Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Super Car: Maserati Spyder

story source : Super Car

When Ferrari took over 50 percent of Maserati in 1997, many wondered what sort of products the two Italian marques would ultimately produce, especially after being arch rivals for five decades. The biggest question, similar to when Mercedes-Benz had a "merger of equals" with Chrysler that same year, was obvious: How do two brands with such disparate reputations join together without negatively altering each marque's image?

DaimlerChrysler's original position was that no parts sharing would occur between Mercedes-Benz and Chrysler, but seven years later the company has launched four Chrysler products that are heavily based on Mercedes platforms (300, Crossfire, Pacifica and Magnum). The company seems to have realized what everyone else already knew: The only reason to share corporate assets is if you can also share development and manufacturing costs.

While Ferrari has yet to drop a Maserati body on an otherwise Ferrari platform (à la Crossfire/SLK), the company is sharing major drivetrain, suspension and electrical components. For instance, the 4.2-liter V8 under the Maserati Spyder's hood shares its basic structure with the 3.6-liter V8 in the Ferrari 360 (a model that will use a 4.2-liter engine starting in 2005, hmmm?). Similarly, the Formula One transmission in the 360 and 575 is essentially the same unit that serves as the "Cambiocorsa" electrohydraulic transmission in the Maserati Coupe and Spyder. Does all this technology and component sharing mean you can buy a Maserati Spyder and get Ferrari performance and passion for half the price of a 360 Spider? Well?sort of. The 4.2-liter V8 in the Maserati does offer such high-performance features as a dry sump lubrication system, dual-overhead camshafts and four valves per cylinder, all good for 390 horsepower, 333 pound-feet of torque and zero to 60 mph in about 5 seconds.

Compare that to the 360's engine with 400 hp and 275 lb-ft of torque. The numbers are relatively close, yet the larger engine in the Maserati gives it a considerable advantage in peak torque (likely a reason Ferrari will be punching up the 360's engine size next year). We can confirm that the Maserati possesses plenty of low-rpm pull, along with an intoxicating exhaust rumble that had us exercising the torquey V8 at every opportunity. Also similar to the 360 Spider F1, the Spyder Cambiocorsa uses steering wheel-mounted paddle shifters. The Maserati system allows for manual operation or a fully automatic mode, and it also offers both "Sport" and "Low Grip" modes to accommodate driving conditions.

As with previous Spyders we've driven, this one's transmission doesn't quite live up to expectations. It does match engine rpm to rear wheel speed when downshifting, making this action a no-brainer compared to a traditional manual transmission. And it can be set to fully automatic mode, but you have to use the "Sport" setting to keep it from causing massive "head toss" between gears. Compared to the 360's F1 transmission, the Cambiocorsa feels clunky and abrupt when you try to pull away from a stop, though the fact that it holds the brakes for a second or two when you go from the brake pedal to the accelerator makes starting on an incline easier. It will also shift into first gear automatically when you come to a stop, but you have to come to a complete stop or it stays in second (and causes even this torque-happy engine to lug). Because the transaxle is mounted at the rear of the vehicle and incorporated into the differential (similar to the Corvette's design), the Spyder boasts a nearly fifty-fifty weight distribution between its front and rear wheels. Certainly, it's not as pure in design as the 360's midengine layout, but the Spyder's double-wishbone suspension design does offer exceptional road manners. Our test vehicle was equipped with the optional computer-controlled active suspension system, called Skyhook, that can be set to normal or "Sport" modes for altered ride quality and body roll control (not to be confused with the Cambiocorsa's "Sport" mode, which has a completely different button labeled "Sport" in the center stack area).

The suspension's capabilities are exceptional, as is the car's sublime steering feel and feedback that indeed border on "Ferrari-like." Both areas were revised in 2003 to improve the vehicle's handling performance. But these traits are offset by the Spyder's considerable chassis flex when traversing bumps, which shows up in the form of cowl shake and is enough to stifle any serious comparisons between this vehicle and Ferrari's own 360. This is after a 20-percent increase in chassis rigidity that was implemented during the 2003 model year. If the Spyder's chassis dynamics are off the mark - at least in relation to its related marque - the car's interior and exterior design are some of its most compelling features. When we first drove the Spyder in 2002, we found the interior materials quality and style to be well below the expectations established by its $90,000 MSRP. We weren't alone in our sentiments, and it's encouraging to see that Maserati listened to the car's critics.

Where the 2002 version's interior was drab and plasticky, the 2004 Spyder looks and feels sumptuous. Our test model was painted a rich Rosso Bologna (cranberry) with matching Bordeaux dash/door panels and Avorio (crème) seats. The contrasting colors graciously complemented each other, as did the optional Bordeaux piping along the lower dash and door panels. Materials quality, including seat leather and plush Bordeaux carpeting, lived up to the Spyder's premium appearance (and price tag).

Functionally, the Spyder's seats proved comfortable over several hours of driving. Lateral support could be better but, when driven aggressively, the point at which lateral support proves lacking is about where the chassis's lack of bending resistance makes an appearance, so maybe there's a method to Maserati's madness. Additional features, like the dash-mounted analog clock, the large clear gauge cluster and the effective climate control system were appreciated, as was the effective air management with the top down. Below 50 mph, wind buffeting was minimal with the side windows down; the same held true at speeds up to 70 mph with the side windows up. The top itself is fully automatic and lowers/raises in less than 30 seconds. We did notice that the front locking points clunk loudly as they bang into the windshield header.

With the top up, road noise is minimal but wind noise was louder than we expected in a premium convertible. Remember that a comparable Mercedes product exists, one that features a retractable hardtop with, as you might expect, coupelike silence at highway speeds. And that last point really gets to the heart of what puts the Spyder in such a difficult position. While its basic nature is highly reflective of its Italian bloodlines (and Ferrari influences), its final execution doesn't offer a substantially more attractive package than similarly priced models from Jaguar, Mercedes-Benz and Porsche. The Spyder arguably has the Porsche and Mercedes beat in terms of style, but the Mercedes offers greater refinement and the Porsche offers superior performance. The Jaguar doesn't outperform the Spyder, but it looks as good, or better, and provides equivalent levels of refinement and luxury. For the Spyder to be effective in this segment, it needs to maintain its Italian passion (as displayed by its seductive exhaust tone, rich interior design and sublime steering feedback) while addressing its lack of chassis rigidity, overly clunky transmission and chunky rear styling.

We've spent enough time in the new Quattroporte sedan to know that Maserati can indeed bring all of these elements together. And with Volkswagen rumored to soon be collaborating with Maserati, it would seem anything is possible. Until then, the Spyder remains the first effort by a Ferrari-controlled Maserati. With the first upgrades since its introduction in 2002, it is a more appealing package, but we think the companies can and will do better next time around.

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