Maserati GranTurismo

Forget Michael Schumacher. Few have dominated motor sports like the legendary "Maestro," the Argentinian Juan Manuel Fangio. Exactly a half century ago, at the age of 46, he captured the F1 World Championship, winning 10 of the season's 16 Formula One races. It was Fangio's fifth and final title, seized behind the wheel of a Maserati 250F.

Arguably, no single victory did more to make the brand, both on and off the track, where Maserati unleashed a procession of some of the most desirable sports cars ever assembled. With the anniversary of Fangio's victory, there's reason for Maserati to commemorate. But it doesn't mean much if there isn't anything worth celebrating today. For potential buyers, the good news is that the latest crop of Maserati street cars is arguably the best in the brand's 93-year history.

With the addition of a new automatic transmission, the marque's flagship, the Quattroporte sedan, finally lives up to its elegantly over-the-top design. Yet Maserati is actually upstaging itself with the launch of the all-new GranTurismo.

GTs have always had a special place in the sports car pantheon, and nowhere more so than at Maserati, whose first street car was the 1947 GranTurismo.

Thankfully, the '08 version isn't a retromobile, sliding by on hype and heritage. For starters, it's the most striking piece of design to wear the Maserati badge in decades. The new two-door bears an unmistakable family resemblance to the bigger Quattroporte—complete with the three portholes on the front fender. But the Italian design house, Pininfarina, has given the GT a more muscular and aggressive look, with flared wheel wells and a concave grille that seems ready to suck up the road.

There's more than enough power bursting from the 2+2's 4.2-liter V-8. In today's world of horsepower overkill, 405 hp might not seem like all that much, but Maserati has done a more than credible job holding down the GranTurismo's mass and giving the car a well-honed 49/51 weight distribution. As we discovered during a day's driving along California's Monterey coastline, the GT is not only neck-snappingly fast but breathtakingly nimble. Even the toughest roads and tightest corners can't upset its equilibrium. Expect to turn 0 to 60 in just over five seconds, and to top out at 177 mph. The new automatic transmission on the GT is blazingly fast to shift, especially if you're using the wheel-mounted paddle shifters, which make a manual transmission seem dated and unnecessary.

Maserati has always strived for a mix of performance and luxury, and the GranTurismo succeeds admirably. The cabin of our test car was beautifully outfitted with a wine-red leather interior admirably accented with wood and brushed metal trim. You get all the electronic toys you'd expect, including Navi and a Bluetooth cell phone system. But at its heart, the new Maserati GranTurismo is a performance machine that would make the demanding and driven Fangio proud. And that's something to celebrate.