The Rebirth of Maserati : Maserati 3200 GT [review]

Car Specifications
Engine: 
3217cc
Cylinder Layout: 
V8, Bi-turbo, DOHC per bank
Top Speed: 
280 km/h
Transmission: 
6-Speed Manual
0-100km/h: 
5.1 sec
Power: 
370 bhp at 6250 rpm
Torque: 
491 Nm at 4500 rpm

Mention Maserati and most will scoff at the very name. Once a respected marque now considered a non-contender. Why? Because of reliability problems, build quality, resale value and a lack of continuity. These are the very problems which sunk Maserati SpA.

Enter Fiat SpA. They now own Maserati and have drawn it into its empire. It fits rather well, perched above Lancia and Alfa Romeo but below Ferrari. But how do you resurrect a basket case? With Ferrari’s help of course. Can they pull it off? It is a big gamble but that is probably why there was such a huge involvement of Ferrari PR and technical staff at the launch of the all new Maserati 3200 GT at Modena, Italy.

Ferrari’s expertise in the area of exotic, low volume sports cars was perfect for the project. Ferrari has also been waiting for the opportunity to extend their reach downward below the F355. Afterall how can the F355 be considered entry level when the asking price is nearly three-quarters of a million bucks?

For a start, the old Maserati factory was completely gutted and the most modern assembly plant equipment installed, similar to that found in the Ferrari factory. If you have seen the old factory, this new one will surprise you. It is like comparing Paya Lebar Airport and Changi International. The factory floor is so clean you could eat off it.

Fiat’s strategy for the resurrection of Maserati is easy to see. Apart form the obvious involvement of the Ferrari staff, the distribution channels of Maserati has had a total change. Almost every Ferrari concessionaire around the world is now the agent for Maserati. This is how involved Ferrari is with Maserati. Yet when we said the 3200 GT was like a less expensive F456GT, they vehemently denied it.

Unfortunately for Ferrari, they have succeeded only too well. The new Maserati is vastly better, but mainly in the way that Ferrari knows how. It was probably unintentional but now Ferrari doesn’t know how to react to this similarity. We think it is going to be a boon for both marques, Maserati complementing Ferrari’s upmarket position. Why, even the forthcoming all new Quattroporte is being seen as the four door Ferrari that Ferrari refuses to make but that will only be in 2003.

Lets start with right now and it is the 3200 GT. It takes its cues from the 3500 GT of 1957, a small part of the rich heritage of the Maserati stables. The GT label suggests where Maserati wants the car to be, a Gran Turismo. In truth, it is a little more than that, for it ends up being far more sporting than its GT badge implies.

Firstly, the styling. Which GT has styling like this? It looks so sleek and sporty, it could pass of as a Ferrari copy. I am sure Pininfarina and Ferrari would violently disagree. The other maestro, Giugiaro penned this design and it looks good from any angle. It looks even better in the flesh.

The low slung nose, the powerful shoulders, the waisted body and the fastback Kamm tail makes it look like its doing 100 kph just standing still. In our opinion, the rear view is its best, presenting a powerful, purposeful appearance to onlookers. Overall its appearance is slightly less extroverted than Ferrari but that is its intended market. Hence its subdued choice of colors available.

Then there is the engine. Can ever a V8 with 370 Bhp and a six-speed gearbox be in a tourer? What does that make the 300 Bhp 911 and the 280 Bhp NSX? The 3200 GT should be renamed the 3200R but to be fair, that would have raised our expectations too much. We came to Modena expecting to be disappointed but the 3200 GT far exceeded our expectations.

Much as we tried to reconcile the comfortable 4-place seating and 2 golf bag trunk with the missile like acceleration and the GT label, we couldn’t. It’s really a sports car disguised as a tourer. First gear offers tyre shredding performance and second gear stops the clock at 5.1 seconds. Wow! Now isn’t that supercar performance? It just splits the 550M and the 456M GT.

The engine only displaces 3217cc but thanks to the traditional biturbo set-up, 370 Bhp is liberated at 6250 rpm. A mountain of torque accompanies this peaking at 4500 rpm with 491 Nm, equivalent to that of a well tuned 5-litre engine. What is impressive is that 450 Nm is already available from 2700 rpm and does not let up until 5500 rpm, now that is a large sweet spot. The twin IHI turbochargers feature a “mixed-flow” design which improves turbo response time by 20 % and supplies more than one additional atmosphere of boost pressure right up to the engine cut-out.

The 3200 GT weighs a moderate 1590 kg but that is because it is a complex machine. It is not because the Maserati engineers have not been trying to reduce the car’s weight. Almost the entire double wishbone suspension system is made from forged aluminum alloy except for the steel spring to reduce unsprung weight.

The engine weighs just 221 kg thanks to its all alloy construction. Ferrari input here is obvious. The suspension is similar to the F550M and even the Brembo 4-pot aluminum caliper brakes are similar. The height adjustable electro-hydraulic dampers also come from Ferrari’s suppliers. We even understand that the V8 block and cylinder head are made at Ferrari’s engine plant and assembled at the Modena factory.

Even the drive-by-wire throttle comes from the 550M. The 6-speed box however comes from Getrag not ZF. We understand we have to wait for the automatic transmission which will be procured from General Motors. There is even the possibility of seeing the F-1 transmission of Ferrari being used.

Wait, there is more to the Ferrari-derived list:- The ECU that controls the dampers, the ASR, the ABS, the steering wheel, the ceramic brake-pad insulators and even the paint job. Yes, the body in white, may be made at a coach builder, ITCA under strict supervision, but it is then shipped to Marenello where the high-tech paint plant gives it a superb Ferrariesque color coat before it turns up at the Modena assembly plant.

It doesn’t sound like a Ferrari though. Where the Ferrari wails, the Maserati burbles, whistles and roars, thanks to the twin turbochargers. The interior is also different. It seems more conservative than Ferrari’s but no less elegant. The ellipsoidal clock makes a comeback after being dropped from the Quattroporte. Too bad it is not plated in gold.

Lower yourself into the cabin and the aroma of fine leather pervades. It is a design that soothes rather than provokes. You’ll notice far less wood but the stylists deliberately wanted to avoid looking like the Jaguar’s interior. A small capping is found in the centre console housing the car stereo, climate controls and ancillary switches for things like the ASR and suspension settings among others.

Chrome bezel dials seem to be in vogue nowadays, the 3200 GT having no fewer than six for the instruments and a further four for the air vents. The rear seats will accommodate two adults in fair comfort. One’s hairdo will brush against the roof lining but the rear accommodation is about the best in this class.

Our test cars were from the pre-production fleet and had been thoroughly flogged by the journalists before being loaned to us. Considering they are pre-production, they seemed pretty well sorted out although some cars were less than pristine.

What was surprising was the willingness and frankness of the Italian(!) engineers who were at hand to listen about our griping. They would even take some notes. It appears that Ferrari means to succeed. Fortunately for us, we managed to secure a perfect sample on the second leg of the test route and it was excellent.

Initially the steering felt rather light at high speeds but, one gets used to it. It does not have a servotronic device but instead uses the simpler non-variable hydraulic system. The engineers admit to the compromise made between the need for parking assistance and high speed feel.

They are working on a speed variable device for the 3200 Spyder which is due in 2001. The front tyres are large at 235/40 ZR 18 but the rears are even larger, 265/35 ZR 18. This is a tourer? C’mon. There is a lot of grip from the Michelin Sport tyres but the car is still capable of vapourizing them with 1st gear..

Turbo lag is now minimal. None of that on-off stuff the previous Masers had. This one is progressive but still packs a wallop at around 4000 rpm so ensure the road is clear up ahead because the traffic will be filling the screen in a blink.

The six speed gear box may not be one of the most accurate examples around but it succeeds only because of your deftness and not because it helps you. The engineers at hand said this would be cleared up once it goes into full production. The ratios are closely stacked and it seems to run through the first four ratios as if it was short-shifted. The last two ratios may seem tall, sixth needing only 2100 rpm for 100 kph but the darn car still produces vivid acceleration in 6th from 120 kph to its Vmax of 280 kph. Phew.

Needless to say, high speed ability is excellent. The aerodynamic drag is 0.34 Cd and it has a constant coefficient of lift even if loaded up and what is more this is achieved with no spoilers whatsoever. The car tracks straight and true at speeds in excess of 200 kph despite the lightness of the steering.

The stiff ride that takes the fun out of town driving is superb at mega speeds. There is a switch that toggles the suspension between sport and normal. It is like the 550M’s where 14 programmed levels of damping out of a possible 256 levels are used to provide variations between Sport and Normal.

It is a sophisticated system so merely switching to Sport does not bring about any perceptible stiffening of the suspension. At low speeds when Sport is engaged it remains in Normal mode until cornering force is detected or when speeds exceed 120 kph, that is when it switches to Sport. Actually you might as well keep it in Sport because the actuation takes only 150 ms to respond and the already hard ride does not seem to get worse.

Huge brakes haul this coupe down from speed with authority and stamina, 330mm is oversized in anybody’s books. The way they work, so progressively is in such contrast with the non-linear ones in previous Maseratis. From a poor feature it has become one of the best features of this new coupe. Even when used very hard, it seems well balanced but that is because it is. There is and electro-hydraulic brake force distributor using the info from the ABS sensors to redistribute the braking forces to the wheels with the most grip before the ABS cuts in.

Even the ASR works in the background, flattering the driver, making him feel better than he is. By monitoring all four wheels and comparing their differential rotation, the ASR will modulate engine power to prevent wheelspin and even apply individual brake force to quell wheelspin. This also works with the variable locking LSD to maximize stability eventhough there is no active stability system. Even in lift throttle situations, the amount of engine vacuum, hence engine braking is controlled via the electronic throttle to prevent oversteer due to overloading the available traction of the rear tyres.

And how does it feel overall? Well its stiff sports suspension needs to be tolerated on badly surfaced roads but it pays dividends in terms of handling prowess. It has the moves of something more than a mere tourer much in the same manner of the 456M GT. The character of the 3200 GT is different from that of the Ferrari yet there is an obvious similarity. The competent way this coupe handles itself is unheard of in a Maserati. This is in no small part due to Ferrari’s involvement.

Much as Ferrari engineers vehemently deny it, the 3200 GT feels like a junior league 456M GT. The main differences arise from the V12 vs the biturbo V8 and the ZF gearbox vs the Getrag unit of the Maser. The stylists, Giugiaro and Pininfarina have the same theme but their signature is different. The two and a half box design is really pushes the limit, almost looking like a fastback in the 3200 GT in an effort to provide even better rear accommodation than the 456M GT. The Ferrari is always more alive, provocative and alert. The Maserati is as forceful but more restrained and matured, not to mention at half the price.

Summary
Everyone involved with the project knows they are rewriting Maserati’s history with Ferrari’s ink. Even the dealerships are now inextricably linked with those of Ferrari. A marque with a longer history than even Ferrari has been seam-welded into the Fiat totem pole. If this is the future of Maserati, we can hardly wait for the Spyder and later the Quattroporte. Looks like Maserati is back. Now if Ferrari could just breathe on something more affordable like an Alfa Romeo… - AL
Photos: 
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