September 11, 2006 By Kevin C. Limjoco

Maserati Quattroporte and Cambiocorsa

 

Language is a powerful weapon and God knows I’ve used it on one too many occasions but when it speaks out of foreign tongues, their exotic words compose an extra note of romance and mystique, even if you don’t understand them. For instance, only the French can make a grilled cheese sandwich sound like an haute cuisine delicacy from Ducasse. And if it were up to me, I think Italians should be the only people allowed to name sports cars. Because it seems that only these suave, amorous, olive-skinned Mediterranean Europeans are blessed with a language that has the ability to translate a pair of words as mundane and passionless as ‘four doors’ into a title that evokes a mysterious sense of style and sex appeal. Quattroporte. The rolling R’s alone are enough to make you want to own one, but the fact that the car is every bit as exotic as its name suggest, especially in the Philippines where it has never been officially sold and supported by Maserati, makes the verb ‘covet’ seem much more apropos.

Italian sports cars have existed for decades, but because of the difficulty of obtaining and maintaining them here in Manila, the mere sight of them even today is a rare and celebrated occasion. Owning the latest Porsche, BMW, or Mercedes is no doubt a solid statement of personal success, but owning any model Ferrari, Lamborghini or Maserati is a status symbol of untouchable proportions. A big reason for this, aside from their seductively alluring monikers and bodies, and extremely capable engines, is the fact that you couldn’t buy one without breaking any laws or busting your own bank account. Until now. You see, there’s this tall, charming fellow who walks around (oftentimes on golf courses) sporting the golden tan of success, and his name is Willy Soong. He’s a childhood friend of my father’s and makes a lot of Filipino dreams come true by bringing in some of the most desirable luxury cars on the planet. His latest triumph is Maserati.

The mystique of the Maserati Quattroporte has been leaving many a sports car designed to cruise a cool 200km/h in the newly developed autostradas of Italy. The first GT had been developed with extraordinary efforts derived from Formula 1 and Sports Prototype World Championships, with chassis and engines driven by World Champions Juan Miguel Fangio and Sir Stirling Moss. But for the first time ever in the Philippines, owners who can afford to pay the exotic price of a Quattroporte or the more casual Cambiocorsa coupe will now also be paying for the valuable confidence of knowing that they and their cars will be getting true factory support from Maserati itself. Setting up shop in the Philippines, at least for the Quattroporte, is a sizable investment for the Italian automaker, and an indication that they are taking our market quite seriously. Will it be worth it for them? And will a Quattroporte leave us with the same impression it did with Kevin Limjoco in Italy back in issue 05, or with Richard Meaden in issue 15 when he pitted it against an M5 and a CLS 55 on a supersaloon comparo from Modena to the UK? Granted we won’t have the same kinds of roads and the time to drive the cars the way they did in Europe, but that is exactly the point: We are not in Europe, and because they will now be sold here, our objective today is to see how these Masers will fare in a scenario they will most likely be driven in this country. Willy Soong enthusiastically agreed to lend us the Quattroporte and the Cambiocorsa so we can fraternize with the cars under typically Philippine weather conditions at our favorite stomping grounds in the foggy highlands of Tagaytay.

Ah, and here come the cars now…

Bellisima…molto grazie Pininfarina! I felt like kissing my fingertips and using animated hand gestures to emphasize how much I loved the way the sleek and elegant nero (metallic black) Quattroporte looked the minute I laid eyes on it. It’s been a long time since the maestro Pininfarina has designed a Maserati, and I am grateful that he is back. Giugiaro is no slouch but his designs appear odd next to a Pininfarina original, as in this Cambiocorsa, which is certainly a good-looking sports car, but when parked next to the Quattroporte and observed from the distance it looks almost like a car built in the Orient, even though it’s a two-door coupé next to a four-door sedan. It looks less aerodynamic than the brilliant but misunderstood upgraded version GranSport, with a blander front spoiler a frustratingly normal side profile.

I examined the interior of the Cambiocorsa before Kevin commandeered it, and came up with these initial impressions: It still tickles your sense of post-modern fancy with a sofa-cushy dull-orange BrightTex leather dashboard and futuristic center console that might be described as ‘lounge chic’ in certain esoteric design circles. Of course, you can immediately tell that the interior appointments of the Cambiocorsa cost checkbooks less to produce than that of the presidential (or prime minister) cabin of the Quattroporte, but in spanking factory-fresh conditions, it is still in the same league of intrigue as the GranSport or a Porsche 911.

Kevin drove off in it and I was able to take a good look at its rear, which helps to vindicate the rest of the body’s slightly outmoded style by showing off an attractive eyebrow taillight assembly, sporty quad tailpipes and an aerodynamic greenhouse coupé-top crowning a muscular wide posterior like a glass cyclist’s helmet. It’s the kind of behind that makes you want to follow it with a fixed stare. Too bad the rest of the body does not possess that same photogenic quality. Che peccato.

So I gladly spring back my focus on the Quattroporte. It’s a vivacious Italian stunner that’s captured the hearts of such high-profile personalities as Bono and the former Prime Minister of Italy, Silvio Berlusconi, but it also gives off subtle hints of British sophistication, like the serpentine curves of a Jaguar and the dignified sportsman’s classiness of an Aston Martin, especially the whale’s mouth front grille, which is made of black chrome mesh just like the three small side vents on either side of the car. I try to look for something I don’t quite agree with on the Quattroporte’s indulgent outer body and after some deliberate thought I can only come up with two things: There is no moon roof, which is usually the case for cars sold in Asia where they are mostly chauffer-driven and issues of heat and pollution come into question more often; and the rear lights don’t quite match the mesmerizing gaze of its headlights, which look like actual windows to the Maserati’s soul.

Inside, the Quattroporte treats you the same way almost any Italian Casanova would treat a woman: with pampered care and an almost overbearing charm. The Nero Potrona Frau leather with red stitching combined with artfully crafted rosewood trim creates a truly special driving environment marked by an uberluxurious sporting elegance. Shiny chrome rings and aluminum trim are fitted appropriately throughout the interior cabin, with a smartly designed center console housing a 6.5” LCD color wide-screen Multi Media System, detailed climate controls, a digital Bose audio system, and twin air vents on either side of an oval analog clock. You are connected to the car’s handling abilities via a superbly designed and built black leather and carbonfiber steering wheel with aluminum shift paddles that, although they are fun to flick around, are attached to the steering column instead of the wheel, which might require a tad more concentration than usual.

I always get a quirky kick out of how luxury cars differentiate themselves through the design of their keys, and the Maserati’s teal blue one caught my scrutiny for an extra split-second or so before sliding it into the ignition slot to ignite the same compact and lightweight engine that drives the GranSport, a front-mid-mounted normally aspirated 400bhp 4.2-liter V-8, which didn’t catch instantly, and once it did, commenced an idle engine note that sounded nowhere near a Ferrari. This may sound like an anomaly considering the engine was built by Ferrari (it is the basis for the F430, which has the same engine bumped up to 4.3 liters), but it’s actually exactly what you should be looking for in a superlimo like this one: You don’t want to cause too much of a noisy ruckus when your idling through traffic, especially since all eyes will be on your car anyway. And I like the fact that this dignified and mild-mannered saloon can sound quite and civilized when it’s sitting pretty or taking a stroll, then suddenly crack open into a raspy, screaming wail the minute you want it to—that’s the beauty of this kind of a car: it may not sound it all the time but it’s still a Ferrari supercar with four doors.

But there is another side to that coin, which brings us to a couple of minor, possibly unjustified criticisms we have regarding the Quattroporte. Let’s take a drive, shall we? I adjust my seat and steering wheel to a perfectly comfortable position, adjust the rear-view mirror so that I have a clear frame of everything behind me, strap on my seatbelt and set the climate control to an ideal cabin temperature, then I release the handbrake and drive out of the parking lot to begin my test drive through the wet and winding road of Tagaytay Highlands.

Now, just because this is essentially a Ferrari with four doors doesn’t necessarily mean you should treat it like one, and the Quattroporte will let you know that. The engine is so enticing that you sometimes forget you are still driving a four door sedan, and end up expecting all the agility and ability of a proper two-door sports car—which it is not, but it’s real close. Maserati engineers designed the Quattroporte to have a 47% front and 53% rear weight distribution by locating the engine behind the front axle with the gearbox mounted at the rear together with the differential. Your initial impressions of driving this car are that it is so exceptional that your expectations rise as you move along, and every little glitch magnifies.

The most universal and unanimous complaint about the car comes first, when you lunge forward shifting from first to second gear under the clutchless sequential-manual gear selection of the Quattroporte’s electro-hydraulic six-speed Maserati Duo Select (MDS) transmission. Although the gearbox is lighter and more responsive than a regular torque converter, the gear shifting is still too slow to react. Even on Sport mode and with the use of proper shifting techniques, you are still plagued with irritating lulls and delays. Five years ago those shift delays were a small price to pay for a semi-automatic gearbox, but now the standard has been redefined and these kinds of lags would be unacceptable in even today’s BMW-series. This one feels more like a first generation SMG, when you expect it to feel like an F430, which has a very direct gearbox that is able to put all the power down quickly. The problem is Maserati cannot put a standard gearbox into the Quattroporte and insists that its DuoSelect system is ‘one gearbox with two souls.’ So they attempt to address this issue with the introduction of the Quattroporte Executive GT, which has exactly the same 32-valve V-8, but with 19in rims, a bigger footprint but less profile on the rubber, and marginally quicker shifting—but unfortunately not enough to completely rectify the buggery gearbox’s infamy.

But this is nothing new. And, in fact, it’s almost a moot issue because getting over the SMG hang-up is all part of the ownership process, which none of us motoring journalist will ever experience unless we buy the car ourselves. 90% of the motoring press has complained for years about the sequential gearbox in general, and that is because they never have enough time to get used to it. Part of the growing process of owning a car is allowing the time for the owner to adapt to the transmission and for the transmission to adapt to the owner. Only a privileged owner of a Maserati can fully appreciate the car and learn that you have to lift your foot from the throttle just a little bit before shifting, allotting the gearbox just a little bit more time to shift, just like you would if you were actually stepping on the clutch yourself.

Besides, the Quattroporte’s got more than enough virtues to make it easy to forgive and forget its sins. The Skyhook air suspension, for example, is just the kind of mechanical sponge needed to soak up our erratic, choppy roads, as I soon confirmed after driving on to higher gears. Remember, these cars were built not just for the Autostradas and Autobahns of Italy and Germany, but also for their ancient cobblestoned roads, so even with 18in rims, a low profile and brand new tires pumped up to over 40psi, the Quattroporte still felt more composed than Kevin’s brand new Chrysler 300C HEMI, which he had drove up in for today’s crack of dawn shoot.

Another strong point you might expect from a ‘Ferrari with four doors’ is an outstanding set of Brembo brakes, which, to be honest, didn’t quite satisfy me today. But there’s a perfectly good explanation for this: you can hardly blame the Quattroporte because any brand new car will not brake the way it’s supposed to during the first few kilometers you drive it. I’m fairly certain that after breaking in the brakes of the car for about 1400 kilometers, it will stop with the supreme confidence and authority you’d expect from something that performs like a champion on wheels. One minute you’re flying, the next minute you’re not —no drama, just total control in your hands and toes.

In the less significant case of the Cambiocorsa 4200 GT, you can’t help sensing the palpable inferiority complex it harbors against two of its contextual coupés: its cooler, smarter and more prodigious brother, the GranSport; and the fantastical Porsche 997 Carrera that stole my soul in issue 009, where I had a torrid affair with it on these very same roads. But though the Cambiocorsa cruises in the perpetual shadow of these two cars and others like it, it certainly doesn’t change the fact that it’s still a privileged blessing that the cars have renewed availability to local buyers, with the option to pick and choose the trim and customize the car to your discerning taste. With the buzz-generating and eyebrow-raising Maserati, Porsche may soon have to consider looking up the meaning of the word passé.

The Maserati coupé looks and runs its road-ripping best as a GranSport though. The GranSport’s tuned Quattroporte V-8 brings in only ten horses more than the standard Cambio’s 390bhp, but with an upgraded sport suspension that renders the car more dynamic and a reconfigured six-speed sequential transmission that allows the gearbox to shift faster and with more authority to keep the car blipping within its powerband, the GranSport’s performance package is still a substantially more appealing option than the coupé I drove today, which felt old, heavy and cumbersome after experiencing the almost transcendental poetry in motion that the Quattroporte delivers with such graceful aplomb.

In last June’s issue, our esteemed colleagues in the UK pitched the Quattroporte against its most formidable rivals, the BMW M5 and the Mercedes CLS 55 AMG. Although it learned a few things from the Merc, which they concluded was the most complete and desirable car of the three but is certainly no match for the savage strength of the M5, they seemed to agree that the Maser was a more accomplished and desirable distance runner than the Bimmer. I, too, have driven all three cars on Philippines roads and tend to agree with their scorecard, but for slightly different reasons and with more points given to the Quattroporte.

The Benz is the best car to own and drive for yourself in this country….No, that wasn’t a misprint. It’s more comfortable than an M5 and it’s easier to drive than either car because the torque comes in very low, so you don’t have to be revving like a monster all the time. And it’s a true good old-fashioned five-speed automatic, so you don’t have all that jerking and jaunting we griped about earlier. It’s a very relaxed drive because you can set the suspension soft and make yourself real comfortable, plus it actually has more power than the other cars. The thing is a great deal of people don’t like the way it looks inside and out, because it’s actually more cheaply made than the other two cars. I am not one of those people.

However, the Quattroporte and the M5 for the same price of under ten million pesos in the Philippines is a tougher call to make. In this country, the Maserati is certainly more exotic, exclusive and mystifying than the M5, and in the conditions here now, I don’t think the M5, as competent as it is, could do any better. In fact, now that I think about it, it would probably run worse because all the power comes in much later. With the Quattroporte, at least the torque comes in low. This may very well be just the euphoria of a new experience, but I think I feel better, perhaps also because I look better, in the Quattroporte. It may also have something to do with the Maserati’s silver-blooded pedigree and esteemed racing heritage, but I also think the M5 is too brawny and muscular for a man of my delicate tastes.

The Quattroporte’s balance is also a little different from the M5. BMW deliberately went out of its way to try and achieve a true fifty-fifty weight split in order to place the car in a position of perfect equilibrium. Conversely, and perhaps a little controversially, Maserati went out of its way to offset that balance and opted instead to execute an aggressive new strategy for its flagship rear-wheel-drive executive saloon: distributing 7% more weight to the rear. This traction-maximizing setup is similar to the system used in the new Corvette Z06, but the idea here is actually to mimic the driving dynamics of a Porsche, which means more oversteer than understeer resulting in exceptional stability, dynamic balance, and therefore a much livelier drive. And by the goofy grin on my face as I glance at the rear-view-mirror, I can attest that this setup works wonderfully.

Another problem with the M5, especially in this country, is that it is almost a common sight in the sense that it is merely a slight visual upgrade of any E60 5-series, which you practically see all the time. Basically, the only features that separate an M5 visually from a 5-series are the M bumpers, bigger wheels and brakes. There’s not much more added flair and they don’t even come with the fog lamps. This gorgeous Quattroporte, on the other hand, looks like no other car in Maserati’s fleet, or any other fleet for that matter. It is undeniably one of a kind, and the only way to look like you’re driving one is actually to drive one. Plus, it’s still a Maserati with an engine built by Ferrari, so it’s born special.

To put things in perspective and illustrate my point even further, you could actually buy a 520d with the M kit and it will look strikingly similar to an M5, even up to the design of the wheel. Sure, the M5 will outrun you as a hare outruns a tortoise, but the cars will look almost identical. You simply can’t do that with a Quattroporte. It is aesthetically unique, and that is a huge factor in my book.

Well, cut my legs off and call me shorty, because it seems that tough call I mentioned four paragraphs ago just got a little easier to make. If there is anything about the Quattroporte that is indisputable, it is the fact that it is easier to drive than an M5 in Philippine conditions because the torque comes in earlier. Both gearboxes are dogs but with the M5, you can tune the transmission to your liking and adjust how quickly it shifts and how long the delays are. With Quattroporte, it’s either automatic or sport and that’s it, and that’s enough for me to have a great deal of affection for the car.

So as we say goodbye to our beautiful Italian rides for the day, a boisterous grazie goes out to Mr. Willy Soong for allowing me to drive a car that was all the inspiration I needed to plunge back into passionate sports car journalism. Both Maseratis will reach out and make a bold statement to Philippine buyers who understand and appreciate true performance art. But the Quattroporte in particular hits all the high notes with a polished enthusiasm, makes all the right moves with the exquisite grace of genuine article, and most important of all, it leaves me with the lasting and oftentimes-rarefied impression that life, and not just the car, is actually quite beautiful.

 

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