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If a Ferrari or Lamborghini is over the top for your wallet, there's always the other Italian exotic. Maserati is as fabled a name, and it predates by half a century the oft-told exchange in the early 1960s when Enzo Ferrari allegedly dismissed a demanding and outspoken customer by the name of Ferruccio Lamborghini as a builder and driver of farm tractors, thus cementing one of the auto world's enduring rivalries.
The Maserati is meant for people who find a Ferrari or Lambo too hard-edged. It offers spirited rather than neck-wrenching performance and the comforts whose absence makes a 458 a Ferrari and a Murciélago a Lambo. The Maserati in question here, the GranTurismo Convertible, looks no less an Italian exotic-Sophia Loren to Lambo's Darth Vader-and under its hood is a 90-degree V8 engine built by Ferrari.
The engine certainly sounds as potent as the Ferrari F430's, but rather than the rosso rocket's harsh, resonant snarl, the Maserati engine emits piercing trumpet blasts when the exhaust baffles open with selection of sport mode. In the days I had the car, I learned to play trumpet in the band between 3200 and 5500 rpms with my right foot. Trumpet practice dragged the test mpg south of 10 from EPA figures of 12 city/20 highway/15 combined, but this engine thrives on revs and really hits its stride when the tach moves through 5000.
What the car might lack in blistering Italian performance it makes up for with the Wynton Marsalis music from its four tailpipes, the comfortable appointments and the mesmerizing curves of its Pininfarina-styled body. The GTC's 433 horsepower is nothing to sneer at, and 5.3 seconds to 60 means the car is no slouch, but the unavoidable reality is that the comfortable accoutrements and soft-top engineering of the Maserati add weight, and its power loading of 10.1 pounds per horsepower puts a significantly bigger burden on the V8 than does the F430's 6.7 pounds per horsepower.
The GTC Looks stunning from nearly every angle. To some eyes the hang-dog snout might appear a tad droopy, but a low-slung air intake mouth is a historic feature of the marque and clearly evokes the face of the mid-1950s Maserati 200SI racecar. (This company's racing heritage began with victory in the 1926 Targa Florio.)
The GTC's hood line also provides evidence of the aft placement of the engine, which in modern parlance is mounted mid-front like the V12 of the Ferrari 599. (See our October-November 2010 issue for a review.-Ed.) That Ferrari, too, wears Pininfarina robes and has a relatively steep slope where the hood pitches downward to a low-slung intake mouth. On both cars, the entire engine is aft of the front axle line for weight distribution that makes for aggressive and sure-footed turn-in in cornering. The GTC's weight distribution is 49 percent front/51 percent rear with the soft top up and 48 percent front/52 percent rear when it's down and stowed behind the rear seats.
Unlike many convertibles with four "seats," this one genuinely has room for four adults with legs. If the two people riding in the back don't like what they see ahead, they can take some comfort from knowing that two hefty pillars sit poised in the tonneau cover behind the rear-seat headrests to extend in 190 milliseconds for rollover protection if so commanded by the airbag control system. Rear-seat passengers also are spared the vertical backrests that on some alleged four-seat cars are part of the squeeze-to-fit process. On the GTC they lean backwards at 22 degrees.
The soft top cycles in 24 seconds and can be closed in motion at up to 20 mph if rain surprises, but the penalty of open-air motoring for four is the lid stowage bay's encroachment on trunk space, which is a mere 6.1 cubic feet. The soft top is suitably sturdy to cope with the car's 176-mph top speed. It has three layers-outer canopy, insulation and headliner-weighs 143 pounds and comes in six standard exterior colors (black, blue, burgundy, chocolate, titanium grey and java beige) and three headliner colors (black, beige and beluga grey). A nice touch for hot days is the "summer opening feature" of the soft top. By inserting the key in the door and holding it to the right for two seconds, the driver can make the top fold down and stow, thus avoiding the need to enter a heat-soaked car to let the sweltering air out. Overall, the convertible weighs 221 pounds more than the hard-top GranTurismo coupe.
The driver sits downwind of a 14.8-inch-diameter old-fashioned round steering wheel that is nevertheless equipped with the usual modern selection of heads-up buttons. Like the Ferrari, the Maserati has fixed, column-mounted gearshift paddles as opposed to wheel-mounted ones that are captive to the gyrations of steering. The interior is generally unfussy and attractively and functionally laid out, and the leather and wood is all put together well.
For times when the rear seats are unoccupied, an optional mesh windstop reduces the flow of air inside the cabin with the top down. According to Maserati, wind-tunnel testing shows that it cuts airflow from the rear by 70 percent and overall airflow in the car by 50 percent, thus reducing the wind buffeting Ms. Loren's hair. A 30-GB built-in hard drive can store 180 hours of the occupants' favorite sounds, played through a Bose 12-speaker audio system with AudioPilot, which optimizes its output for both top-up and top-down motoring. I have to admit I never switched it on, deriving far more entertainment from the tailpipe tunes at the beck of my right foot.
The GTC's body is made mostly of steel, with the hood and bumper reinforcements made of aluminum. The test car was a Eurospec model, and in fact the very same vehicle that was unveiled at the 2009 Geneva motor show. It had led a hard life as a press car in Europe and in film appearances, I was told, and 15,000 kilometers were on the odometer when I picked it up. It still drove well and felt solid.
The car's unibody, says Maserati, sets a new industry benchmark with its torsional rigidity frequency of 27.2 Hz, an indication of how resistant the structure is to twisting under load. The GTC features aluminum gas shock absorbers equipped with what Maserati calls the "Skyhook damping system." Acceleration sensors measure the movements of each wheel and the car body, and the system processes this information to interpret the driving and road surface conditions and adjust the damper settings accordingly. The driver can still choose between normal and sport modes, the latter offering a tighter ride with reduced roll and load transfer.
Unlike the V8 in the F430 (4.3 liters, 479 hp at 8500 rpm, 343 lb-ft at 5250 rpm), the GTC's V8 (4.7 liters, 433 hp at 7000 rpm) has a wet sump. It also has higher low-end torque, with 82 percent of its 361 lb-ft available from 2500 rpm, which is 700 rpm before the tailpipes find their full voice. However, as already noted, the Ferrari's lower power loading and savage temperament mean the two cars offer distinctly different driving experiences.
With a price tag of approximately $150,000, the Maserati GTC is a jump up from more mainstream four-seat convertibles (but far short of the Rolls-Royce Phantom Drophead, which commands a cool half million) and most people seeking four seats under the sun will find its performance more than adequately exhilarating.
Maserati is back, the old tooling in its Modena factory having been discarded and replaced in 2001 during a spell of Ferrari ownership. Ferrari remains a sister company under the ownership of Fiat, and Maserati has found a niche with not only the GranTurismo but also the Quattroporte sedan, another masterpiece of Pininfarina design.