Like Spanish dictator Francisco Franco, whose deteriorating body was kept on life support for years, Maserati was near death for over four decades. Its last real successes came in the late 1950s when it won the Formula 1 championship with Fangio in the 250F. Following that, it’s been a long, painful decline.
Perhaps the low point came in 1968, when this proud marque was purchased by Citroën and suffered the indignity of having its Italian body stuffed with Gallic hydraulics, all the while receiving no mass marketing support. Perhaps realizing that croissants and crostini would never make a good meal, in 1975 Citroën sold Maserati, which promptly went into receivership.
OUT OF THE FRYING PAN … Enter Alejandro De Tomaso, described charitably as a charming entrepreneur (but more often as a top-level rip-off artist), who took control of not only Maserati, but also Moto Guzzi, Benelli, and Innocenti. He had previously also owned both Ghia and Vignale, as well.
Part of De Tomaso’s deal was a pledge to the Italian government to increase production numbers to expand employment, a promise that gave birth to the sad Biturbo. Maserati put at least three of its four wheels, and the spare, into the grave with this model, a car best known for setting fire to itself at the least provocation. There is no such thing as a good Biturbo, only those that are parts cars and those that should be parts cars.
Adding to the confusion, shortly thereafter Chrysler and Maserati got together to build the short-lived Chrysler TC by Maserati, an arrangement that produced just 7,300 cars (which was perhaps 7,299 too many). This endeavor was rooted more than just a little in the friendship between the charismatic (con) men in charge of the two companies, Lee Iacocca and De Tomaso. Iaccoca once said that De Tomaso was the worst plant manager he ever saw, but wished he had a dozen negotiators just like him. As a result of De Tomaso’s brilliant skills, Chrysler purchased 16 percent of Maserati and provided new manufacturing equipment to build the ill-fated Chrysler LeBaron-esque TC. As De Tomaso had already bamboozled the Italian government, apparently it was now Chrysler’s turn.
ENTER FERRARI — Eventually, he would even con Fiat. Yes, the Maserati story has a “happy” ending, as unlike Franco, who was finally allowed to die on November 20, 1975, Fiat purchased 49 percent of Maserati in January 1990. (De Tomaso suffered a massive stroke during the negotiations, never fully recovered, and died on May 21, 2003.) The Italian auto conglomerate purchased the final 51 percent in May of 1993, and in 1997 Fiat turned Maserati over to Ferrari. And like the deus ex macchina in the final act of a Verdi opera, so Ferrari descended from the heavens to breathe new life into the Maserati Trident.
Ferrari spent a much-needed $200 million upgrading the 66-year-old factory in Modena where all Maseratis are built today. Utilizing the talents of the Ferrari group, and its driveline and suspensions as well, the Maserati 3200GT coupe was born in 1998. Stylish though imperfectly constructed (in keeping with the Maserati tradition, of course), it gave Ferrari an “entry-level” Italian exotic. The 3200GT used an all-new chassis and Giugiaro-designed body, and was powered by a “new” turbocharged engine, which was really an evolution of existing designs. But, alas we would have to wait four more years for Maserati’s return to the United States, as the 3200GT was never Federalized for import.
WELCOME BACK — The first new Maser designed for sale in the U.S. was the Spyder, a two-seat convertible that debuted at the Frankfurt auto show in late 2001. Despite a design based heavily on the 3200GT coupe, the chassis featured a 220-mm shorter wheelbase and was strengthened to compensate for the loss of the roof. The engine was a completely new unit, developed and built by Ferrari at Maranello and aimed in large part at the U.S. market. A naturally aspirated 4,244-cc V8 with four valves per cylinder and variable valve timing on the inlet valves, it produced 390 hp at 7,000 rpms.
A revised version of the 3200GT, now just called the Maserati Coupe, was introduced at the 2002 Detroit auto show and went on sale alongside the Sypder later that year, both in the U.S. and abroad. With the same new mechanical components as the Spyder, including a rear-mounted transaxle and the 4.2-liter V8, the Coupe boasted a rear seat space that is actually usable for children or non-claustrophobic adults.
The Coupe was well received, and other than an optional F1 paddle-shifting mechanism that was both recalcitrant and confused, and often couldn’t decide what gear to go into, the Coupe offered a lot of Italian exotic at a reasonable cost, in the mid-$80,000s out the door. The Spyder, priced in the high $80,000s, was not as well received, for in addition to the “what-gear-am-I-in” shifter, it added substantial cowl shake and a soft-top that fluttered at speed due to a soft rear window.
For 2003 the F1 transaxle was updated in both models, which took it from bad to tolerable, the cowl shake problems on the Spyders were improved, and a hard glass rear window resolved the flapping soft top issues.
FINALLY A PLAYER — This model year, updates to the Coupe and Spyder were minimal, as Maserati has focused on the introduction of the new Quattroporte, available in Europe mid-year, and due to arrive in the U.S. in the first week of September.
The Quattroporte has a list price of $101,150, and is available with a long list of extras such as a sports package, heated seats and rear picnic tables. It shares the same 4.2-liter V8 as its two-door siblings and carries a curvy Italian shape. Marketed against the Mercedes S-Class and the BMW 7-series, the Quattroporte is certainly a better-looking alternative, though it suffers from having no “real” automatic, being graced only with the dreaded F1-esque paddle-shifter.
In a Machiavellian marketing move, Maserati has given Quattroportes to Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, president Carlo Azeglia Ciampi, and several other members of the Italian Parliament, giving Maserati substantial free press, and proving that in their hearts, the Italian politicos have the same ethical standards as automotive journalists all over the world. Which is to say, low ones.
But for Maserati to take its proper place in North America and for the Quattroporte to be taken seriously as a viable alternative to an S-Class, 7-series, or even a Jaguar XJ, it needs two things. First, Maserati should install a modern, state-of-the-art “pure” automatic transmission (the rear mounted transaxle in the Cadillac XLR comes to mind, as after all, GM and Fiat did form a partnership to help reduce costs by cross-sharing parts). Second, a competitive lease rate is necessary, as cars in this market segment are considered three-year throwaways. A 36- to 42-month lease at under $1,200 per month is a must to ensure the rebirth of one of the greatest names in automotive history.
EXOTIC NEWBIES START HERE — Maseratis are sold only through “authorized” Ferrari dealers, and in yet another Machiavellian move, dealers worldwide are “given” Maseratis at a ratio of about two Masers to each Ferrari in their allocation. So while Ferraris normally sell for over the window sticker price, Maseratis are usually discounted due to this inventory surplus, offering the Maserati buyer a state-of-the-art Italian exotic at a “friendly” price. This means you can generally get a new Maser for about half the price of those other red cars in the dealer’s showroom, and these new Maseratis certainly offer more than half the enjoyment of a Ferrari.
Despite all their shortcomings, the new Masers are the best Maseratis ever built. (Khamsin, Kyalami and Mistral owners form a line to the right to register your complaints.) They are a perfect first-time Italian exotic for the newbie (so long as you get the manual gearbox), with a warranty and the right looks and sounds. Acceleration, braking and handling are generally good enough. And the marque, despite all odds, still carries a certain mystique.
So if you’re thinking you’d like to own a Ferrari, but aren’t quite sure what the game is all about, a Maserati might be right for your garage. Just think of it as a “Ferrari Lite.”