What does Maserati mean to you? Perhaps the impossible glamour of a Ghibli SS in Azzurro metallic blue gliding between Monaco and Cannes? The pomp and (questionable) majesty of an early Quattroporte carrying a despot along dusty lanes flanked by armed guards? Maybe the bluff front and square shoulders of a Shamal flinging its driver in any direction it chooses, independent of his or her inputs? Whatever that famous name makes you imagine, I bet it’s a sequence that makes you smile.
Of course, Maserati has been through dark times and indeed seemed to live on the brink of disaster for decades, but by God it’s made some cool cars. And the bad times just seem to add to the glamour and mystique. I bet in weaker moments you’ve even toyed with the idea of a cheap Biturbo just to drive something with Neptune’s Trident on its nose.
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And yet for all that intangible magic, the GranTurismo is a rare sight on Britain’s roads. It’s not easy to understand why. Maserati’s big coupe is a handsome machine and it’s dripping with Italian-chic details, it seats four adults in comfort and its normally aspirated V8 sounds absolutely glorious. Maybe it’s a money thing, then? Well, this new 454bhp, 4.7-litre GranTurismo Sport does 185mph and 0-62mph in 4.8sec, and it costs from £90,750. That is a huge amount of money, but when you look at rivals from Aston Martin and Bentley or ‘volume’ manufacturers like BMW and Mercedes, the GranTurismo seems like a bargain. But can it keep up with younger, fitter rivals in the autumn of its life?
To find out, we’ve gathered some other cars that appear to offer similar qualities to the Maserati, and as a demonstration of how tricky the GT Sport is to pigeonhole, it’s a seriously diverse group. On paper, the BMW M6 looks like the Maser’s true nemesis – a handsome four-seater coupe that errs firmly towards driving thrills – and although it lacks the supercar cool of the Italian, it compensates with supercar performance. The BMW’s 4.4-litre twin-turbo V8 produces 552bhp and 501lb ft and you’ll need £93,820 to get one. The new Aston Martin DB9 can’t match those numbers but its creamy 510bhp V12 is pure theatre and it’s a Savile Row suit to the M6’s off-the-shelf Hugo Boss. However, you pay handsomely for the badge and the fine aluminium tailoring as the DB9 comes in at £131,995. It’s here because we suspect it might be the best sports GT on sale, bar the vastly more expensive Ferrari F12.
The bruising 500bhp Bentley Continental GT V8 is a little cheaper than the Aston at £123,850 and its 4-litre twin-turbocharged V8 has the most weight to haul around – an elephantine 2295kg – but Bentley does luxury and quality like nobody else. If the GranTurismo Sport feels even half as special it’ll make a very compelling case for itself.
The joker in the pack is the Mercedes CLS63 AMG. It’s not really a coupe but it is thunderously fast, fearsomely noisy and feels remarkably bespoke. Add in a heap of practicality and a dollop of Germanic quality and you end up with a mouth-watering proposition. And it’s the only car here that undercuts the Maserati – 549bhp, 590lb ft and four doors for £88,375 (and that includes this car’s £6495 ‘AMG Performance Package Plus’ upgrade, which adds 31bhp and 74lb ft). Hmm… 590lb ft, 285-section tyres and it’s 4deg C here in Northamptonshire. Let’s build up to that one, shall we?
It’s no hardship to walk past the Mercedes and straight to the Maserati. In fact, the carbon-sprinkled CLS disappears next to the huge GranTurismo Sport and its basking shark grille. This new Sport model has several updates under the skin, most importantly a revised version of Maserati’s 4.7-litre engine and significantly revised Skyhook adaptive suspension. Outside there are new, deeper sills and a mildly tweaked front end with larger intakes for brake cooling. Save for an oddly elevated ride height, I think the GT Sport looks exotic and deeply desirable.
Open the door and you’re treated to a heady mix of leather, Alcantara and carbonfibre. The steering wheel looks huge and the shiny-weaved paddles behind it are long and slender. Drop into the Bianco Pregiato seats (sounds so much better than ‘fine white’, don’t you think?) and ahead is a conservative and simple dash with a speedo that reads to 200mph and a rev-counter that turns red at 7500rpm. This GT Sport is fitted with the ‘MC Auto Shift’ automatic transmission instead of the more aggressive (and very good) ‘MC Shift’ automated manual ’box. The carbon trim, 20in gloss black alloys, Bose surround sound, electric memory seats and a sprinkling of extra leather bring the price to £101,610.
The moment that V8 fires up with a whoop-crackle and you pull the cool, light paddle to flick from D to first, you feel where some of that money has gone. The motor doesn’t have abundant torque but it revs freely, and although it’s smooth there’s a delicious saw-toothed bite to it. If somebody played it to you through its Bose stereo you’d instinctively know that this is an Italian V8. It screams Modena as loudly as the best balsamic vinegar and the sweetest, sickliest Lambrusco.
The quality runs deep and flows through the chassis, too. I used to dread reading ‘Skyhook’ in a tech spec because it nearly always meant sharp, brittle damping and the disconcerting feeling that the tyres were skating over the surface. That in turn meant light, lifeless steering and a general sense of detachment. Part of the success of the highly enjoyable GranTurismo MC Stradale (the GT3-alike version that also ushered in the 4.7-litre engine) was that it ditched Skyhook for passive dampers and felt so much more trustworthy as a result. However, the Sport – to my delight – has superbly judged damping and the steering has come alive with a little more weight but so much more texture.
So on wide, empty A-roads the Maserati feels like a consummate GT car. The ride is firm but has a relaxed gait and the long wheelbase means the car feels stable and comfortable. The engine howls and then thuds deep artillery on the overrun and delivers strong performance, while the six-speed ’box is smooth and quick. The GranTurismo is quiet and refined, and all the controls seem expertly blended to create an effortless experience. This is a big car and its bulk never disappears, but it does give it a shamefully enjoyable sense of grandeur.
As the roads get narrower the GT Sport initially feels uncomfortably wide, like it’s been ripped from its comfort zone. But with the Sport button activated, the damping tightens just enough to keep the body in check and deal decisively with a deteriorating surface. The damping control is impressive – much more supple and consistent than past GranTurismos and more controlled vertically than the sometimes floaty MC Stradale. The chassis is aided by the engine’s linear power delivery.
In other words… it’s not that fast. But the advantage of that is that you get to wring the lovely engine regularly and the chassis doesn’t get shocked by tons of low-down torque. So you can give the GT Sport a pasting, compressing that phase between turn-in and full throttle safe in the knowledge that the 285/35 ZR20 P Zeros will stay completely hooked up. It’s quite a car, this Maserati. I’d forego some of the automatic’s refinement for the punchy response of the automated manual, but long gearing aside it’s hard to moan about the way it responds to the paddles. There’s only one glaring weak spot and that’s the Brembo brakes, which fade to almost nothing during hard road use. The toll of 1880kg, or a sign of hard track use on a previous test?
The dull grey carbon-ceramics fitted to the DB9 suddenly look very appealing. In fact the whole car looks stunning – clean, taut and without a single unwanted embellishment. Pure class. It’s much lower than the GT Sport, so you drop right down to what feels like road height to get behind a steering wheel that feels tiny after the Maser’s giant dinner plate. The transmission tunnel is high to your left, your legs are straighter than in the Maserati and when the big V12 howls into life, sending a busy tingle through the whole car, the DB9 feels more supercar than GT. Press the big D on the carbonfibre console and flip the leather-covered aluminium upshift paddle so you have total control over the auto ’box. You sense that you’ll want to roll your sleeves up with this car.
On those same A-roads where the Maser was hushed and smooth, the DB9 is busier in every respect. Road and tyre noise thrums through the aluminium chassis, the steering is quicker and the ride is much, much firmer. This is odd as Messrs Meaden and Metcalfe reported that the ride was the stand-out quality when they drove the car on the launch in France. But here and now on a grey day in the UK it feels pretty uncompromising whether you run the dampers in Normal, Sport or Track mode. I can’t recall the Vanquish – the more extreme Aston by definition – being quite so unsettled.
There are things that the Aston does brilliantly, though. The engine is gloriously creamy and sounds wonderfully cultured. To get the best from it you’ll need over 4500rpm on the dial but the rich howl gives you all the incentive you need to regularly push to the upper reaches. Even if you don’t, the DB9 feels a cut above the Maserati in terms of sheer grunt, and on narrow, bumpy roads you never feel like you need more performance. The brakes are terrifically strong too and have fantastic response and feel – a lesson in how to do ceramics properly and a world apart from the Maser’s cast-iron set-up.
But best of all is the balance and the brilliant traction control system that is truly magical in the middle ‘DSC Track’ setting. Drive deep into corners on the brakes to keep the front tyres on line, then quickly load up the rears with the throttle. As soon as you’ve felt the front tyres grip you can really pile on the power, up to and beyond the point of overloading the Pirellis. The DB9 takes a few degrees of attitude and then the DSC system holds it there beautifully all the way through the corner, bleeding just enough power away to bring the tail back into line, and then you’re off again in search of the power and noise at the top end of the rev range. Fan-bloody-tastic.
You have to work harder than in the GT Sport because the engine gives the rear tyres a lot more to think about, but the steering is sweet and the balance accessible. As editor Trott says, ‘It feels like a genuine sports car – you instantly feel comfortable enough to loosen the TC and let it move around on greasy roads. And it has mega steering. Aston has really nailed it with this thing.’ So the Maser has the edge in gearbox response and damping but the Aston feels sharper, more focused and even more special. It’s an intriguing head-to-head.
The M6 might well have beamed in from another planet. Forget elegance and glamour, this thing is about function and it looks heroically brutal. Handsome and well-proportioned, sure, but there’s unquestionably something thuggish about it. In a really good way. It’s the same inside – it feels obviously mass-produced compared to the Aston and overwrought and complicated next to the Maserati, but the driving position is absolutely perfect and the bizarrely huge steering wheel feels, surprisingly, just right. Lest we forget, this is still an 1850kg car, but as soon as you close the door it seems much smaller and its bulk ceases to be an issue.
If the DB9 and GT Sport are analogue machines, then the M6 is very much at the forefront of the digital revolution. Its 4.4-litre V8 is twin-turbocharged, there’s a seven-speed dual-clutcher in place of an old-school six-speed auto, the steering (hydraulically assisted – some traditions are best adhered to) has three levels of assistance, the dampers can be toggled between Comfort, Sport and Sport Plus and the engine management also has three settings. Then there are three gearbox modes, and the ESP has a more tolerant M Dynamic mode (or can be switched off altogether). Thank goodness for the M1 and M2 buttons on the steering wheel, which allow you to preset two favourite combinations. It sounds gimmicky, but these are great, as you soon know what your optimum setting is for a gentle cruise or for a maximum-attack run.
It seems reasonable to start with a gentle cruise as the temperature has dropped and there’s a fine haze of rain hanging in the air. Even so, I can’t resist shifting gears myself. The M DCT ’box is superb in auto but even better in manual, especially when you ramp up the shift speed. In fact it makes both the Maserati and Aston gearboxes feel hopelessly outmoded. More impressive still is that the M6 is amazingly cosseting and quiet – in terms of ride comfort, road noise and wind intrusion it’s some way ahead of the supple Maserati and so much more relaxed than the DB9. Oh, and it’s fast. The sort of fast that makes your bones ache.
This was meant to be the turkey of the test. So why, maybe 20 minutes in, am I dumbstruck by its pace, control and ferocity? And isn’t the steering meant to be dead as a dodo? And shouldn’t the brakes be fading by now? Hmm, is this the same M6 I’ve been reading such faint praise about? Maybe the M6 would feel clumsy when judged against a 911 Turbo or an R8, but I’m struggling to see that. It just feels light and ruthlessly controlled, steering clean and communicative if a little slow, excellent brake response with performance that you just wouldn’t believe. I can’t imagine any of the cars gathered here would see which way the M6 went on give-and-take roads. Not much would.
My favourite settings are Sport for the steering (I actually prefer the lighter Normal setting at low speed but the variable assistance creates too big a change as it weights up at speed) and Sport or even Sport Plus for the dampers. The gearbox is best at its quickest and the traction control is excellent in M Dynamic mode. However, unlike the Aston in DSC Track, you still need to be right on top of the M6 in this setting. In the dry it feels very well judged, but add some moisture on the road and the BMW will snap pretty quickly through third- or even fourth-gear corners. I think it’s fair to describe the M6 as unhinged. Turn off DSC and there’s oversteer on tap. A measure of the car’s performance is that you have to think hard about hitting full throttle in a straight line when the surface isn’t bone-dry anywhere below 80mph. Really.
Push to the outer limits of the M6’s abilities and you do start to feel that weight, and it isn’t nimble like a 911 Turbo. However, most of the time it feels agile and supremely competent, and the engine has such energy at the top end that you’d swear it wasn’t bolstered by two turbochargers. Or perhaps I’ve lost my mind. Trott isn’t a fan: ‘The main problem for me is that “M” doesn’t seem to know what it is any more. It’s closer in spirit to AMG now, and I think the CLS does the AMG thing better than the M6.’ However, Catchpole loves the M6: ‘It’s just so fast and feels light. So much better than the M5. Think it wins for me…’ Divisive isn’t the word.
The Bentley is the complete opposite, both in terms of the driving experience and how people universally swoon having driven it. Duff first: ‘The V8 has transformed it. It feels lighter and more responsive, sounds nicer and has better throttle response. It feels every bit as quick as the W12, too.’ Trott looks up from the effigy of an M6 he’s burning, and agrees: ‘The Bentley is way more impressive than I’d expected –another car you can hustle quite hard without fear. It feels utterly indomitable.’ Catchpole also likes what it offers: ‘It’s so much more responsive at the front and better balanced. You can actually get the thing moving around.’
After the sometimes spiky M6, the big, four-wheel-drive Bentley has traction to burn and quite incredible mid-corner composure. You can get the rear to move a little, but you have to be going bloody hard to detect any understeer or oversteer. For the most part you just blast up the straights with the thunderous V8 egging you on, stand on the brakes and then throw the Conti into corners like some sort of giant Mitsubishi Evo. If the front bites (it does 99 per cent of the time), then just pour on the power and start the process all over again. The eight-speed auto ’box is also superb and again highlights the deficiencies of the Maserati and the Aston.
Criticisms? Well, the chassis isn’t truly adjustable and nor is the Bentley as nimble as the other cars here. And the damping – although largely excellent – does struggle to contain the unsprung weight if you’re cornering hard on a bumpy surface, giving the steering a good clatter. This hasn’t happened on other Contis I’ve driven, so I assume it’s because the standard cast-iron brakes weigh considerably more than the carbon-ceramics more usually found on press cars. The paddles are frustrating too – small and a stretch to reach. However, it’s so much more exciting to drive than the W12 versions and feels every bit as strong. And the interior… well, it is stunningly, amazingly beautiful. There is no better place to spend time.
Pity the poor CLS63, for after the Continental GT it feels like a Kia Cee’d inside. Of course, it costs a lot less and compared to the M6 it’s actually very nice in here. The half-Alcantara steering wheel is lovely and squeezing the side bolsters of the seats in to lock you in place is great. The barrel-chested twin-turbo V8 sounds every bit as good as the Bentley’s, too. AMG motors are always very special but on occasion the chassis they are mated to struggles to keep up. Not this time. In fact the CLS is a revelation, soaking up the 590lb ft effectively and demonstrating a real athleticism. The central tenet of this is excellent, communicative steering and a surprising agility that allows you to dissect a road with accuracy. The dampers support the car brilliantly and are at their best in the middle setting, where they allow the CLS to glide with grace. The various damper settings are much more narrowly spread than those of the other cars here and it works well even in its stiffest setting.
The automatic but wet clutch-equipped Speedshift MCT seven-speed gearbox is a halfway-house between the M6’s dual-clutch ’box and the Bentley’s eight-speed ZF. Upshifts have a sweet, forceful punch, and a slight delay in downshifts is the only frustration. However, combined with all that torque and power, the CLS63 feels closest to the M6 in terms of raw pace and is also friendlier right at the limit thanks to slightly more pronounced steady-state understeer. And despite strong traction you can provoke the CLS into smoky, indulgent oversteer if you so desire. Shorter brake travel wouldn’t go amiss, but it’s a really strong showing for the Mercedes. In terms of pure dynamics it feels like a coupe that just happens to have four doors. The only thing it’s missing in this company is the desirability of the Bentley, Aston or Maserati.
What a collection of cars, each one genuinely exciting, hugely capable and with a clear sense that it’s been honed for people who really care about driving. They might have wildly different prices and demonstrate very different approaches to making the ultimate sports GT, but they’re united by a depth of talent and a capacity for high-quality entertainment. So much so that I can’t help but think that each one could have been a strong contender at last month’s eCoty. And the winner is… Well, erm, it’s the, er, hang on a second, it’ll come to me. Henry? Nick? Anyone?
OK, I won’t cop out. The Bentley doesn’t win. It’s deeply fabulous and on the fictional drive to the south of France we all love to imagine, it’s unquestionably The One. However, it still weighs 2295kg and sooner or later it shows. It’s also fabulously expensive in the context of the Maserati and with a few choice options veers towards £150,000. We all still deeply covet one though. The Merc doesn’t win either: it’s a more complete car than I’d expected and as saloon cars go it feels joyously special. But in this company it’s just not extraordinary enough.
Besides, the Maserati, Aston and BMW offer something more. In the Aston’s case it’s pure, unadulterated lust. It looks and feels uniquely svelte and dynamically it’s right on the money, too. However, the Maserati just edges it thanks to its fantastic damping, superior ride and greater refinement – not to mention a hefty saving of £40,000. Then there’s the much-maligned BMW M6: the car with the most exciting and controlled chassis, the best gearbox, the most astonishing performance… in fact everything but the romance of that Trident badge and that warm, fuzzy excitement that just holding a Maserati key can give you. Either car is an equally brilliant way to spend £90,000.