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Return of the Maserati

| By Paul A. Eisenstein | From Air Sick, Jul/Aug 02

At first glance, Modena looks like so many other ancient Italian cities, the town square made up of buildings old long before the Middle Ages. Rustic farms and villas encircle the city, though today, most of the workforce toils at the region's countless tile and brick works. But there's another side to this city, one that has earned it a reputation as a sort of "speed central." Modena is home to more high-performance automakers than anywhere else in the world.

Asked to name them, you'd almost certainly come up with Ferrari, and probably Lamborghini. But there was a time when Maserati would roll off the tongue, too. If it's not a name that comes immediately to mind, that's understandable. After the troubled automaker abandoned American shores in 1990, it nearly faded from the global scene entirely. But the trident has returned. And with the helping hand of its longtime, crosstown rival, Maserati is laying plans for a carefully orchestrated comeback.

Founded in 1914 by the four Italian brothers who gave the company their name, Maserati earned a fearsome reputation on race tracks around the world during the next 50 years. Piloted by the legendary likes of Juan Manuel Fangio, Stirling Moss and Phil Hill, its race cars captured a procession of Grand Prix championships, as well as wins at the Indianapolis 500, in 1939 and 1940. "Maserati cars were, with the odd exception, the most user-friendly [race] cars in the business," Moss recalls today, one of the most storied drivers in Formula One history. "Ferraris, in principle, were stronger and more reliable, but Maserati cars were the most pleasant on the track." As they were on the highways, as well.

Maserati's racing effort literally came crashing to a close following the cursed start of the 1958 season, when virtually the entire team was wiped out during a race in Venezuela. Even so, the car's performance image was indelibly stamped on the brand, making it a favorite among affluent sports car aficionados. "People who made enough money to wear a gold chain around the neck knew Ferrari. Maserati was a little more exclusive," and appealed to those who were looking for more than style, suggests former racer and longtime motoring columnist Denise McCluggage.

The golden era of Maserati produced a steady stream of sedans, coupes and cabrios that remain sought-after collectibles, vehicles such as the Ghibli Coupe, the Quattroporte and the Bora. They featured incredible engines, tight suspensions and some of the best bodywork ever to flow from such trend-setting design studios as Pininfarina and ItalDesign Giugiaro.

Yet even in its glory days, Maserati's success on the track seldom translated onto the bottom line, and over the years, the company blundered from one financial crisis to another. Financial difficulties forced The Brothers Maserati to sell the company in 1937 -- though they went on to form a short-lived competition sports car marque: OSCA.

Among the owners to follow was the eccentric entrepreneur and former racer Alejandro de Tomaso, who took control in 1975, ensconcing himself in the rustic Canal Grande Hotel not far from Maserati's crumbling assembly plant. Legend has it that de Tomaso arrived in Italy after being forced to flee his native Argentina and a nasty little civil war. He had chartered a DC-3 and then started kicking bombs out of the back. Unhappily for de Tomaso, his side lost.

Initially, his tenure at Maserati was marked with success, thanks to the introduction of the Biturbo, a twin-turbocharged sports car considered one of the fastest vehicles of its day. But de Tomaso's tightfisted management and a series of dubious business ventures led the company into yet another crisis. Perhaps the biggest blunder was the decision to team up with Chrysler in an abortive effort to produce a reasonably priced roadster, the TC by Maserati. By the time the car reached market, the project was so far over budget there was no way to pull it back into the black. And the cars were so roundly condemned by critics that they quickly vanished from the market.

But Maserati's largest problems were more basic: abysmal quality and uncertain reliability. It was said that a wise owner kept two Maseratis on hand, one to run, the other for parts. Not surprisingly, sales collapsed, especially in the U.S. market, its largest. In 1990, bordering on collapse, Maserati pulled up stakes and went home. And there the story might have ended if it hadn't been for Italy's best-known carmaker, Fiat S.p.A., which bought out de Tomaso in 1993. It was an odd fit, all the more so considering that Fiat also owned the better known Ferrari.

Over the decades, Maserati and Ferrari had dueled on tracks and highways around the world. But when Fiat decided to combine the two companies in 1997, it came as close as possible to a match made in heaven. In contrast to the down-on-its-luck Maserati, Ferrari was entering the most successful period in its history. Today, it continues to post a string of record profits and that's despite the firm decision to hold sales to a maximum of 4,000 sports cars a year.

"We bought Maserati to give our dealers a product that was different and less expensive," explains Luca di Montezemolo, chief executive officer of Ferrari/Maserati. More importantly, the two-brand strategy should permit the company to maintain its strict limit on Ferrari production while Maserati -- at least in theory -- will provide the growth needed to keep profits running at record levels.

That will come at a steep price, an initial investment of about 700 million euros (approximately $600 million). The first sign of what Ferrari has in mind came to market in Europe and Asia several years ago in the form of the Maserati 3200GT coupe. Masculine and aggressive, it was doubly distinctive thanks to its "boomerang"-shaped taillights. But the GT wasn't quite ready for prime time, at least for Ferrari/Maserati's grand plans. Among other things, it needed a more modern power plant than its aging, twin-turbo V-8. So the return to the States was put on hold. "We waited [because] we needed two very innovative products" to bring to the United States, explains Montezemolo.

Late last year, the automaker decided it was finally ready. The Maserati Spyder, a two-seat cabriolet, was first to reach America. It was expected to be followed in May by the four-seat Maserati Coupe.

At first glance, the Coupe bears a strong resemblance to the 3200GT, though the quirky taillights have been replaced with something a bit more conservative. With a body penned by ItalDesign, the new Coupe is quintessentially Italian, a blend of voluptuous curves and bulges that suggest the power hidden beneath its long hood. It's not a shape that wins everyone over. The rear end, in particular, seems a bit too chunky for the rest of the body. But it is a car that turns a lot of heads, whether you're racing up the Italian autostrada or standing in line for your turn at the gas pumps.

Compared with the GT, the most significant change can be found under the hood. The Coupe is powered by a 4.2-liter V-8 making an impressive 390 horsepower. That's a good number, though one becoming more commonplace in cars that cost a lot less these days-including the Corvette Z06 and the new Jaguar S-Type R. Some observers have opined that at $83,000 the Coupe is overpriced, that $79,000 would position it nearer its closest competition, the Porsche 911. In any event, the Coupe's power comes on quickly and holds all the way up through the gears until you're well beyond street-legal speeds anywhere in the United States.

To get that power to the wheels, Maserati has come up with two different transmissions. There's a slick, short-stroke six-speed manual or, for the more adventurous, the Cambiocorsa package, which includes a Formula Oneñinspired six-speed manual with clutchless sequential shifting. The telltale sign is the pair of paddles that frame the steering wheel. Flip one paddle to upshift, the other to drop a gear. This gearbox offers four modes: Normal, Sport, Auto and Low Grip-the latter for snowy or gravelly surfaces. In theory, Sport mode shifts occur in barely a quarter second, nearly as fast as on the Formula One circuit. In practice, the system proves erratic, shifting fast one moment, then hesitating the next. When I was stopped at an uphill intersection in a small Italian village, the transmission seemed to be totally confused, bucking for a moment before finally settling into gear. Even so, for F1 wannabes, the Cambiocorsa is likely to prove one of the most enticing features of the Maserati Coupe.

The transmission is linked, incidentally, to the automatic Skyhook suspension. Sensors monitor each wheel to quickly adjust damper settings. The result is a constantly changing ride that adapts to the conditions of the moment. At moderate speeds, that means a smooth and comfortable ride. Pushing the limits on the autostrada or tearing through some steep and winding Italian hillsides, the suspension 18-inch wheels firmly hugging the road. A set of oversized Brembo brakes provide the stopping power you'd expect for a package like this.

Is the Coupe true to the classic Maserati? Some observers fear the long-troubled marque will become little more than "the poor man's Ferrari," and in one sense that's true, considering the price tag is half what it would cost for a car like the 360 Modena. But marketing director Giuseppe Bonollo insists the two brands will maintain their distinct look and feel. "They are quite different in style and appeal," he says, "and shouldn't compete with one another." Maseratis are not nearly as flashy and ostentatious as the typical Ferrari, though its two new products are still eye-catchers. The Coupe, in particular, is easier to drive than a Ferrari, especially on a long and leisurely cruise.

The Coupe's sleek styling and standout performance will almost certainly draw attention. But Montezemolo admits that's not enough to ensure success. "They have to have the quality, reliability and performance to reinforce the new image they're trying to present," cautions Susan Jacobs, an analyst who specializes in the luxury car market. That means overcoming concerns left over from Maserati's pull-out of America.

That message isn't lost on Ferrari/Maserati, as a visit to the automaker's refurbished and newly expanded assembly plant near downtown Modena demonstrates. The facility is as clean as a kitchen, with signs calling for "qualita" visible everywhere. Protective mats ensure that painted surfaces aren't scratched and workers have been trained in the basics of quality control. It's a relatively low-tech facility, an economic reality at such low volumes, but the equipment is new, with state-of-the-art testing gear. After each car rolls off the assembly line, it is put through more than 60 miles of road testing on the streets of Modena and the nearby autostrada.

Meanwhile, the Coupe's 4.2-liter V-8 will soon begin rolling out of a new engine plant, shared with Ferrari. Set to open in September, it's being billed as one of the world's most sophisticated.

Despite such efforts, Maserati planners recognize they will almost certainly be in for a slow comeback. The plan is to set a low target and let volumes build at a "natural" pace, explains Stuart Robinson, president and chief executive officer of Ferrari/Maserati's U.S. subsidiary. This "slow burn strategy," he says, will let sales build by word of mouth and help the automaker avoid oversupplying the market. In Europe, where Maserati hung on through the hard times, the Spyder had already shown some modest success, though it's still a bit too early to measure demand in the States. Global volume hit 2000 last year and, if production projections hold course, the number should increase by at least 75 percent this year, according to marketing chief Bonollo. The automaker is betting it will drive things even higher with the planned 2004 introduction of an all-new Quattroporte ("four-door") sedan. Says Bonollo, "We're anticipating not far from 10,000 units in 2006 or '07."

On a global scale, that's a modest number, but considering where Maserati was just a few years ago, it would be reason for celebration.

Paul A. Eisenstein publishes an auto magazine on the Internet at



The debut of the new Maybach sedan left plenty to the imaginationóintentionally. The long-expected DaimlerChysler sedan took its first public bow at the Geneva Motor Show in March, but with the car dimly lit and hidden behind a thick pane of glass, show-goers got a glimpse of only the faintest outlines of a car that's set to challenge the long-dominant ultraluxury marques, Bentley and Rolls-Royce.

Considering the global economic downturn, it might seem a curious time to roll out a new car priced at roughly $300,000. But the Maybach isn't alone. A flood of new products aims for the automotive stratosphere. That's good news for affluent consumers, who'll get more options than ever before. But whether it makes economic sense for the manufacturers racing to market is another question entirely.

Two of the best-known ultraluxury nameplates are under-going a corporate divorce. Paired for nearly 70 years, Bentley and Rolls-Royce were divided up as spoils of war in a bitter bidding battle. Rolls's new parent, BMW, will abandon the marque's ancestral home in Crewe, England, late this year and set up shop in a new plant south of London. It's quietly developing an all-new model that promises to bring Rolls's product line up-to-date.

Bentley, meanwhile, is now part of Volkswagen's empire. The "people's car" maker is aggressively moving upmarket. It recently unveiled a $70,000 sedan, dubbed Phaeton, the most expensive Volkswagen-branded car ever. Indeed, VW now controls more true luxury nameplates than any other automaker. Along with the mainstream Audi, there's Bugatti, which is developing a million-dollar sports car that will pump out an incredible 1001 horsepower. And VW owns Lamborghini, whose new Murcielago recently set a production-car speed record, topping 200 miles an hour during a 100-mile run.

But Bentley is the big prize, and the brand in which VW sees the most growth potential. Over the last few decades, Bentley and Rolls-Royce vehicles have been all but identical save for their badges and the more powerful engines used in such vehicles as the Bentley Arnage T. But with VW's support, Bentley is going downmarket, if that's how you refer to a $150,000 sports coupe.

As with the Maybach, Bentley kept its new GT Coupe under wraps at Geneva, showing it under embargo to a select group of motoring correspondents. The Coupe will harken back to an era when Bentley was a performance brand, taking aim at owners of more mass-market sports cars, such as the Mercedes-Benz SL, who want something more exclusive.

DaimlerChrysler opted to revive a nameplate that vanished after the Second World War. Named for Wilhelm Maybach, the engineering genius behind the very first Mercedes, the reborn brand is scheduled for a European launch this autumnóand a U.S. debut in early 2003. Each Maybach will be bespoke, with a price tag starting around $300,000.

The question is whether there's a market for all these new, top-line vehicles. Some observers fear that this is an ego exercise of industry executives out to prove "mine has a bigger price tag." In 2001, 7,000 vehicles priced above $150,000 were sold. Bentley alone hopes to eventually sell nearly that many Coupes, so if all the new models hit their targets, volume would nearly triple by mid-decade.

"Without a doubt, not all of these players will succeed," frets Stuart Robinson, chief executive officer of Ferrari/Maserati North America. Despite an average two-year backlog of orders, Ferrari plans to hold production steady at about 4,000 sports cars a year rather than risk getting caught up in a market collapse. Not everyone is so nervous. "There is certainly an ultraluxury market emerging," contends Mike O'Driscoll, the man who heads U.S. operations for Ford Motor Co.'s so-called Brit Group, which includes Jaguar, Land Rover and Aston Martin. Aston is cautiously looking to ramp up its own sales of $200,000-plus sports cars, such as the Vanquish. The key to success, stresses O'Driscoll, is simple: "It will depend on your product. If it's not authentic, you'll get nailed."