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Maserati nails the GT

The total transformation of Maserati over the last few years has resulted in the world's finest GT, according to our correspondent Anthony ffrench-Constant.

In the dubious taste minefield that is the absorbing world of holiday souvenirs, the bright red rhino is the new straw donkey. We're talking East Africa rather than Spain here, where the region's fine pedigree of wood carving has been ruthlessly hijacked by the relentlessly dogged hawking of rough-hewn rubbish the length and breadth of the Indian Ocean's blindingly white beaches.

To add insult to injury, the violent, cartoon red in question simply doesn't exist anywhere in nature, other than on the shelves of a Toys 'R' Us superstore. Until today, that is,when it makes a second unsolicited appearance in the eye-watering leather upholstery of Maserati's Gran Turismo.

And I mention this because – mercifully not the only hue on offer – it's my only gripe of any significance whatsoever. At every other level, the total transformation of Maserati over the last few years is neatly encapsulated in this wonderful machine…

My particular passion for the best bonnet badge in the business began with my first ever road test in the early nineties and, initially at least, probably had rather more to do with my jumping straight from the dole queue into an Italian exotic than the actual merits of the Ghibli in question, which was, frankly, horrendous. Ugly as a box of frogs, with a teaat- the-vicarage power delivery – one lump or two – and build quality on a par with a 6-year old's first Airfix model, the Ghibli epitomised the automotive doldrums Maserati endured throughout the eighties and nineties.

At the time, the truly stygian depths of the crisis were rammed home for me by a quick, back-to-back foray in an original, 1969 4.7 litre Ghibli. Once hilariously described by the American motoring periodical Road and Track as 'a superb shopping car for the housewife in a hurry', the old stager was as startlingly beautiful as a butterfly in a bomb crater, very nearly as fast, and oozed character like an amphetamine laden Rory Bremner.

Yet somehow, throughout protracted periods of wince worthy product paucity, the company has never lost a defining mystique which, spawned in a peerless, pre-war racing pedigree, has consistently dictated that,whilst Ferraris and the occasional Lamborghini remain the province of cads and over-paid footballers,Maserati ownership – entirely free of image issues and tiresome marketing spin – will automatically hallmark you as a gentleman. All that's ever been required, then, is an elegant, tasteful and rapid product equal to the bloodline.

Stylistically, at least, that took the shape of the 2005 Quattroporte; a welcome, and long overdue, return to form which had everything to do with this being Pinifarina's first Maserati for 50 years .Though undeniably gorgeous, the ocean liner-length four door's appeal was somewhat shackled by mechanicals which dictated the automatic shifting of a manual gearbox. Much like over-red leather, this cowbacked- onto-an-electric-fence-jerky gear change proved rather more appropriate to thrash metal cousin Ferrari than the svelte, grand touring pretensions of a Maserati.

Happily, the latest Quattroporte addresses this issue with an automatic transmission incorporating paddle shift override and, in 4.7 litre 'S' guise which I have also sampled this week is, at the piffling price of just £83,205, unquestionably my favourite four-door car.

This new £78,215 Gran Turismo, also styled by Pinifarina, is a replacement for Giorgetto Giugiaro's gently clumsy Coupe, which left rather a lot to be desired in the stern department: I'm not convinced, unless watching a Romanian hammer throweresse, that overt breadth of beam kindles appropriate images of power, and the Coupe's lumpen rump offered itself for bland, unsubtle inspection like the backside of a mongrel in heat.

It's appropriate that Pininfarina should be once more become design DNA custodian, because the first, 1947 Maserati Granturismo – which originated the notion of installing racing engines in road-going cars – was the A6 1500 GT Pininfarina.

The business end of the Gran Turismo centres on a gaping, appropriately snouty maw of whale shark proportions. It's a deeply elegant hooter, the only jarring note being a UK sized number plate which, lacking a bespoke location, looks as out of place as a goatee beard on a supermodel. In Italy, of course, they obviate the problem with front plates too small for a hen harrier to read at three feet.

The car's flanks are equally imposing, a bonnet large enough to holiday on wonderfully enlivened by the simple addition of three soft parallelogram air vents to the front wings. First appearing on the Quattroporte, they're a clear reference to that 62 year old cousin. And, at last – as evinced by a degree of glossy brochure photo attention never afforded the Coupe – the back is equally beautiful.

On board, substitute that unnatural red leather for something more the colour of a Uboat captain's roll neck sweater, and all would be well. Fit, finish and quality are all appropriately high, and there's just enough about the design to mask any pilfering of the Fiat parts bin and make it uniquely Maserati. The driving position's first class, and the only mild let down is in the slightly less than tactile design of the steering wheel-mounted paddle shift levers, which aren't a patch on Ferrari's elegant, pressed-metal scythes.

I can attest to the fact that children of 8 and 5 will happily spend too much of a weekend long-hauling about it the back seats, but would be reluctant to subject two adults to similar treatment.

Under the bonnet lurks a lightweight, 4.2 litre V8 which, despite an absence of either super- or turbo charging still manages to develop an entirely healthy 400bhp at 7100 rpm and 340lb.ft of torque at 4750rpm. This may not sound immense by today's super car standards, but it's enough to throw the Gran Turismo at the horizon with purposeful urgency and appealing smoothness; 60mph coming up in just 5.2 seconds from standstill and a maximum 68mph available to be cited in court.

Being a grand tourer at heart the Maserati doesn't yell overmuch about proceedings, especially from on board where high speed cruising elicits little more racket than the mildly heated thrum of a recently disturbed nest of bees. Floor the throttle and the noises off do become rather more pleasing, but largely to those watching the Gran Turismo go by.

Nor does the Maserati ever feel aggressively, super car quick. But this is an engaging, lounge lizard characteristic which belies the extraordinary rapidity and aplomb with which the car will devour trans-continental distances; comfortable motorway cruising speed arriving at nearly double the UK legal limit.

Stabbing a 'Sport' button to toughen suspension and sharpen throttle and steering responses proves an entertaining diversion when allied to the use of manual paddle shift in red mist moments. But the Gran Turismo could never be deemed agile. Nothing nearly 5 metres long could ever be deemed agile. Let's face it, the fact that the QE2 does 35 knots and you could readily water ski behind it doesn't make it a speedboat.

True, you can hustle the big Maserati along sweeping A roads at a spectacular lick, plenty of feedback from the steering wheel and trick suspension with active dampers keeping it flatter than a Lancashire vowel through the bends. But it's less pleasure to navigate round the tighter, twistier stuff, its sheer size ultimately shackling aspirations of true agility.

But who cares? This car is deeply elegant, relentlessly charismatic, gratifyingly exclusive and remarkably good value for money. Were it not for the fact that it's even more alluring stablemate, the Quattroporte, must still take the honours, I'd say this was the finest GT on the market.When it comes to long-distance, high speed loafing with élan, then, Maserati currently appears to have cornered the market.

Reproduced with kind permission of Golf International Magazine

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