Video: Maserati in Modena

If not for growing up in the shadow of the Maserati brothers, Enzo Ferrari's greatest claim to fame might have been as a World War I mule-skinner in the Italian army.

MODENA, Italy–If not for growing up here in the shadow of the Maserati brothers, Enzo Ferrari’s greatest claim to fame might have been as a World War I mule-skinner in the Italian army.

Fortunately for today’s exotic sports car fans, Maserati was the dominant Italian sports marque throughout the first half of the 20th century, starting with the brothers’ first year of operation here in 1926 right through to its dominance of the early days of Formula One in the 1950s at the hands of Argentinean racing icon Juan-Manuel Fangio.

Ferrari hated the Maseratis for their dominance, according to legend, and fuelled by that jealousy, started up his eponymous operation just down the road in Maranello.

The history lesson is important context when discussing Maserati’s pricing, because the new 2009 GranTurismo S, the fastest and most powerful production Maserati ever, is less than half the price of its closest Ferrari rival, the 612 Scaglietti.

Still, the new S not only commands an estimated $33,000 premium over the $122,000 GranTurismo, it’s also substantially more expensive than rival 2+2 grand tourers like the $104,000 Jaguar XKR Coupe or $128,300 BMW M6.

But like the food, music and art found in this central part of Italy, Maserati says its loyal customers appreciate the historical and emotional draw of the brand.

”Our GranTurismo S customers will more than likely have a (Maserati) Quattroporte sedan as well as a Ferrari or two in the garage,” said Maserati CEO, Roberto Ronchi, who’s not exactly losing sleep over those who complain about the company’s premium pricing. In fact, he’s confident that the Fiat-owned automaker’s biggest challenge will be to keep up with demand, primarily from emerging markets such as Asia and Russia.

It also helps that Maserati’s history pitch isn’t just marketing bumpf.

The automaker’s first GT coupe, the A6, debuted in 1947 – the same year Ferrari brought out its first road car and 16 years before the first Lamborghini (also located close by in Sant’Agata Bolognese).

Like the A6, the house of Pininfarina designed the modern rear-drive GranTurismo as well, and it possesses the kind of classical automotive beauty that deserves to be shown some respect – like treating it to an expensive Italian dinner and a Federico Fellini flick – before you jump in and try its throttle.

That said, some thought Maserati’s grand touring two-door could be a little quicker and sharper in its drive.

Enter the new S. To quell such critiques this time around, Maserati has swapped the GT coupe’s 4.2 L V8 for the 4.7 iteration found in the Alfa Romeo 8C Competizione, a Maserati-made two-seater that’s coming to North America later this year. The new GranTurismo S boasts 433 horsepower – up 28 – and is able to go a blistering 295 km/h.

The external visual clues that mark the difference between the GranTurismo and the muscled-up S are subtle. The headlight housings are now black, there are new side skirts, lower profile tires and wheels, and a trunk lip spoiler out back.

Mechanically, there’s the choice of 10 per cent stiffer fixed-rate shocks or the $2,900 optional two-mode Skyhook suspension that’s been tightened for its application in the S.

You’ll also find a new dual-mode exhaust system and upgraded Brembo brakes. Inside, seats are also offered with various leather and Alcantara options.

But do all of the hot rod upgrades improve the already sublime GranTurismo? Or has Maserati taken the “grand” out of its GranTurismo?

Based on the Ferrari 430 Scuderia’s transmission, there’s no gearstick attached to the GranTurismo S’s unit, just buttons marked “1” and an “R” for parking manoeuvres. To change between gears 2-6, you need to use the steering-wheel-mounted paddle shifters.

There’s a full-auto slushbox mode for cruising and a sportier auto mode. The most extreme, fully manual mode is called MC-S, which actually needs the driver’s engagement to extract its full sporting potential.

Get the revs beyond 5,500 rpm, stomp the throttle to at least 80 per cent of its travel and gear changes now happen in two blinks of an eye – or 100 milliseconds.

The new automated manual is a huge improvement over the former Cambiocorsa, a “roboticized” manual even Maserati officials admit was a “challenge” to drive smoothly.

Switching to MC-S mode also changes the already melodic exhaust tune. Catch the eight in the right gear, and one can play the exhaust music like a trumpet, toggling between flatulent and the more traditional Italian soprano wail.

Based on the Quattroporte, the GranTurismo S is long and wide, but unlike an Aston Martin DB9, drives small and accurate.

On the smooth and fast two-lanes that connected our route from Modena to Bologna and back, the GranTurismo S retains the regular GT’s easy-to-drive nature.

Maserati says the V8 has been tuned for more low-down torque than in the Alfa, and it shows with little need to drop down gears to pass more plebeian Fiat drivers.

All the cars provided for the preview drive were equipped with the sportier fixed-rate suspension. Combined with the S’s lower profile (20-inch versus 18) rubber, this made for a brittle ride in town.

Call me a wimp, but as I wasn’t driving a hardcore sports car I kept on looking for a dial to soften the ride – to no avail. Maserati should consider making the Skyhook suspension a mandatory choice if it wants to keep the GranTurismo’s already sublime GT driving experience intact.

So is the S worth the additional $33,000? That’s arguable, mainly because the base GranTurismo is such a competent GT.

Adding the bigger V8, the Ferrari autobox and the musical exhaust to the GranTurismo to produce the S is a little like having a Sports Illustrated swimsuit model who’s trained for the Olympic decathlon: she’s stronger, but she still retains her original physical beauty and elegance.

It may make Enzo Ferrari spin in his grave, but the Maserati brothers’ GranTurismo S makes the twice-as-expensive Ferrari 2+2 GT seem almost superfluous.

Travel was provided to freelance reviewer John LeBlanc by the automaker.
  • Video: Maserati in Modena

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