Mi Amore Quattroporte
It starts with sex appeal. But once you begin driving Maserati's new four-door, its strength and intelligence conspire to forge a deep and lasting bond.
(Business 2.0) – Twenty years ago this month, at 5:30 on a nippy winter night, four gentlemen wearing trench coats and black fur hats converged on a luxury sedan idling outside a New York City restaurant called Sparks Steak House. When 70-year-old Paul Castellano emerged from the automobile, he caught six bullets in the head. An instant later the man who orchestrated the hit, one John Gotti, motored slowly past, rubbernecking his handiwork from behind the wheel of a jet-black Lincoln. (Detectives credited Big Paulie's whacking to a family "disagreement.") So when word arrived that a spanking-new 2006 Maserati Quattroporte--one of Italy's most powerful exports--would be waiting for me at 5:30 on a chilly evening in front of Sparks, it gave a moment's pause. It's been said that the $120,000 Quattroporte is a car to die for, but still.
At the appointed hour, I crept around the corner onto 46th Street and reconnoitered the scene--no gunmen in sight. Then I spotted the Quattroporte shimmering beneath the darkening sky. With the release of Maserati's first four-door in more than a decade, the company has clearly decided to muscle in on a luxe-sedan segment long dominated by Jaguars, Mercedes, and BMWs. This year it hopes to land somewhere around 1,000 Quattroportes in American garages. To do so, the Italians have unleashed their most powerful weapon: pure sex appeal. How gorgeous is this car? Imagine the languid flanks and silky thighs of an Italian starlet--say, Monica Bellucci--minus the flimsy sundress. Now render those lines in aluminum, add a 400-horsepower, Ferrari-built wonder of an engine, and spread around an obscene amount of velvety leather. (Pardon the auto-erotica.)
Never ones for self-restraint, the folks at Maserati elected to offer the Quattroporte in 4 million different bespoke configurations--you can choose mahogany or rosewood, nero leather or grigio, and so on. Buyers can outfit their Quattros with GPSs, rear veneered tables that emerge from hidden pockets, DVD systems, Bose stereos, ventilated seats that cool and massage, and even a button in the rear that, when pushed, maneuvers the front passenger seat forward, to allow for more legroom on those rare occasions when you prefer to be driven rather than drive. Even the key fob is customizable--mine was obsidian-blue. Tap it once and the electronic door clicks open; insert and turn and the car sighs, whispers briefly, and rumbles awake, pliable beneath your every command. And here's where things begin to get dangerous.
Among its various bells and whistles, the Quattroporte is endowed with an electronically governed six-speed robotic transmission, an interestingly complicated system that operates like a very aggressive clutchless manual. (The onboard computer controlling the system runs on software dubbed So Fast 2.0.) As with most modern performance cars, you can take the Quattroporte through its paces as a full manual, using a set of wheel-mounted handles--Maserati gave them suede backing, just because--but if you opt for automatic mode, the car will interpret your driving style and manipulate the transmission to best exploit your particular habits. It's exhilarating, and a little unnerving: Feather the gas and the car flows through gears seamlessly, assuming that you are merely out for a Miss Daisy Sunday drive. But mash the gas, and the DuoSelect system decides that you're in a kick-ass mood, or possibly evading someone intent on doing you harm. Thus all niceties slip away and the car begins to slam through gears with abandon, leaving in its wake a thundering echo of hi-rev exhaust (and blazing the sedan from zero to 60 in about five seconds). The system is simultaneously willful and coy, and to master it is akin to embarking on a new romance: As you and the car become fitted, things get progressively smoother and sweatier and more satisfying. Not to stretch analogies, mind you.
As it happened, several days elapsed before the union between me and the Quattro was complete. On that first evening, I eased the Maserati into traffic, steered it cautiously around the sharp corners and pedestrian-clogged intersections of midtown Manhattan, and finally found some open space on the roads that bisect Central Park. (Not the best test track, but hey.) After a few tight curves and some decent straightaways, the car started to respond to my touch. Improving this rhythm is a proprietary damping system called Skyhook, which lets the car tune itself to fit the circumstances. Soon we were one, inseparable, galloping up the FDR, slaloming down the West Side Highway, curling around the southern point, and doing it all again. I found that a quick tickle of the throttle made the upshift hiccup vanish, and a similar but lighter stroke smoothed downshifts away to nothingness. I learned to aim my Quattroporte's nose for the narrow gaps that opened in the line of speeding Town Cars, thwack the paddles and hold on as the car leapt into the void, shredding the speed limit. We were in bliss. When the time came to give back the Quattroporte, I had become unsettlingly possessive, imagining the car in the hands of another.
So perhaps it was fitting that the drop-off was again to occur at the infamous Sparks, site of heartaches and double-crosses. I was slowing to park in front of the restaurant when I spotted him, tucked among a knot of crime-loving sightseers: the Maserati rep. Damn. But wait! I gauged the odds, steeled my nerves, and tromped the throttle one last time. A perfect getaway.