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Car reviews - Maserati - Coupe GT - Cambiocorsa

Our Opinion

We like
Performance, handling, styling, sound, interior space
Room for improvement
Ride quality, price, options, Cambiocorsa transmission

22 Jul 2003

CUT-PRICE Ferrari or V8 Italian 911 rival: either way, Maserati’s seriously improved Coupe GT stands out as living proof the Italian V8 coupe remains a relevant alternative in the rarified world of $200,000-plus supercars.

When it appeared here in March 1999 as the first new-generation Maserati since the Italian sports car maker came under Ferrari control in 1997, the 3200 GT brought sensuous Giugiaro styling, genuine room for four and turbocharged V8 power to the world of (relatively) affordable super-coupes.

However, the peaky turbo V8 was difficult to drive confidently, handling was more grand touring than sporty, the seats were too high and minor quality glitches took the shine off what could have been the most serious threat yet to Germany’s supercar dominance.

Then came the mid-life facelift in January 2003, which introduced different, more conventional tail-lights (we still lament the loss of the original boomerang-shaped LED lights because they didn’t comply with US design rules) and lower power front seats that realise an extra 25 mm of headroom and 15 mm more leg room.

Biggest change, however, was the changeover to Ferrari-based underpinnings, including the same Modena-sourced, naturally-aspirated 4.2-litre quad-cam V8 that first appeared in the Maserati Spyder GT of November 2001, linked to a full race-oriented rear transaxle drivetrain.

Featuring a conventional six-speed manual or optional six-speed sequential manual transmission in unison with the rear differential, the Coupe GT now shares Ferrari’s unique powertrain and all the benefits that stem from it, such as reduced weight and better weight distribution. Sure, 911 also features a rear transaxle, but it’s not front-engined like the Maser, nor is it V8-powered.

With the exception of indiscreet new exterior "V8" badging, further changes to the Coupe GT for the 2003 model year from May have served to improve the Italian two-door even further.

They include an advanced, uninstrusive and switchable stability control system known as Maserati Stability Program, improved Cambiocorsa software and recalibration of the optional "Skyhook" adaptive damping system.

On the road, the Maserati Coupe GT’s improvement over the original 3200 GT is overwhelming. First, the voluminous cabin – which already seated four full-size adults in genuine comfort - something the 911 and XKR fail to do – now offers more head and stretching room, and a number of subtle dash changes have lifted the ambience of the all-leather interior considerably.

The traditional chrome-ringed instruments are classy, two deeply bucketed, leather-lined seats reside out back, and there’s even rear air venting for rear occupants.

But none of this prepares you for the aural delights of the Maser’s new 287kW V8. Raspy, raucous and reverberating, the new atmo 4.2 replaces the 3200 GT’s turbo 3.2 V8 and must rate as one of the world’s best engines. Not only does it emit one of the best intake and exhaust notes currently available, it must also be one of the world’s most flexible engines. Oh, and unlike almost all of its rivals, it’s actually appealing to look at, too.

From the fast, 1000rpm idle (to mask the low-end rumbling of a what is a highly tuned engine) to more than 75000rpm, the high-tech Ferrari V8 offers its driver’s disposal a wave of torque and a crescendo of revs that, at least on any public road, should be enough to satisfy even the most avid of performance thirsts.

Despite weighing at 1670kg – some 300kg more than 911 – the Coupe GT never feels heavy on its wide 18-inch boots and, thanks to its 287kW V8, actually tops the class for outright pace.

With a top speed of 285km/h and claimed 0-100km/h acceleration of just 4.9 seconds, this Maserati wins the bench racing contest every time. And it does it so much more practically and predictably than the outgoing turbo V8. Thank goodness for the 88-litre fuel tank, though, because average fuel economy works out at a thirsty 18.4 litres/100km.

But, yes, the F1-style, paddle-shifting Cambiocorsa version we tested did take some of the gloss of the engine’s amazing performance. While Ferrari was the first to introduce such a self-shifting manual transmission to the road via its F355 and then F360 coupe – and the Maserati’s version of same is improved thanks to better software for the MY2003 model – it never quite feels as sophisticated as BMW’s vastly improved SMGII system as found in M3.

Cambiocorsa offers all the features of SMG: there’s no clutch pedal and no park feature (this is a proper manual, remember) - just a miniature T-bar to select reverse and fixed (oddly, not attached to the steering wheel) shift paddles behind the tiller to change up or down.

In normal mode the changes are slow but relatively smooth, and there’s a sport mode in which the gearchanges are quicker but thumpy and the transmission won’t upchange at redline. The push-button auto feature seems to select an even slower shift pattern that’s entirely unpredictable and falls well short of today’s better autos. And in manual mode it’s just too difficult to drive smoothly at carpark speeds.

However, it’s surely not long before the Fiat SMG’s auto function is as good as a genuine auto, and when that happens Cambiocorsa will be the best of both worlds. Right now, however, as a $12,000 option (for essentially the same system – minus the paddles – as can be had in some Alfas for $3000, while M3’s SMG is free) and in the absence of a full automatic, we’d choose the regular six-speed manual every time.

The rest of the Coupe GT package lives up to the promise of its incredible powertrain, too. The steering is super-talkative and feels as responsive as the benchmark 911, and the massive Brembo brake package leaves no doubt about the GT’s stopping power time after time.

The double wishbone suspension, while bordering on harsh around town and negating some of the four-seater cabin’s practicality, comes into its own on any section of smooth, snaking blacktop.

Our test Maser came with optional Skyhook active damping, which costs around $6000 and consists of a series of accelerometers that read the movements of the wheels and body and send them to a central processing unit, which then adjusts the damper rates in real time based on driving and road conditions.

Developed in conjunction with Mannesman-Sachs, the system uses six acceleration sensors: three record the movements of the car body and are positioned in the front and right rear damper struts, two are inside the hubs of the front wheels, and a lateral acceleration sensor is located in the front of the chassis.

In Normal mode, the Skyhook system offers slightly improved ride quality, with Sport mode selecting a firmer feeling ride in return for greater chassis response. In both modes the Cambiocorsa offers an enormous level of roadholding and telegraphs the edge of its adhesion envelope well.

A factor of its excellent weight distribution, overall balance and super-stiff chassis, the Coupe GT offers better adjustability than the rear-engined 911 at the limit, and with an even more flexible engine than the Porsche’s muscular flat six, power oversteer is always there for the taking.

Of course, no car is without its niggles and though this particular Maserati’s build quality was impeccable, it did reveal poor radio reception, the (optional) telephone card system is flimsy, the centre console’s shiny plastic appears at odds with the sumptuous stitched leather dash and we lament the optional spare wheel. There is, however anough room in the 315-litre boot for two golf bags.

No, the Coupe GT is not as refined as, say, the auto-only CLK55 and nor is it as cheap as the devastatingly quick M3.

That said, if exclusivity is a priority and you have a soft spot for practical Italian V8 coupes, the Coupe GT is now simply too good not to consider. Oh, and did we mention that glorious V8?

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