Antonia Ferreira de Almeida waves in our direction as he turns the gun-metal coupe into the narrow piazza. It’s lunchtime in Tuscanina and nothing disturbs the peace of the small village, apart from the murmur of conversation and the clink of coffee cups. Then Almeida guns it.
This review was originally published in MOTOR’s June 2002 issue
Eight throttle bodies crack wide open and 451Nm screws urgently rearwards. The noise from the Ferrari-built V8 rises in intensity, from a muscular rumble to an angry, barking salute. The Maser fishtails, right, then left, then straightens as the fat Michelins finally grip the shiny cobbles. Then it’s gone, leaving the V8’s symphony reverberating off the village walls walls long after it has disappeared out of sight.
You’ve got to love the Italians, with their lust for life and their healthy disregard for authority. It’s something many Aussies readily identify with. It was once described to me by a German colleague thus: “The Italians trade in rules for feeling.”
De Almeida, a flamboyant Portugese national is Maserati’s head of public relations. He loves the job and the Maserarti brand with a Mediterranean passion, and his impromptu burnout was just his way of saying, “I’m excited!”. And he did it with a good deal more style and flair than our own Big Kev could muster.
Over lunch, he explained that, “It’s hard to respect the limits when you have a Maserati on your hands.”
I knew this because my German co-pilot and I had spent the morning strafing the sinuous back-roads that criss-cross the hills and valleys around Tuscanina, which is just outside Rome. We’d already had a chance to savour the delicious note from the Maserati Coupe’s new 4.2-litre V8. It’s a glorious piece of work, which we’ll see here shortly for the first time in the just released Maserati Spyder (convertible).
But while the Spyder is an all-new model, the Coupe is an update of the existing 3200GT. It’s a pretty significant update, mind you, comprising a new suspension system, trick new F1-inspired gearbox, and superior weight distribution in addition to the new engine.
About the only thing that’s not significantly altered is the styling. The original Italdesign-Giugiaro-penned form is still very much intact, the most obvious change being to the rear tail-lights, which have morphed into a more conventional triangular shape. But look closer and you’ll see the bonnet is also new; all the better to house that stonking new V8.
The two model lineup will be known as the Coupe GT, (the conventional six-speed manual variant) and the Maserati Coupe Cambiocorsa (‘racechange’), which is equipped with a Ferrari-developed, clutchless manual gearbox, complete with paddle shift operation.
The Coupe GT and the Coupe Cambiocorsa will be priced at $205,000 and $218,000 when they go on sale here in October. Maserati expects some 60 per cent of the 3500 Spyders and Coupes it will build in 2002 will be equipped with the new gearbox.
Cambiocorsa basically gives a driver the choice between driving the Coupe as a sporty manual gearbox, sans clutch, or as a fully automatic unit. In both cases the clutch is engaged and disengaged automatically, but if you choose to do the work yourself, gears are selected via paddles mounted behind the steeering wheel. There’s a range of different settings for the gearbox, including Normal, Sport, Full Auto and Low Grip.
The shifts in Sport mode are lightening fast but also reasonably harsh, unless you make the effort to lift at the point where you’re upshifting, just as you would in a conventional manual.
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Like most of these systems we’ve experienced, the gearbox is at its best when being driven purposefully. Around town it’s quite acceptable, but the selector mechanism does clunk and carry on a bit when downshifting through several ratios in auto mode.
The real beauty of the paddle shift is that you can grab a gear up or down the ’box whenever you like, without ever taking your hand off the wheel. While it may not be the preferred driving style of purists, who would say you should be in the right gear before you commit to the corner, with Cambiocorsa if you muff a shift, you just right the wrong and and get on the noise again.
Once you’ve taken in some of the niceties this particular piece of Italian exotica has to offer, the mind, eye and ear wanders to what lies beneath the re-sculptured bonnet. It’s a 90 degree, 4.2-litre V8, built at Ferrari’s Modena plant.
Despite displacing a larger capacity than the superseded V8 in the 3200GT, the new engine is three centimetres shorter and 20kg lighter, so weight distribution is better. All-alloy construction, chain-driven twin overhead camshafts per bank and four valves per cylinder are all de rigeur for a modern V8, but there’s also plenty of trick bits, including a five-bearing crank, dry sump lubrication, and variable valve timing on the intake side of the cylinder head.
Net result? A thoroughly respectable 287kW at 7000 rpm and 451Nm at 4500rpm, working on a kerb weight of 1570kg. Claimed performance is 0-100km/h in 4.9 seconds, 0-1000 metres in 23.5 seconds, top speed of 285km/h, and a hot lap of Fiorano a full six seconds quicker than the old jigger.
Tickle the thin pedal and there’s the sort of instantaneous, cracking throttle response available that wasn’t in evidence with the laggy, twin turbocharged 3200 GT. Put that down to a low-inertia flywheel that weighs just a quarter of the old engine’s flywheel, and some good old Ferrari engine know-how.
The power delivery is smoother and far more progressive, too, without the awkward peaks and troughs that characterise the blown engine. The tacho needle gallops around the dial as the engine exhibits a clean-revving willingness all the way to its 7500rpm cut-out, laying down a deliciously aggressive soundtrack en route.
At 160 km/h in sixth gear the engine is sitting bang on 4000rpm; at 200km/h it’s a smidge under 5000rpm, right in the meat of its torque curve and eager to go on with the job. Put the foot down at this speed and the Maser leaps forward, eager to kiss the redline.
The steering is quick and accurate, with excellent weighting. There’s no shortage of grip from the Michelin rubber while Brembo cross-drilled discs clamped by four-piston calipers provide reassuring stopping power.
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The handling is overwhelmingly predictable, thanks to two per cent better mass distribution over the rear axle, which endows the Coupe with close to perfect 50/50 weight distribution. The lighter engine plays a part, but there’s also a totally new transaxle layout which features a newly-designed longitudinal gearbox at the rear of the car, and an integral self-locking differential.
It’s overstating the bleedin’ obvious that the Coupe will oversteer at the limits, but those limits are quite high unless you deliberately prode the tiger through the bars. For the most part it’s a fairly gentle and predictable understeerer, but just in case you are inclined to provoke things and aren’t totally confident in your abilities to bring it back, switchable electronic traction control (ASR) is integrated into the auto gearshift setup.
Underneath a 15 per cent stiffer body is an all-independent suspension that sports revised front and rear anti-roll bar rates, and anti-dive and anti-squat geometry.
All up the new Coupe Cambiocorsa is a pretty impressive package, one that has Maserati and its Ferrari masters brimming with confidence, and should have Porsche and Jaguar a little worried. It’s a car that delivers on the emotional front as much as the old car did, but it feels far more convincing from a technical perspective.
Both the Spyder and the Coupe Cambiocorsa herald a remarkable return to form by Maserati. The historic Italian brand is once again building powerful, passionate cars that you can not only get enthused by, but have few qualms recommending. Buyers with a lazy $200k in their pocket would be foolish to write it off.
There's always some 'class' in classic MOTOR
2002 Maserati Coupe
BODY: 2-door coupe
ENGINE: 4.2-litre, 32-valve, DOHC V8
BORE/STROKE: 92.0mm x 80.0mm
POWER: 287kW @ 7000rpm
TORQUE: 451Nm @ 4500rpm
TRANSMISSION: 6-speed manual
SUSPENSION (f/r): double wishbones, coil springs, anti-roll bar
TRACK: 1525mm (f); 1538mm (r)
BRAKES (f): 330mm ventilated discs, four-piston calipers
BRAKES (r): 310mm ventilated discs, four-piston calipers
WHEELS: 18 x 8-inch (f); 18 x 9.5-inch (r), alloy
TYRES: Michelin Pilot Sport; 235/40 ZR18 (f), 265/35 ZR18 (r)
PRICE: $215,000 (approx.)