Maserati returns

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I’m not sure how they got a 2003 Maserati Spyder inside Manhattan’s Four Seasons, since the doors didn’t seem nearly wide enough. But it was, in fact, there in the lobby, oozing style and if-you-can’t-afford-me-don’t-even-ask panache.

It’s been a while for Maserati. The company stumbled badly with its gorgeous but underdeveloped Biturbo models of the 1980s (Forbes says they "practically fell apart on delivery") and it left the U.S. market in 1990. Three years later, Fiat took over the ailing Modena, Italy-based company and put Maserati under the wing of its other supercar acquisition, Ferrari. So the two historic rivals are stablemates.

Now the Maserati is back in the U.S.A., sort of. The new Coupe and Spyder are partly Ferrari-based, complete with Ferrari’s Formula One-based "Cambicorsa" electro-hydraulic paddle shifting system (which controls six speeds without a clutch). I didn’t get a chance to try it out in action, but I did flick the steering wheel switches on that Four Seasons car.

The all-new 385-horsepower, 4.2-liter V-8 propels the Spyder to 60 miles per hour in 4.9 seconds. That’s plenty fast. It’s reported to handle well, like a bulked-up Mazda Miata. The car is nicely proportioned, with a very 1960s supercar nose, but it’s not terribly distinctive. The interior is fittingly voluptuous, with the Italian leather accounting for the death of many cows.

The impeccably tailored Marco Mattiacci, a vice president of marketing for Ferrari/Maserati, says the two supercars now have 33 dealerships in the U.S., 60 percent of them exclusive to the marques. The U.S. will get about a quarter of the factory’s annual production of 4,000 cars: 1,000 in 2002 and 1,400 in 2003. The convertible will grab an estimated 75 percent of sales in the U.S.; the European market is more coupe-friendly.

The Maserati Coupe sells for $83,000; the Spyder for $93,000. That’s expensive, but not by Ferrari standards. "The customer will get a tailor-made experience," Mattiacci said. "He can even choose the stitching and the piping on the leather interior."

Maserati obviously will be trading on its colorful racing history and memories of the glorious cars it imported in the 1960s, like the 3500 GT. But will the Ferrari connection help or hurt? Diehard Italian car fan Greg Packham, longtime owner of Alfa-Romeos, isn’t impressed. "What makes it a Maserati, other than the name?" he asks. "The good news is that you’re getting a Ferrari for $30,000 less, but you may get raped on the resale value."

A less-impassioned view comes from Automotive News writer Jim Henry. "Maserati does not have high-volume ambitions, so the company may do all right, particularly since it’s using tried-and-true mechanicals," he says. "Maserati’s quality reputation in Europe has improved 180 percent from what it used to be. The Biturbo was really a mess — the dealers were saying that the headlining was dropping down in front of the drivers’ eyes."

The New York event was cosponsored by Automobile magazine, whose editor, Jean Jennings, said that Maserati’s "period of darkness" was behind it. The reborn company, she added, will "restore memories of the great racing cars of the past."

I’ve never driven a Maserati, and I probably have a lot of company among Americans who barely remember the company’s presence on these shores. I’m sure the showrooms will be decorated with old black-and-white photos of long-gone wins in the Mille Miglia and Le Mans. But that was then. Today’s buyers will want to know what’s behind the famous Trident logo.