2011 Maserati GranCabrio
There are some common rules to winter driving, the most obvious of which is that snow is not your friend in a convertible. Snow in a convertible with summer tyres is even less welcoming. None of which seems to upset Maserati's dopily named GranCabrio, though. Its electronic safety net system has an Ice mode and, apart from doubling your usual stopping needs, it makes even Lazio's white roads a relative doddle.
It doesn't need to be good in snow, of course. Snow driving isn't its main job. Nope, that will be meandering in cafe districts, arriving at the best hotels and flitting down oceanfront mountainsides with all four exhaust pipes bellowing their best Pavarotti crescendos. And all of that it will do superbly. In fact, there's not much the GranCabrio does with anything less than a glorious combination of dignity, strength and excitement. And its competitors, for now, are basically Aston Martin's convertible DB9 and Bentley's Continental convertible. Benz has its four-seat E-Class on the way, but the Maserati's looks lift it beyond the German's heartland. And so does its US$332,000 (Dh 1,219,502) price tag.
The core oily bits are similar to the GranTurismo coupe, including the all-alloy, 439hp, 4.7L V8 engine, the slick six-speed ZF automatic transmission and the double wishbone suspension system at both ends. But it's not all identical. Maserati shortened the gearing to help it sprint to 100kph in 5.3 seconds, but that meant lowering the top speed to 283kph with the roof up or 274kph with it down. Both of those numbers seem enough to us, and it gains far more with the shortened ratios than it loses on a German autobahn.
What they've ended up with is a car that's as lovely to drive as it is to look at - something few of the Germans can boast at the moment. Maserati can't run with the Germans on technology, but it comprehensively trounces them on the basics. The car is simply beautiful to look at inside and out, it sounds amazing and it drives with a fluidity that belies its heft. You can drop the three-layer soft roof by twisting the key in the door (or, obviously, by a button on the console), so you don't even need to be inside it to make the GranCabrio look its best. It will take four seconds to drop all the windows, 20 seconds to drop the roof and another four seconds to raise the windows again.
Then you slide behind the near-vertical steering wheel, twist the key and listen for the V8's gruff kick to settle into a burbling, comforting idle. Then you pull the lever into drive and move off. No histrionics, nothing difficult and nothing imposing. It is, in fact, a very easy car to drive. Ease your foot off the brake, squeeze down on the throttle and the big Maser eases into the Roman traffic and heavily potholed roads like it was born for it.
And there's the second surprise. It rides beautifully, and not like a car of these dimensions should ride. Its long wheelbase helps but its suspension settings have been wonderfully chosen, too, and the rigidity of the body shines through. Even over the worse diagonal bumps, the Maserati refuses to show any lapse in its body control. But that's just the foundation. The soul of the GranCabrio is the engine. Like all Maseratis, the GranCabrio has a Sport button, which opens a bypass valve in its exhaust to not only enhance the throttle response but turn the sound into music.
Indeed, Maserati has a composer from Milan's La Scala opera house on its payroll to tune the engine's note, and it's worked a treat. Flick the Sport button and you find a rich, smooth bellow on full throttle. It gets thicker and stronger from the mid range, it burbles so much whenever you lift the throttle that you can't help smiling and the car just warms your heart every time you go near the accelerator pedal.
The gearbox just slides from one gear to the next without a hint of roughness, and the limited slip differential means that none of that noise is going to waste. It handles with a rare balance, too. Unlike most modern cars, the GranCabrio has 52 per cent of its weight over the rear axle, so it has no trouble getting its power down to the road. Even on snow, it never feels ruffled and the steering even feels like it picks up some feedback over the coupe. It just moves between one corner and another with an assured smoothness, normally reserved for rivers in their beds.
While the roof system itself weighs just 65kg, the extra stiffening under the floor, in the doors and door sills, and around the windscreen takes the total weight increase out to 100kg, so the big roadster hits a hefty 1,980kg. It's becoming about the limit of the weight this engine can cope with, especially because it was originally designed for something about 600kg lighter. It has enough torque, yes, but that torque arrives a bit later in the rev range than you'd ideally prefer and, when you push beyond 100kph, there are times when it feels like it could use a bit more engine.
The underbody fiddling also means that the fuel tank has shrunk to 75L and the rear seats have moved inboard and up a touch, too. But they remain comfortable, especially if the front seat occupant prefers to sit a bit closer. The roof can touch the head of taller people in the back, but most people will be comfortable enough and will also get plenty of vision. You might be able to carry four people, but you won't be able to take them for a weekend, but much less a holiday. The boot is horribly compromised by the roof's cavity and, while Maserati claims it will take two golf bags, it's difficult to see how, with just 173L of capacity.
While it can't match the Germans for technology, what it has is pretty good, including a patented technology that controls the pop-up rollover bars from the ECU, rather than the traditional g-sensor. It's a simplistic approach to a big convertible, really, but it's none the worse for the philosophy and there are very few significant reasons not to buy this car. firstname.lastname@example.org
Published: March 6, 2010 04:00 AM