JUST a few decades ago, Maserati was in dire straits. The company was heading into bankruptcy and Umberto Panini, the chap behind the Panini sticker collector books, even had to dash to the harbour and buy up many of the rare Trident bearing cars that were heading to foreign hands.
Since then, the Modena-based company has enjoyed a sizeable resurgence that really started with the new Quattroporte, the latest generation of which will be launched early next year. Then came the GranTurismo, which set the benchmark not only in terms of true four-seater coupes, but also when it comes to giving a car the best soundtrack in the world.
I was in Italy to experience the latest generation of the GranTurismo, but first a bit about where the company is going. Chatting with chief press officer Franco Bay, it seems that Maserati is aiming to capitalise on its new found-success. Some might say, though, that its plans go a little too far. Last year the company produced 6158 car, a figure that is up on 2010 but down on 2008, when it hit the maximum production of 9000. However, in 2015 it is planning to produce 50000 cars.
That number is quite a jump, and not surprisingly questions are being asked about whether the brand will lose its exclusivity. The key question is also how it plans to achieve this number. Well, firstly it now has use of the former Bertone factory in Turin where it will not only produce the next generation Quattroporte, but a new model designed to take on the BMW 5 Series, Audi A6 and Jaguar XF. This car will be launched late next year and very few details are available, however its introduction also raises questions about whether the brand will be diluted.
Then there is the Kubang SUV, which will have a new name when it launches in 2014. It will be built on a separate production line at the Jeep facility in Detroit, US, and will share many components with the Jeep Grand Cherokee, but the various Maser execs present at the launch insisted that it will retain the craftsmanship and refinement of a Maserati. In order to produce 20000 units a year, the cars will roll off the line faster than they do in Modena, but many components will still be built in Italy and the engines will continue to be produced by Ferrari at Maranello and shipped to Detroit for assembly.
At this stage I am inclined to agree with those who say the brand risks being diluted, but there can be no doubt that parent Fiat is looking northwards to the success of one of Maserati's biggest rivals, Porsche. It is clearly seeking to emulate the sales volumes of the German sports car maker and many will say that the Porsche brand remains as strong as ever despite its growing product range. It may not have the exclusivity of Maserati, but it certainly has lost none of its status.
The future of Maserati is looking interesting, but back to that GranTurismo. The Sport model represents the replacement for the original S and S Auto models and is the first to sport a wide range of subtle updates. The basic model and GranCabrio will receive these later in the year. The face now boasts some items from the MC Stradale, particularly at the front where there is a central splitter and those curved grilles on either side. There are also the now almost compulsory LED daytime driving lights, new lamps at the rear with smoked lenses and new side sills. Inside there are superbly comfortable new integrated seats and even the already spacious rear has been enhanced with an extra 20mm of legroom. There is a new racing inspired steering wheel and Trofeo design longer paddles.
In terms of performance, the new model has redesigned pistons, new engine mapping, optimised combustion parameters and the weight distribution on the MC Autoshift has been changed from 47:53 front to rear, to 49:51 for even better handling. Also on the MC Autoshift, the shift changes have been cut by 50% to 200 milliseconds and there is a new MC Start Strategy, that's launch control to you and me.
When the new model arrives here in September, you will be able to order from a wide range of MC Sport Line accessories including two additional exterior and three interior packages.
The launch route took me away from the earth tremors in Modena, out through Bologna and into the hills. Here the car showed its true GT persona. It still has what is probably the best sound of any car made today and you cannot help but tap off the gas just slightly to enjoy that burble. On the twisty roads, the handling is brilliant and if you have the MC Autoshift model, those lightning quick gear changes can snap you back in your seat as you launch out of every turn. The seats are now far more comfortable and provide plenty of lateral support as those longer paddles allow you to retain control even in the tightest turns.
The GranTurismo surprised me when I first drove it a few years ago. It offers a comfortable long distance ride, space for four and a couple of small bags and, of course, the ability to become an out and out sports car when the road demands it. The new one does all of this and does it even better.