Monday, July 16, 2012

2013 Maserati GranTurismo Sport - Italy's GT Muscle Car Gets A Deep Tissue Massage

Isn't Maserati one of those brands we're always rooting for despite the odds? It's a whole lot like Alfa Romeo in this regard; we root and root for them to turn some magic corner that will signal a huge breakthrough with buyers and trigger a sweet reconnection with a glorious past of which we are so frequently reminded.

But the return to any true and powerful worldwide Ferrari-like glory just lingers out there, seemingly always a couple of years off. That the company is owned by Fiat is mostly a blessing, but it also engenders a set of sensitive political hurdles given the awkward banter between the Trident, the Biscione (the snake in Alfa's logo) and the Prancing Horse.

And then this Sport update to one of the two models built in Maserati's Modena precincts quietly emerges, we drive it as it really ought to be driven, and it's enough to have us cheering again. How can all the world not get behind a car so sexy as the Maserati GranTurismo and command people in that price bracket to buy the damned thing? It just seems wrong – and downright un-Italian – that such coercion isn't allowed. Yet surely the ongoing Maserati situation is the result of other things not going quite right beneath its corporate skin.

But we didn't want to think about all of that on our drive day. We wanted to drive the bells and whistles out of this 2013 Maserati GranTurismo Sport and have something approaching an irresponsible 1960s-style great time at the wheel. And we pretty much got it.

We were driving in and around Modena during the recent flurry of nasty earthquakes, too, so there was significant added drama in the air, and our thoughts go out to the locals. Our nearly 200-mile loop took us from the civilization surrounding Modena, Bologna and the straight-as-an-arrow A1 Autostrada, due south into what is a sports car wonderland of Apennine foothill driving. It is in precisely these sorts of off-the-radar areas where every great racecar driver of the 1950s and 1960s came for their truest form of over-the-road driving pleasure. All of history's great Maseratis were tested here in between exquisite coffee breaks.

This GranTurismo Sport is the model that replaces both the GranTurismo S and GranTurismo S Automatic in the lineup, so now there is just this Sport model in between the base GranTurismo and the heated GranTurismo MC. The GranTurismo Sport arrives in North American showrooms soon after the European launch in July, most likely in September for us. (It's important to get these production launches started prior to the Italian August holiday when things essentially shut down for the entire month.) That the GranTurismo Sport is now more powerful than the GranTurismo MC and quicker to 60 miles per hour in acceleration runs gives us reason to scratch our heads over the MC's higher price tag. While the more rigid 444-horsepower MC currently sits at just a few cents below $140,000, the much-improved 453-hp Sport should start at a little above $130,000.

On the outside, the GranTurismo Sport adopts an approximation of the look introduced on the MC. Headlights and front airflow are the two big items addressed with full-LED daytime running lights and adaptive light control to illuminate curves with up to 15 degrees of steering angle at the wheel. And there is a new front splitter to increase aerodynamic efficiencies and guide more air to the compound metal brake discs for cooling. Other exterior touches include more pronounced side skirts and 20-percent darker tint on the taillamp lenses. This blue you see is the new color dedicated to the GT Sport, called in Italian "blu sofisticato," and the Brembo brake calipers can be ordered in the same color as well. The telltale Trident in the grille gets red highlights now, a Maserati tradition for marking its most powerful cars.

The new power front seats with integrated headrests and more sporting side bolsters are a thoroughly welcome upgrade, the previous thrones never seeming to us to be quite up to the mark. And, despite pooh-poohing comments from jaded journalists, the new flat-bottom steering wheel does help grip strategy and aids leg/knee room while dancing through the regions' hundreds of storybook curves. The entire driver's zone in the cabin is close to ideal for a GT experience in a vehicle this size. Meanwhile, rear knee room is nicely increased thanks to new concave front passenger seatbacks.

Regarding the existing 4.7-liter V8 engine now milked for 453 hp and 384 pound-feet of torque peaking at 4,750 rpm (increases of 20 and 22 units of measure, respectively), this widely shared multi-point injected engine has reached its peak and is wonderful throughout. This, despite teetering on the edge of being replaced by an all-new direct-injection turbocharged V8 beginning in all new Maserati models starting as early as mid-2013 with the new Quattroporte.

But this will not be a good-riddance goodbye; this naturally aspirated V8 built by Ferrari and employed by Maserati and in Alfa's 8C Competizione is an icon of power and sound. We will miss the Sport exhaust roar engineered by the Italians in partnership with Faurecia of Germany. In this latest guise, the roar is best in Sport with gearshifts in the manual MC Auto Shift mode, and we found ourselves leaving the windows open a lot just to hear the song and the five-percent quicker gear changes that waited for our command at the 7,200-rpm redline.

Those shifts from the six-speed ZF automatic gearbox are also as good as they'll likely ever get with such a setup, though things should improve when a ZF eight-speed comes online within the next couple of years. Regardless, we ceased whining about that as we hammered harder and harder over the hills. Keeping in mind that this isn't an all-out performance Ferrari, this six-speed torque-converter-equipped box is extremely well matched to this V8. We expect more in the future from the GranTurismo calibration allowed for North Americans, but it's damned fine right now. We still remember our first drive in the GranTurismo S back in 2008, it had those perfect long carbon fiber shift paddles attached to the column. They continue on here and remain the very best solution in the fingertip-shifting business.

We once again tried the six-speed automated manual Graziano gearbox, called MC Shift, and were once again reminded why the setup was a flop in North America. As it stands, less than 30-percent of buyers in world markets opt to have their GranTurismo thus equipped. The thrill is still there at high revs or on track days, but on public roads and in daily stop-and-go, this transaxle setup is simply too full of the yips and shunts to blend smoothly with Maserati's chassis and gentleman-GT image. North America stopped getting the gearbox imported after a brief test run in 2008, and we'll have to wait and see if there is a new, more sophisticated automated manual solution in store for next-generation Maseratis.

Most important for this 4,100-pound plus GT sex bomb is its improved cornering dynamics thanks in part to a two-millimeter-thicker rear stabilizer bar that matches up with the latest generation Sport Skyhook adaptive suspension and the double wishbone structures at all four corners. We still recall the side-to-side dynamic looseness and excessive roll of the first GranTurismo units in 2007 and 2008. This new GranTurismo Sport is far beyond all of that. The uprated suspension allowed us to do exactly what we envisioned in our mind's eye through every demanding section of road, the standard 20-inch Pirelli P Zero treads sitting pretty all day long, hooking up as required.

We still root hard for Maser, and our latest driving chapter has helped a lot. Now that they've made the absolute best of what they have been handed by the mother company, we're looking forward to ever more inspired driving experiences in the next-generation GranTurismo. News of Fiat wanting upwards of 50,000 Maseratis sales per year by the start of 2016, plus the inclusion of an Alfa 4C-sharing Maserati with new Ferrari-built biturbo V6, is enough to get our hopes up. Much of that volume figures to be the new Kubang crossover model, but hopefully that will generate fat profits to pump back into Maserati's slinkier sports cars. After all, the Trident marque's storied history – and today's luxury buyer – demands nothing less.

From AutoBlog.Com