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Wheels: A Spin in the Spyder

Paul Dean

First impressions certainly contain elements of reliability, but wiser judges know that last impressions are typically lasting impressions. And so for years, America’s last recollections of one Italian car company and its products have been chafing executives at Officine Alfieri Maserati SpA of Modena.

They anxiously await the spring, however, when the yeas and nays of American buyers will be tallied, and the future of Maserati and the wisdom of Ferrari’s 1997 takeover of its former fiery rival will be tested, as Maserati returns to the United States after 12 years of voluntary exile.

Its renewal car is the 2003 Maserati Spyder, a 390-hp roadster that looks as fresh and innovative as the Jaguar XK120 and the Ferrari Daytona were in their eras. Its performance is equally superior, and a recent test-drive over the Mille Miglia route showed the Spyder might have humbled some of the event’s past winners.

This two-seater, which scoots from zero to 60 in under five seconds and runs out at 170 mph, goes public in January at the Los Angeles and Detroit auto shows. It will be on sale in March for around $90,000, give or take a few options. A convertible version will arrive in the United States first, followed by a coupe. By the end of 2003, Maserati hopes to be marketing a larger, luxury four-door model bearing another name from the company’s past: Quattroporte.

It is fair to presume that if you do buy a Spyder, the purchase will be based on your first impressions of Maserati as an automotive religion born in Bologna in 1914. You may recall that Wilbur Shaw drove a Maserati to win the bottle of milk at Indy 500s in 1939 and 1940, and that Juan Fangio took the 1957 world driving championship—his fifth—in the scarlet cars from Modena. To the enthusiast, Maserati remains a fable pillared by names of its products: Birdcage Maserati, Mistral, Ghibli, and the Maserati 5000GT, which in the late 1950s and early 1960s seriously threatened the road car supremacy of Ferrari.

However, if your sense of history is lighter, the name Maserati may conjure up a 30-year procession of hybrids and product fumbles, with cars of the 1970s through 1990s setting new standards for unreliability and ugliness. Your last and lasting impression of the marque is the Maserati-bodied Chrysler TC, or the twin-
turbocharged Biturbos of the 1980s that were styled years behind the times, shed parts across America, and in summer developed mechanical heatstroke in the warmer states.

Maserati’s miserable recent past and the need to erase America’s memories of it have not been lost on Ferrari. In 1999, the all-new 3200GT, the first of the Ferrari-Maserati cars, went on sale in Europe and Asia—but not in the United States. Maserati was not about to risk its potentially largest market with the teething problems of a first-off coupe. While Americans will tolerate a coupe, few can resist the call of the convertible.

The first step toward recovery was gutting the old Maserati plant and installing a $350 million, 26-station assembly plant where quality control is exercised continuously, not just at the end of the line.

Over veal piccata and tortelliniat the Cavallino restaurant, across the road from the Ferrari plant in Maranello, Ferrari President Luca di Montezemolo explains the rest of the calculated resuscitation of Maserati. “We have waited until now to go back to the States so we could prepare the dealer network,” he says, “and until we had a car, a convert-ible, the Spyder, so suited to the American market.”

And what about the mistakes of Maserati’s past?

“I think that Maserati changed too many owners,” says di Montezemolo.  He is referring to the Maserati brothers, who sold to Adolfo Orsi (1947), who was taken over by Citroen (1968), who handed off to Peugeot (1975), which made way for Allesandro de Tomaso (1975), who gave a piece to Chrysler (1988) before Fiat bought the company in 1993, then put the marque under the Ferrari’s control in 1997.

Di Montezemolo is firm on the separation of the church of Ferrari from the state of Maserati. This arrangement suits the past and presents characteristics of each. Ferrari is the handcrafted extreme performer, expensive beyond six figures and a quintessential Italian sports car. Maserati is more a product of exclusive mass production, offering a five-figure balance between sportiness and comfort. It is an authentic GT car with Italian flair but also one that does not show off. Ferrari builds cars by the hundreds; Maserati will produce them by the thousands. “It [Spyder] is an Italian sports car with the old traditions of Ferrari,” says di Montezemolo. “It is a cheap Ferrari, [but] a cheap Ferrari with less sophistication, less craftsmanship.”

In this case, cheap means inexpensive. Not that there is anything visibly inexpensive about the Spyder. The hood slopes gently, the fenders are flared mildly, and there is the mandatory trace of Maserati history in a stretched oval grille styled after the Mistrals and Ghiblis of the 1960s and ’70s. And, of course, the grille features the marque’s logo: Neptune’s trident, which was adopted by Mario Maserati in 1926 from a statue in Bologna’s Piazza del Nettuno.

The rear is snubbed and blocky— possibly to satisfy American demands for enough trunk space for two golf bags stuffed sideways—but there is purpose in this suggestion of abruptness. It implies hard-edged perfor-mance. It is also worth noting that the one-button lowering and stowing of the top removes nothing from the trunk space, so your Callaways will not be crushed into corkscrews.

The Spyder is shorter than the Jaguar, about the length of the Porsche. Overall, despite permanent roll bars painted in body color that does absolutely nothing to soften the visual intrusion, the Spyder casts a distinctive silhouette that will have American admirers uttering those three small but enchanted words: What is it?

As its outline is pure Italian, so is the Spyder’s interior modern Renaissance. It is difficult to make relatively small places elegant and functional, but the Spyder’s near-total leather interior could be mistaken for a booth at the Savoy. An analog dash clock and black numerals on white dials are delightful throwbacks to Maseratis of yesteryear. But some buyers might beg for 21st-century heating and air-conditioning ducts to replace the Spyder’s flap-shuttered versions that could have been lifted from a Tucker. At the end of the run, however, this is a cabin with plenty of elbowroom and enough leg space for Shaquille O’Neal. Well, perhaps Kobe Bryant.

Mechanically, the Spyder contains much more than its price suggests. The engine—with cylinder heads in Maserati’s traditional crackle red finish—is the world’s most powerful street V-8. Its 390 ponies are superior in number to the Porsche 911 (320 hp), the Jaguar XKR (363 hp), and the Mercedes-Benz SL (306 hp).

The transmission can be either a standard 6-speed manual or something called Cambiocorsa, a system from Ferrari’s F/1 cars that gives you the choice of a fully automatic transmission or shifting by fingertip paddles behind the fully adjustable steering wheel.

The Spyder also has an optional suspension tamer, the Skyhook. It takes an already superior suspension and makes it flatter and stiffer by electronically controlled damping.

There is an enormous flexibility and range to the performance of the Spyder. In automatic in city traffic, it purrs along as if half asleep while steering and braking pressures emulate a Honda Accord. Then, on the Autostrada, it snorts a velvet snarl through a four-pipe exhaust system. In sixth gear, you are cruising-by-wire at 150 mph, and that is absolutely nothing for you or the car to get excited about. In the hills, on the Mille Miglia route through Livergnano and Pietramala, the Cambiocorsa will convert good drivers into excellent pilots, and not even gross and deliberate mishandling will elicit protests from the Pirellis. Cowl shake, the genetic disease of all convertibles, is at a minimum in the Spyder. Wind noise is also minimal, and with the top down at high speed, your hair will be safe, even if you are 6-foot-plus.

We would, however, argue strongly for some different procedure for reversing Cambiocorsa versions of the car. As it is, reverse is manually selected, then restored to normal by a small toggle low on the center console. That is when back-and-forth parallel parking with barely enough space between a Renault and a Twingo becomes a grand inspiration for learning a few Italian expletives.

Although sturdy A-pillars are a near necessity when building stiffness and rollover safety into a convertible, those on the Spyder seem to obstruct vision beyond the norm, especially when you are trying to look far ahead on pretzel-shaped roads. And for a car with so much racing in its gene pool, we would like an exhaust note that sounds more like a Maserati and less like a Miata.

Yet there can be little doubt that the Spyder represents a wonderful comeback after an uncomfortable hiatus when extinction threatened. It is a car that well represents and respects the sporting traditions and automotive architecture of Alfieri, Ettore, Ernesto, and Mario Maserati.

Paul Dean is editor at large for Robb Report.

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