Maserati Is Finally Back to Its Patrician Roots

ITALIANS have always taken their gift for looking good and applied it to make things that look good. The three leading brands of high-performance Italian automobiles — Ferrari, Lamborghini and Maserati — have at one time or another produced some of the most gorgeous things ever seen on four wheels.

Although Maserati is the oldest of the three — it was founded in Modena in 1914 by six brothers — its image in the public mind has been the least clearly defined. After the racing glory of the 1950s and early ’60s (Maserati cars won the Formula One championship in 1954 and 1957), the owners, the Orsi family, ran out of money, precipitating a decline under various owners that came close to bankruptcy until Fiat, Italy’s automotive giant, took over in 1993.
Fiat worked hard to redefine Maserati’s problem-child reputation, revamping the Modena factory with a focus on positioning the brand as four-seat GranTurismo (Grand Touring in English) cars in contrast to the sportier Ferraris, which it also produces.
Even so, losses at Maserati continued under Fiat until last year, when it finally earned a profit of 24 million euros (roughly $32 million) behind sales of two models: the Quattroporte, which went to market in 2004, and the recently introduced GranTurismo, which has prompted oohs and aahs from cargazers.
“The GranTurismo has stand-out credentials that in some ways are finer than Ferrari, which has been forced into parodic extremes, possibly in response to the newly emerging Asian and Russian markets,” said Stephen Bayley, a British design critic and author of the book “Cars,” which was published this month. “Gentlemanly glamour in Italian cars is now the province of Maserati.”
The story of the redesigned Maseratis began in 2004, when Maserati revived its partnership with Pininfarina, the Turin-based design house that created Maserati’s 1500 GranTurismo — produced in 1947 as its first road car — and the 1953 A6GCS, widely considered a masterpiece. When Maserati and Ferrari were fierce racing rivals, Pininfarina could not keep both as clients and threw in with Ferrari. Now that the two are complementary brands, the relationship is back.
The GranTurismo replaces the GranSport Coupé, which faced an uphill battle against the Porsche 911. The new car is more than 14 inches longer, an inch wider, nearly 2 inches taller and 550 pounds heavier. Lowie Vermeersch, Pininfarina’s head of design, said the car “reconnects with core values but does so with a modern interpretation.”
“The GranTurismo has a big cabin and we didn’t compromise that for sportiness,” he said. “We feel it has re-established the image of the brand. It’s very clear what it wants to be.”
Mr. Vermeersch said the new car incorporated elements from earlier Maserati designs, like the air outlets on the front fender, which recall the original GranTurismo, and the car’s distinctive grille, from which “volume is extruded and expanded through the fenders,” in a shape reminiscent of the A6GCS and the 2005 Birdcage concept car.
“Only the Italians could make the Maserati,” Mr. Bayley said. “The Germans and English have the resources, but they wouldn’t make the same car. Italians have a very special kind of ingenuity: they’ve never separated art from life.”
For the first time since Maserati and Ferrari came under Fiat’s wing, the former is outselling the latter. Sales are 40 percent ahead of last year’s, thanks largely to the GranTurismo, which came out in late 2007. Given the differences in price, the shift is precisely what the parent company wants, since the Maserati fills a niche that is supposed to sell more. While Ferrari starts at $200,000 and Lamborghini at $190,000, the Maserati GranTurismo and Quattroporte both come in at $120,000.
“The GranTurismo draws the same kind of respect and awe as the Bentley, and it does so for about three-quarters the price,” Csaba Csere, the executive editor of Car and Driver, said in the magazine in June. “As a bonus it even drives well and accepts adults in the back seat.”
Maserati’s biggest market is the United States (Italy is next), accounting for nearly 35 percent of sales during the first eight months of this year.
Doug Magnon, a real estate developer in Riverside, Calif., is also president of the Riverside International Automotive Museum, which contains most of his collection of 28 Maseratis, one from each of the production models imported to the United States. He is awaiting delivery of a new GranTurismo, which he says is especially well-suited to the American market.
“It’s not designed to be the lightest, nimblest car, but one to take on a long trip and enjoy in comfort,” he said.
After the first GranTurismo came out at the end of 2007, some felt the added bulk would require more than the 400 horsepower of its 4.2-liter V-8 engine, and last March Maserati introduced the GranTurismo S, which has a Ferrari-based 4.7-liter V-8 with 440 horses.
Lots of horses means lots of gas, however. The GranTurismo’s combined miles per gallon is 14, which the company says it is trying to improve through the use of lighter composite materials.
“It’s absurd to use a car like this in central London; it sucks fuel like a Saturn on takeoff,” Mr. Bayley said. “But you don’t want it to be rational. It’s got to be ridiculous and magnificent. It’s all about sensuality and noise.”