Italian for Beginners Maserati's Spyder GT is the entry-level course in old-world va-va-vooming. There is, however, one prerequisite: You have to learn how to drive all over again.
By John Tayman

(Business 2.0) – Among Ferrari's high-wattage rides are some in which the engine is on permanent display, cloaked in a fat panel of unbreakable glass like some priceless and untouchable work of art. Which, of course, it is. Thumb the ignition and the museum piece waggles a time or two, then settles into a basso-profundo growl, shimmying with horsepower. The rest of the vehicle might as well be an afterthought, mere carapace, despite the obvious care lavished on every curve.

I mention this because the other day I wandered among several such Ferraris in a showroom, hunting for a Maserati. Which is not as dumb as it sounds. In 1997, Ferrari swallowed up struggling Maserati, which had let its American presence wither away to almost nil. The stronger Italian went to work on its weaker onetime rival, pumping up its factory, smoothing its buildout eccentricities, and lending a little cachet. Then, in the ultimate gesture of largesse, it gave its new sibling a heart--a combustible one. So when, after a decade-long absence, Maserati returned to the United States with the convertible Spyder GT, the car boasted a Ferrari-built, 390-horsepower, 4.2-liter V-8. A gorgeous engine it is, too, right down to the flowing script announcing "Maserati" on the side of those red-crackled valve covers. Maybe they should have added an asterisk.

But if you're an aspiring owner of a hand-built supercar without the requisite bank account, the Spyder is your automobile. About half the price of the cheapest Ferrari, the $91,000 Spyder GT offers much the same accent, style, and speed-limit-be-damned technology. The two nameplates even share showroom space in some cities, including mine, where the vehicles are arrayed around a sort of palazzo with tiled floors, tinkling fountains, and tenors emoting from hidden speakers. (Picture a really nice Olive Garden, without food.) The Spyder sat just inside, its hood brazenly pushed up, flashing that va-voom engine. Zero to 60 in 4.9 seconds, by the way, and a top speed of 176 mph. It's a little obscene.

After you've covered her up and can concentrate again, what you'll realize is that it's an appealingly idiosyncratic vehicle. Maserati expects to sell only 4,500 Spyders a year, which means you'll rarely spot one in the wild. When you do, it takes a moment to register; the top-down profile is understated, just a low swipe of color and a blunt tail. Creep closer, however, and you begin to catch some distinguishing features. Instrumentation is spare, and the overall feel is one part race car to one part luxury tourer. That's not to say the vehicle lacks niceties, but they're so beautifully nuanced that several beats go by before you realize that every surface you touch is soft and leathery, or machined to perfection, or finished with a satisfyingly tactile smoothness. Each car is hand-produced and customizable to an absurd degree (Maserati will match the exterior or interior to any color you desire, right down to the stitching on the seats). Settle into the driver's seat and the leather seems to sigh. Flick a button and the automatic soft top whirs rearward, vanishing neatly into a hidden well. Touch another and the navigation system springs to life. Ratchet the key and that engine begins her signature rumble. Off you go.

Maserati claims that the Spyder's automatic suspension control, which for some bizarre reason it named Skyhook, processes information 10 times faster than any similar system. (It employs the now-expected array of sensors and monitors and adjustable dampers, married to the acronymic cornucopia--ABS, EBD, ASR--that comes standard on such wallet-creasers.) Bad names and odd letters aside, the Maserati does handle exceptionally well. Response is almost too quick. Shiver the steering wheel a hair and the Spyder lunges into a turn or leaps into a passing lane. Ferrari chairman Luca Cordero di Montezemolo, upon introduction of the car, said he had hoped to build a vehicle "where the driver is the protagonist"--and he succeeded. But leave yourself time to adjust to the Spyder's nimbleness, or the story being told might end up as an episode of Law & Order. On my first outing, I almost killed a cyclist, chased a jogger off the street, and sent an ambling dog yipping for cover.

But after a few miles, you start to catch on. In fact, you begin to learn how to actually drive, rather than lazily pilot, which is what most people do these days, reclined in a sport-utility vehicle, steering with a single finger, cell phone at the ear. None of that in the Maserati, please. The Spyder is available with a Formula 1-style gearbox in which the computer-controlled shifting is managed by a pair of steering-wheel-mounted toggles. But the purer experience is the standard six-speed manual, where you play through the gears like a musician changing chords. Racing up Mt. Tamalpais, the road passing into and out of sunlight, I felt as though the drive was scripted and set to a score, and that the afternoon that was unfolding was just a little more glamorous than I actually deserved. This point was underlined a few days later when I rumbled the Spyder back into its ersatz Tuscan villa and handed the keys over to Antonio (of course). I then climbed into my nice American SUV, with its boxy and blatty and unmelodic engine, and lumbered home from Italy.