We drive: Maserati Gran Cabrio SportComment on this story
Every time we came up behind another vehicle on the launch drive of the Maserati Gran Cabrio Sport in the mountains around Franschhoek, all we had to do was touch the left paddle to change down. The ECU would automatically blip the throttle with a thunderous “WHUP-aaaa..”, and the vehicle ahead would get out of the way, every time. Very gratifying.
The Sport is the latest development of Maserati's gorgeous four-seater convertible, its engine tweaked to deliver an extra 9kW (up from 323kw to 331 at the same 7000rpm) and 20Nm more torque (up from 490 to 510 at 4750rpm).
We weren't about to try it in the rain but the maker claims that the extra grunt is good for a 0-100 sprint in 5.2 seconds (0.1sec quicker than the previous model) and a top speed increase from 280 to 283km/h - or 274km/h with the top down, which says even more about the capabilities of this extraordinary car.
Subtle changes in the styling distinguish the Sport: three narrow red stripes across the trident badge on the grille (an old Maserati tradition that identifies the fastest version of a given model), black surrounds, rather than white, inside the headlight clusters, neat little body-colour winglets at the outer corners of the front mudguards, special 20” rims and larger, oval tailpipes.
But most of the changes are under the skin.
The Sport has a new six-speed semi-auto transmission, developed from the Quattroporte Sport GT S, complete with super-quick MC auto shift mode, launch control, and that intimidating throttle blip.
The Sport button on the centre stack noticeably tightens the steering, firms up the suspension and locks open the valves in the exhaust to give it that wonderfully sonorous sound track.
The Sport also comes with a new, sportier version of Maserati's oddly-named Skyhook active suspension (it's an option on the Gran Cabrio, standard on the 'red-badge' model), with upgraded software and dampers, and stiffer springs and anti-roll bars.
And the difference is immediately noticeable. With the Sport button off the car carries you in firm but supple comfort, seemingly contemptuous of inequalities in the road, but with it on, cosseting takes a back seat to information as the Gran Cabrio tells you about every ripple in the road - although without transferring them to your spine.
Strangely, however, the Maserati media kit hardly even mentions the car's best feature, its extraordinarily precise power-assisted steering.
This is a big car, nearly five metres long, more than two metres wide and weighing very close to two tonnes ready to go; I won't trot out that old chestnut about the car shrinking around you, but you can always put it exactly where you want it on the road, even when braking hard for a tight corner.
And if you put the nose in the right place the rest of the Gran Cabrio lines up automatically as only a perfectly balanced, front mid-engined chassis can, ready to power out on a wave of V8 torque (Maserati says 80 percent of that 510Nm is available from 2500rpm and the seat of my pants agrees) or hard on the gas with the huge 285/35 rear gumballs scrabbling for grip and the engine's howl bouncing back at you off the mountainside.
Either way, the Sport is always perfectly poised, flat to the road with its weight evenly distributed between the four contact patches.
MAGIC CARPET RIDE
Yes, you can throw this car around, braking hard and late, steering with the throttle through the apex and making the traction control work for its living, but in Sport mode the throttle response is so sharp it can become a little jerky - not enough to upset the chassis' composure but a little hard on your passenger.
Driven with finesse, however, the Maserati becomes a magic carpet ride, swooping from corner to corner as smoothly and as responsively as an aerobatic aircraft, affording the driver complete confidence - even on wet roads.
Much of the launch drive was completed in pouring rain, which points up one of the car's very few minus points. When the rain suddenly came down near the top of Franschhoek Pass, we stopped to put the roof up (Maserati says you can do it on the move at up to 30km/h but we didn’t want to stress the mechanism unnecessarily), and it took a surprisingly drawn-out 28 seconds, compared to an industry average of 18-22 seconds.
When folded, the fabric roof lives under a steel tonneau cover in a compartment of its own between the cabin and the boot, reducing the latter's capacity to a laughable 173 litres, most of which is taken up by a full-sized spare wheel in its own stylish bag, leaving barely enough room for a lap-top case, let alone a gym bag, on either side.
With the roof up, however, the car becomes much quieter, the three layers of fabric insulating the occupants from tyre roar and wind noise (but not, thankfully, from that V8 soundtrack!), and one becomes properly aware of just how comfortable this grand tourer really is.
The multi-adjustable power seats are superb, cosseting you without constraint, holding you so gently in place under even heavy cornering that you are hardly aware of the side bolsters, yet you never have to brace your feet against the footwell.
The cabin is styled with understated simplicity that speaks of total attention to detail; soft leather, painstakingly handstitched, adorns every possible surface, framed by highly polished veneer and discreet brightwork.
But the centre stack has far fewer button and gizmos than its (mostly German) competitors. The sound system is a model of simplicity, the dual-zone auto aircon has the barest minimum of buttons for on and off, fan speed and the desired temperature, while the satnav is almost entirely touch-screen operated.
Even the instrument cluster layout is classic, with four deep-set round dials, black-faced with white numerals and narrow red needles, for speed, revs, fuel and coolant temperature. The rest is displayed on a need-to-know basis on a colour screen between the centre gauges.
Despite its undoubted performance capabilities the R1 813 000 Maserati Gran Cabrio Sport is not a sports car. It is, rather, a very grand tourer, capable of carrying you and a friend (I have some reservations about rear leg and headroom) to the next town - or the next time zone - in superlative comfort at astonishing point-to-point speeds.
Put in a couple of hours behind the wheel, and you'll see why there are certain things the Italians still do best.