Editor's note: A special thanks goes out to the good people at The Auto Gallery in Woodland Hills, Calif., for allowing us to experience the Maserati Spyder.
Over the past 40 years, the term poor man's Ferrari has been applied to everything from Pontiac Firebirds to Hyundai Tiburons (and if you think that's a stretch, you obviously haven't seen the 2003 Tiburon). Don Johnson drove a blatant poor man's Ferrari, a rebodied C4 Corvette, for the initial run of Miami Vice. Fortunately, the show's incredible success, and subsequent budget increase, allowed for the use of a genuine Ferrari Testarossa by the third season.
But whether a 365 GTB/4 knock-off or a Korean compact with Italian lines, the thought of buying a "lesser" version of anything, even a Ferrari, can send purists fleeing faster than a James Bond fan after a Roger Moore (or, even worse, Timothy Dalton) sighting. These same individuals likely wouldn't have bought a Maserati product in the last 20 years due to lackluster performance and sub-par quality in products bearing the trident emblem. It was a lack of consumer interest that caused Maserati to abandon the U.S. market over a decade ago, with nary a tear shed from the American car-buying public.
But in 1998, Ferrari took control of Maserati with the hopes of reviving this once iconic Italian marque. Exotic car fans rejoiced at the thought of a Maserati comeback while simultaneously wondering how a company that produces fewer than 5,000 units annually could take on the resurrection of another niche player even with parent Fiat's financial backing. Would the marriage of two former rivals result in a better product offering from both, or would it simply dilute the Ferrari brand while producing a low-brow, or "poor man's" if you will, pseudo prancing horse product unworthy of the purists? And, perhaps the most important question of all, what would the dear departed Enzo say?
After a short stint behind the wheel of a 2002 Spyder, we're happy to report that Enzo's spirit and the Ferraristi can rest easy. Here is a vehicle that successfully combines the best of Maserati's heritage with the latest in exotic car technology and performance. An infusion of Ferrari (make that Fiat) cash has transformed the Maserati factory in Modena from a quaint assembly plant to a fully modern production facility. This is where the '02 Spyder, and its recently unveiled Coupe sibling, will be manufactured to the same exacting standards already seen on vehicles bearing Enzo's name.
The first thing you realize after seeing the Spyder in person is that this car really does look like a Maserati. That is to say, it's quintessentially Italian thanks to the ItalDesign Giugiaro bodywork, yet it's not a vehicle that evokes love at first sight. From this author's perspective, that impression sums up almost every Maserati product of the last 40 years. In the Spyder's case, the chunky hindquarters and curvaceous front end seem at first disjointed (especially with the top in place), but the overall proportions are spot on, and with the top down and our luscious red test car's paint glimmering in the Southern California sun, it quickly earned its "exotic car" status.
Lowering the top is simply a matter of placing the car in neutral, applying the emergency brake and pressing a small toggle switch between the seats. In a few seconds, the top is stowed neatly below a tonneau cover with the promise of open-air adventures just a paddle flick away.
And yes, we're talking the same F1 paddle shifter system used in the Ferrari 360 Modena and upcoming 575 Evolution (see, sometimes parts bin raiding works out rather well). Called Cambiocorsa, the electro-hydraulically controlled six-speed manual uses only two floor pedals and two small levers located slightly ahead of the steering wheel. This means no clutch worries for the driver, but also no visceral thrill of slamming a shift lever through a close-ratio gearbox (though a conventional six-speed manual is available as an alternative). The Cambiocorsa defaults to a manual mode that requires driver input for each upshift, though it will downshift when rolling to a stop. There is also an "Auto" mode that takes care of both up- and downshifting, but excessive lurching during upshifts caused us to dismiss this setting, at first.
However, as we became more familiar with the Spyder, we discovered that lifting the throttle during upshifts when in "Auto" mode produced a nearly seamless gear change. Even more rewarding was the discovery of the "Sport" mode that improved throttle response, stiffened the active suspension (dubbed Skyhook) settings and tightened the shift quality in both manual and Auto mode by a substantial degree. Moreover, these changes in throttle response, ride quality and shift behavior had no negative impact on overall comfort, leading us to question why anyone would ever drive in non-Sport mode.
The rewards of operating an F1-style paddle shifter depend largely on what type of engine is feeding the transmission. Maserati doesn't disappoint in this category, fitting a 385-horsepower 4.2-liter V8 under the Spyder's sloping hood. A peak torque output of 333 pound-feet comes online at 4,500 rpm, but the engine produces substantial thrust right up to its 7,600-rpm redline. In fact, with the F1 shifter set in first gear, a romp on the throttle will produce only slight wheel spin as the vehicle lunges forward. But the real fun starts near that 4,500-rpm torque peak, when a second burst of power causes the rear tires to break loose, again. This, of course, assumes you have turned off the ASR traction control system. Even with ASR working, the engineers at Maserati have allowed Spyder pilots to engage in a bit of mischief (read: throttle-induced oversteer) before cutting engine power.
The culmination of 385 horsepower, a lightning-quick F1 shifter, active suspension components and a satisfying V8 rumble is nothing short of magical. Zero-to-60-mph times are said to be in the sub 5-second range, a figure we don't dispute. It may sound too gauche to call it a Mazda Miata on steroids, but that was our first impression after running hard through our favorite set of twisties. Unlike so many exotics that impress you with their size and dimensions almost as much as their performance, the Spyder doesn't intimidate you while you're driving it. External measurements put it at about the same size as a Boxster, but with a torquey V8 engine up front rather than an amidships opposed six, the Miata Grande description is more accurate. Flinging it through corners is an absolute joy with throttle and steering inputs working with each other to slingshot the car between apexes.
Something the Miata can't offer is the level of luxury and comfort provided by this GT. At extra-legal freeway speeds, with the top down, the Spyder felt completely at ease with a minimum of wind buffeting. Seating is opulent for cruising between cities but supportive when producing maximum Gs in a decreasing radius corner. The cabin manages to be cozy without being cramped, and all controls are well-marked and easy to use.
Our test model based at $87,165 and was outfitted with the aforementioned Skyhook active suspension, a GPS navigation system, automatic climate control, park distance control, body-colored roll hoops, a CD player and xenon headlights. The final MSRP was $101,415, including gas-guzzler tax and destination charge. Interior, exterior and convertible top color choices abound, with contrasting piping for the leather seats and numerous custom options available. Mazda does have Maserati beat in one area: That company's $25,000 convertible comes with a glass rear window, Maserati's six-figure GT does not...at least not yet.
Other than the plastic rear window, we had very little to complain about after our all-too-brief drive. Initial brake pedal travel before slowing the vehicle was a bit farther than we like, but once the binders grab, they grab hard and are easy to modulate. Also, a GT car of this caliber should have one-touch up-and-down windows for driver and passenger, and we'd like a bit more storage space. Finally, and perhaps the most annoying issue for potential buyers, is the fact that Maserati will only be importing 800 Spyders (along with another 400 Coupes) for 2002. At those numbers, you can bet that they won't last long and that an otherwise high-value vehicle will likely become the target of brokers and profiteers looking to make a quick buck.
That's too bad, because in the world of sub-$100,000 GTs, this Maserati is in a class by itself. The Spyder's successful blend of performance, passion and luxury trounces cars like the Porsche 911 Cabriolet, Jaguar XKR and even the more expensive BMW Z8 faster than its F1 shifter swaps cogs.
In light of that, it may be more accurate to call it a "bargain-priced" rather than "poor man's" Ferrari.