2005 Maserati Quattroporte First Drive

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2005 Maserati Quattroporte Sedan

(4.2L V8 6-speed Automated Manual)

How does a model from an Italian car company with little profile in the U.S. — the 2005 Maserati Quattroporte — break into a segment already serviced by three of the greatest sedans ever built — the current BMW 7 Series, the Mercedes-Benz S-Class and the Jaguar XJ?

Well, first you have to consider that a major motivating force for the luxury sedan segment is to show off how much money you have by buying something that few other people have, so just being there gives you some momentum.

Second, you get Pininfarina to create a car that's a lush, sensual beauty in a cadre of cars that seems for the most part to have been created by sentient robots. The Quattroporte compels you to caress it, while a 7 Series prefers a salute.

Third, you need to understand that a Maserati Quattroporte is for all intents and purposes a four-door Ferrari. Yes, that Ferrari, the one with the prancing horse logo and the scarlet race cars and allll of those Formula One titles.

This happened because a few years back the Modena-based firm wanted to expand its product portfolio and its profit potential. It could have done what Porsche did and simply decided to build non-sports cars under its own name, but the sharp decrease in Porsche sports car sales since the advent of the Cayenne SUV suggests that might have been a mistake.

Instead, Ferrari snapped up the remnants of its cross-town rival, which had fallen on the hardest times yet of its long and often glorious history. The first models out with the famous trident were restyled and padded versions of Ferrari roadsters and coupes, which certainly have charms of their own.

But by this fall the big departure will be at hand, when the Quattroporte name returns to the U.S. after a decade's absence. It's not a reworked version of any Ferrari model, since that firm would not build a four-door car, but it does have scarlet blood in its veins and the knowledge of the F1 teams in its genes.

It also has the first Maserati body created by Pininfarina in 50 years, a gap that was caused by Enzo Ferrari forcing the famous designer to make a choice between the two companies.

That gorgeous body is evidence of both the souls the Quattroporte is said to possess — luxury and performance. These souls are said to ''fuse in a single car, in which perfection doesn't merely mean flawless electronics and cold rationality. This is a car in which perfection is something warm, colorful, dynamic, beautiful and, more importantly, fun.''

As luck would have it, I got to spend a day under the Tuscan sun finding out that Maserati's two-soul description of the Quattroporte is exactly correct.

In the first place, it's Italian heritage fit right into every one of the landscapes and ancient towns that it visited, and it was as beautiful as anything it encountered. This alone makes it stand out from anything with a German background.

As it happens, the exterior style is only the beginning, since the Quattroporte's cabin is the kind of place that will make even ardent animal rights supporters appreciate the reason that other people love leather as much as they do. Next to the Quattroporte, the use of leather and rich wood in other luxury cars seems amateurish.

Thankfully for full-size Americans, you also soon learn that the car is a lot bigger than its exterior look seems to suggest (the length is 198 inches on a 120.5-inch wheelbase), and that means genuine room for four adults.

The sporty soul needs to be described rather than seen, because the go-fast bits of the front-engine, rear-drive sedan are hidden by the vibrant shape. But Maserati managed to get a 47-53, front-back weight distribution by putting the engine behind the front axle and the gearbox at the back with the differential, the kind of layout you normally see in sports cars, not sedans.

The carmaker then dropped in a 4.2-liter 90-degree V8 that's good for 400 horsepower at 7,000 rpm and about 360 pound-feet of torque at 4,500 rpm. A considerable amount of throttle is needed to reach these peaks, but the engine sound is superb as it propels the car from zero to 60 mph in a shade over five seconds.

When this car is ''in the wind,'' as an Italian described it to me, it is an unalloyed pleasure to be in. On stretches of autostrata and country roads through Tuscany, the engine and the balance of the car showed themselves to be superb and they're helped tremendously by Maserati's ''Skyhook'' system, which is the firm's unique name for active suspension.

The one part of the Quattroporte that may give Americans pause is the electrohydraulic six-speed Maserati DuoSelect (MDS) transmission. In its automatic mode, this transmission behaves like an automatic manual in that it shifts itself as the situation requires and feels just like a manual but does not have a clutch. This will be a little disconcerting for people expecting the smoothness of a regular automatic, and in response to a wave of media suggestions the Italian firm will reprogram it to a smoother application for American tastes.

By flipping the shift paddles on the steering wheel, the driver can also operate the MDS like a regular manual, and that is absolutely the most fun and the most work. There are also choices in manual shifting, including high grip and sporty, and the transmission is ''ever vigilant'' so you can't blow it up by doing something stupid.

In truth, most of the people willing to part with $90,000 and up for a car (even one that can be pretty much custom-tailored inside and out) will not actually ever drive it as hard as it's capable of going.

The reality of the luxury sedan market is that people buy them for status symbols and, for many people, the more unique the product the better. That should make the beautiful and fabulous Maserati Quattroporte one of the most desirable cars on the market.

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