, a shade more modern and unmistakably Italian.

The superb style of its body makes the open-top Maserati sleek and compact enough to be exciting but not so flashy to become an excess, so it seems the right thing to arouse some interest amongst the cognoscenti. The nose section is very attractive, the side view is stylish both with the hood down and up, and the controversial ‘boomerang’-shaped tail lights of the 3200GT, that only some English journalist liked but were generally loathed by the customers, have been deleted and replaced by more conventional clusters, so that the line of the new car is much better than the previous one.


On the other hand, one must admit that the superb job done on the outside has not yet been matched by an equal effort in the cockpit. The interior is clearly still the weak point of the Maserati, and this is especially evident in the instrumentation. While the two main rivals have a clean, unfussed main binnacle with easy-to-read black instrument dials and white numbers, the Spyder has been given a quite questionable system. Its dials have a central black area surrounded by a light grey ring, and the black numbers on the grey ring are not easy to read; the orange ‘hands’ of the instruments are therefore half on the black, half on the grey, the contrast is low, the readability poor especially in low light. The ergonomic efficiency of the whole lot are questionable, and apart from functionality the judgement whether they’re nice to see or not is open to debate. Our opinion is that it sucks.

To make the things worse, the navigator screen is placed too low in the central tunnel, the climate control controls might be improved and the only remaining relic of the sad De Tomaso era, the ovoid-shaped clock, is still placed in the middle of the facia, an ugly piece of clockwork that I would like to rip off the dashboard and throw personally in the nearest dumpster. Well, it could be worse; once, it was gold-plated…. Still, it’s an ugly piece of kit. Then the leather squeaks, the seams are not perfectly aligned, the buttons and knobs of the ventilation system look (and are) quite cheap. To be fair to Maserati, Jaguar does not fare much better in this respect, but Porsche does, installing all-bespoke high-quality components in its 911 and Boxster, so the same ought to do Maserati. So it would also be nice to see vents not too directly related to the Fiat parts bin and a better finish of the leather of the seats and facia, but this is less important.


The driving position is quite good, at least if one is not oversize/overweight. Ascertained that the target for this car is a slim, rich and physically fit individual, the customer will find a good relation between the steering wheel, the seat, the pedals and the main and secondary controls. No mean feat, considering that Maseratis in the past have been widely criticised for their peculiar driving position.

Anyway, the real strong point of the Spyder (and in its tin-top sibling, the new Coupé) is its magnificent engine. The old, temperamental twin-turbo engine has been replaced by a much better unit, a 4,2-litres eight-cylinder aspirated powerplant inspired by some of the principles of the classic Maserati Ghibli/Indy V8s (the eight cylinders are divided in two banks of four cylinders each, the angle between them is 90° and there are two chain-driven overhead camshaft for each bank) but carries this theme to new heights, benefiting from all the improvements allowed by today’s technology (dry sump to keep it low and four valves per cylinder, plus, of course, all the electronic wizardry developed by Mr Bosch, Marelli and the like.) Thus this V8 produces 390 bhp at 7.000 rpm with a torque of 451 Nm at 4.500 rpm. Heady figures indeed.

This engine is superb. It weighs only 184 kilograms and improves the new Maserati immensely, delivering an enormous amount of power in the nicest way; and when you turn the ignition key and the engine comes to life, it also generates a permanent smile on your face. This is one of the world’s great powerplants: a V8 so powerful, smooth, aurally exciting and that is at the same time so easy to drive both slow and fast. It is, without doubt, the best part of the new Spyder and it’s intoxicating: one is tempted to say that there is no better engine today on the market, even in the sophisticated realm of the Italian supercars. Its tractability at low speeds is superb, and this is the first, enormous difference between this unit and the previous twin-turbo 3,2 litres, a powerful brute that was always ready to race but absolutely unhappy to trundle around in downtown traffic.

The power delivery of the new wngine is extremely homogeneous, and ample reserves of torque are available at all rotation speeds at the simple pressure on the throttle; so it’s a splendidly friendly unit, and even more so because it is perfectly matched to its ‘natural’ gearbox, the semiautomatic ‘Cambiocorsa’. This is the name for the clutchless gearbox that, after years of use on some Ferraris, now finds its way on a smaller and more affordable Modenese supercar; the idea of having a gearbox that does not require the operation of a clutch pedal but is quick and efficient as a good ‘manual’ is irresistibly attractive, and the Marelli-developed system is one of the best around (or, probably, the best overall). It doesn’t have any power-consuming torque converter nor any other paraphernalia of the automatic systems; the gearbox is actuated by the driver pulling one of the two levers placed behind the steering wheel (one inserts a lower gear, the other a longer one) and it’s due to the operation of a series of actuators that are housed inside the gearbox itself, placed on the rear axle, integral with the differential, to improve the weight distribution of the Spyder. This complex gearbox combines the rapidity of a manual system with the ease of operation of an automatic, and it’s therefore the best of both worlds; it’s actually quicker than a ‘manual’, so you understand why a large number of Ferrari customers have already preferred this system (labelled ‘F.1’ in Maranello slang) to the traditional one.


Whilst the first approach to this ‘box might leave someone puzzled, after five minutes of driving this car one wonders by God why this system is not standard on every car produced in the world. In short, you have all the positive sides of an ‘auto’, so you don’t have to press the clutch pedal and move a lever for each change of gear, but you also have a fantastically quick and smooth gear change, something that a conventional ‘auto’ cannot provide. It is possible to change gears manually with the two levers behind the steering wheel (very easy) or also press a button and switch the system to ‘Auto’ (even easier); you don’t have to mind about gear changing anymore. There is a ‘low-traction’ mode for ice and snow, plus a lever that engages the reverse gear for parking. Easy, very rational, a system that matches perfectly this great V8 and improves dramatically the driveability of the Maserati.

Also the hood is great: in a proper ‘Spyder’, this system has an enormous importance, as it can make the difference between silence and noise, good or bad looks, aerodynamic efficiency or drag; in this case the opening and closing of this hood is completely automatic and is rather quick, the looks of the car are quite nice also when it is erected. One can also hope that the gremlins that disgraced the hoods of the first cars have been eradicated….


With its shortened wheelbase, the Spyder promises to be a better drive than the Coupé, at least on the twisty Italian mountain roads, and the new Maserati delivers. Climbing the medium-radius curves and tight hairpins of the legendary Futa between Bologna and Florence, where the Mille Miglia created its legends, the Spyder feels quick, extremely agile, ready to follow the driver’s inputs with a gratifying readiness. This speed of reaction can be surprising to anyone who remembers the behaviour of the old 3200GT in the same situation, a fast car on the straights that felt quite cumbersome when one had to deal with a lot of curves. The improved weight distribution, shortened wheelbase, new gearbox and much better power delivery of this new V8 make a huge difference; the Spyder give to its driver a real, unadulterated driving pleasure, and the superb dynamics of the chassis/engine combination are emotionally enhanced by the open-top that can be opened and closed in few seconds.


All in all, the Spyder looks, sounds and drives great; it’s one hell of a car from a manufacturer that only five  years ago was in complete disarray and that is now a serious rival for the better sports car specialists in the world. Mr Montezemolo’s new Maserati is getting better and better, and when the gorgeous new Quattroporte four-door luxury saloon will be ready, sometime near the end of 2003, also BMW and Mercedes will have something from Modena to worry about.


 (Bologna, 26 Maggio 2002)