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Maserati GranSport

The Maserati Coupe has always been a 'nearly' car; the new GranSport finally realises the four-seater's full potential

Maserati's distinctive Coupe has been perpetually on the brink of greatness. Launched as the 3200GT back in 1998, it appeared on the cover of the very first issue of evo and since then we've charted its evolution; the surprise switch to a normally-aspirated 4.2-litre V8 from the original's twin-turbo 3.2, the redesign of the once-defining boomerang rear lights, the introduction of the Convertible and, latterly, the various iterations of the 'Skyhook' adaptive damping and Cambiocorsa auto-clutch manual. For six years the Coupe has charmed us but failed to convince us fully, the positives of a superb engine, sling-shot performance, beautifully crafted interior and rarity tempered, mostly, by sharp handling, numb steering, an indifferent ride and an unsatisfactory gearshift, especially in Cambiocorsa guise. The invitation to drive the new range-topping GranSport contained no indication that something rather remarkable had happened to the Coupe. There were no great claims about stealing sales from Jaguar and Porsche, no boasts that Maserati had created a better GT than the XJR or a sports car as involving as the new 911. To be honest, even if there had been, after so many re-workings it would have sounded like well-intentioned PR bravado. Yet the GranSport really is very good. Maserati has hit the bullseye. The specification details of the GranSport certainly didn't suggest such a transformation. Instead they painted a picture of an even more aggressive and uncompromising experience: lowered, stiffened suspension with bigger wheels and lower profile tyres; power up 10bhp to a respectable 400; Cambiocorsa transmission (no manual option) with faster shifts, and some aerodynamic tuning. 'The GranSport is designed as a sportier, edgier alternative to the current Coupe and has been designed to express the powerful temperament at the heart of the car,' ran the press release. Knowing the current car, the words 'edgier' and 'powerful temperament' sounded vaguely menacing. The charm offensive starts as soon as we clap eyes on the colourful grid of ten GranSports basking on the startline of the Autodromo Riccardo Parletti, 20 miles from Parma. The Giugiaro-styled four-seater has never looked better, the subtle additions and tweaks lending it extra muscle and sharpening its stance. Overseen by recently installed Maserati/ Ferrari chief designer Frank Stephenson (he of New Mini fame), the styling changes are both aesthetic and functional. The most obvious elements are the curved sill extensions and the sliver of a boot spoiler, but the front grille is deeper, too, more like the Quattroporte's, with a chunkier spoiler below. The lower ride height helps enormously, the tail in particular appearing to hunker down much more than the 10mm drop would suggest. Inside, the changes are pretty much all positive, too. New, deeply sculpted seats offer a welcoming embrace as you slip into them, and the facia, wheel and centre console treatment are all sportier. The dials have simpler white-on-blue markings, while the wheel is more ergonomically shaped and also features an unusual non-circular, carbonfibre top edge that is raised to give full sight of the dials. There's a carbon surround for the heater controls and radio, too, while the upper section of the centre console is now shorter and groups together four buttons, including those for the 'Sport' mode and the starter. The extended console between the seats is now in carbon, much like that of the 360 Stradale, and carries the stubby little T-bar forward/reverse gear selector lever and sundry switches. Only the new 'technical' cloth jars slightly; it looks like the tight-webbed material some training shoes are made from. Leather is an option. Twist the key, thumb the blue starter button and the V8 fires up with a glorious, resonant, rolling rumble. The new exhaust back-boxes feature valve flaps that open above 4000rpm in regular mode and are open all the time in Sport but, rather neatly, are also programmed to open on start-up. The sonorous burble sets the tone beautifully. Pull on the felt-backed right-hand paddle, squeeze the throttle and we're off, very soon encountering the first dynamic test - a pair of speed humps on the feeder road from the circuit. Buttock-clenching proves unnecessary as the GranSport traverses them with impressive suppleness. On the open road, the absorbency of the ride continues to impress. At moderate speeds there's noticeable roll, squat and pitch, which I hadn't expected, but it all feels comfortable, natural, and as we'll soon discover, the Sport button sharpens up its demeanour considerably. Another aspect of the GranSport that impresses within the first few miles is the steering. The Coupe has never lacked directness but feel and feedback are another matter. Here, though, there are no such concerns; it is still keenly responsive but no longer unsettlingly sharp, and there's a real sense of knowing what is happening at the treadblocks. The tyres themselves - Pirelli P Zero Rossos, 235/35 ZR19 and 265/30 ZR19 front and rear - are acknowledged by Maserati to be a significant factor in the improved dynamics. Compared with the 18in Michelins or Dunlops fitted to the Coupe and Convertible, they are an inch bigger in diameter, a section lower in profile but the same width, yet with the revised Skyhook tuning seem to provide increased suppleness and feel. The Cambiocorsa gearbox has been roundly criticised in these pages in the past but each new generation of software brings improvements. Its action feels more refined than before in regular mode, slipping between ratios smoothly, though ambling through town in auto mode there's still the feeling that there's too much clutch slip than is good for the friction plate. Maserati's engineers shrug when this is pointed out and say that they doubt GranSport owners will use auto much. By implication, they'll be more interested that the GranSport's shift speed in Sport mode has been reduced by up to 35 per cent and that on downchanges there's a generous heel-and-toe-style flourish of revs. The V8's rumbling exhaust note evaporates as the revs climb into the mid-range, replaced by a smooth, light, creamy whirr. The V8's modest gain in horsepower comes at the top end of the rev-range, the tuning centred on finer build tolerances, including reworked valve seats and more accurate connections between the intake piping and cylinder head ports. The back-box flaps also contribute to the extra 10bhp. The full 400bhp is delivered at 7000rpm; torque remains at 333lb ft at 4500rpm, the same as the Coupe. Pressing the Sport button restores the low-rev rumble, and it's there on the overrun, too, a delicious low, powdery popping and pulsing. Out on more demanding roads, it's the change in the damping and shift speed that the Sport mode brings that are more significant. You can make pretty good progress without it, but the downchanges are a little too sluggish and, laden with driver, passenger and a bootful of camera gear, the continually adaptive Skyhook damping doesn't grab hold of the mass as firmly as you'd want as soon as you'd want. That said, the GranSport still feels very good, poised and responsive, with terrific turn-in and exceptional traction, but in Sport mode it rises to another level, becoming taut, confident and rarely wrong-footed. Body movement is more tightly controlled, with roll and pitch resisted in the early stages, yet the ride remains supple. Securely and comfortably restrained by the well-shaped seat, you feel perfectly placed to exploit the strong grip the chassis generates. Braking is confident, with good pedal feel, and now when you request downshifts, the Cambiocorsa 'box delivers swiftly, with a blip-perfect swell of revs helping the ratio slip sweetly home. These are difficult roads, mainly second- and third-gear, throwing up complex sequences of corners thick and fast, and the Maserati is devouring them with a seemingly insatiable appetite. The whole car is working hard but feels as if it has plenty still in reserve. The front end slices for the apex accurately and keenly and it takes a really early throttle to get the traction control warning light flickering - mostly the GranSport simply digs in and goes. The V8 isn't over-burdened with torque, it's true, but the drive the GranSport finds makes you wonder if it couldn't cope pretty well with the original twin-turbo 3200GT's spiky delivery. The 400bhp, short-stroke 4.2 is a bit soft below 2000rpm but picks up strongly thereafter, bellowing its way through to 4500rpm, the point of peak torque, before the note quietens into a smooth, light eight-pot whirr right through 7000rpm and on to the limiter. Power keeps on building and you can spend most of a testing road with the V8 singing urgently between 4000 and 7500rpm. If you're the sort who thinks a manual with no clutch pedal should shift as smoothly as a regular auto, the jolt when the gears go home if you keep the throttle pinned will disappoint you. Personally, I've never objected to helping smooth the process by lifting the throttle slightly on upshifts. For me, the speed of the shift is more important going down the 'box, especially when braking hard, and here the Cambiocorsa system is faultless. It surely can't be beyond the ingenuity of the software manufacturers to build in a slight ignition cut to ease upshifts in a similar way. On the upside, there is an automatic handbrake action that holds the car when pulling away or when you're manoeuvering and going between first and reverse, so you don't have to dial in as many revs as you might. Short-cutting back to the circuit so as not to be late for the afternoon exercises, photographer Shepherd finds some wicked little roads, and I mean wicked in the traditional sense - horrendous, narrow, writhing, part-subsided asphalt. Despite our hurry, the GranSport never loses its cool. At the pace we're maintaining I could imagine a Mini bouncing like a pogo stick and a Jaguar XJR running short of answers, while an Aston DB9 would be all at sea. It's not the sort of drive you'd expect a GT to relish but the GranSport is quite unfazed by it all. Stability control rarely intervenes. Even with it switched out, at the limit of front grip the nose edges progressively wide, and if mid-corner bumps excite the tail when it's driving hard, the resultant slide is small and catchable. If you're thinking that sounds not unlike a certain German sports car with the engine in the wrong place, I'd agree. If Maserati hadn't provided a circuit, the GranSport's very outer limits would have remained a mystery. Let loose on this entertaining little track, whose corners are mainly second- and third-gear, it's easy to soon get to grips with. Safe understeer awaits unless you're prepared to get on the throttle hard and early, having got the nose tucked in. The tail is keen to regain grip so you have to keep the throttle planted until there's some momentum behind the swing; once the tail is out about half a turn, you can determine the trajectory with small modulations of the throttle. It's the GranSport's engaging performance on the road that stays uppermost in the mind, though. It has the sort of responsive, feelsome steering and dynamic composure we always wished the Coupe had, combined with a superb ride, excellent seats and a deliciously sweet- revving and potent engine. Best of all, it works on two levels, both as a cosseting four-seat GT and a sports car, something the DB9 tried but has so far failed to do. So, how good is the GranSport? Well, the regular Coupe now looks expensive at £56K (£59K with Cambiocorsa) while the GranSport seems like a bargain at £66,600. In fact, I can't see why anyone would want the standard Coupe. The GranSport isn't just the car that keen drivers like us have always wished the Maserati was, it's now a GT that has the measure of the Jaguar XJR and BMW 645i. And even if I was considering a 911, the stylish and much rarer Maser would be very tempting. New 997 Carrera S versus GranSport? That's a twin-test whose conclusion I wouldn't put money on, and you could add Aston's forthcoming AMV8, which is expected to be similar money. The Maserati really is that good, and after six years it's a pleasure to be able to write it.

Comparison

 Maserati Gran Sport
Engine90-degree V8
LocationFront
Displacement4244cc
Bore X Stroke92mm x 79.8mm
Cylinder BlockAluminium alloy, dry sumped
Cylinder HeadAluminium alloy, dohc per bank, four valves per cylinder
Fuel and IgnitionBosch integrated ignition/injection system, fly-by-wire throttle control
Max Power400bhp @ 7000rpm
Max Torque333lb ft @ 4500rpm
TransmissionSix-speed manual with 'Cambiocorsa' paddle-shift, rear-wheel drive, lsd
Front SuspensionDouble wishbones, coil springs, 'Skyhook' adaptive damping control, anti-roll bar
Rear SuspensionDouble wishbones, coil springs, 'Skyhook' adaptive damping control, anti-roll bar
SteeringRack and pinion, power-assisted
BrakesCross-drilled and ventilated discs, 330mm front, 310mm rear, ABS, EBD, ASR, MSR
Wheels8 x19in fr, 9.5 x 19in rr, al alloy
Tyres235/35 ZR19 fr, 265/30 ZR19 rr, Pirelli P Zero Rosso
Fuel Tank Capacity19.4gal/88 litres
Weight Kerb1680kg
Power to Weight239bhp/ton
Insurance Group20
Max Speed180mph (claimed)
Basic Price£66,600
On SaleAutumn 2004
Rating0
0 to 60 MPH4.9sec (claimed)
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