We heard it a lot during the launch of the new 2007 Maserati Quattroporte Automatica in the appropriately sporty Principality of Monaco. Maserati CEO Roberto Ronchi used the word repeatedly at the press conference and then again over lunch at the appropriately swank Monte Carlo Bay Hotel.
"Above all," he insisted, "the Automatica must be sporty."
As pronounced by Signore Ronchi, the word takes on almost poetic dignity. It jumps from his pursed lips, is garnished with a Latinate tongue roll and an explosive brio, and then concludes with a tonal shrug that lends Italian its wonderfully musical cadence: Sporr-tee-uh.
The 2007 Quattroporte Automatica with its conventional six-speed automatic transmission is indeed sporty. Yet "sporty" turns out to be just one of several appropriate words to describe the Automatica Executive GT that we drove along the Côte d'Azur and into les Alpes Maritimes.
There are three Quattroporte trim levels, and now each one will come as both a DuoSelect model and an Automatica model. The Automatica models are $1,250 more than the DuoSelect models (not including gas-guzzler tax and destination fees): the $112,500 Quattroporte, $122,400 Executive GT and $121,100 Sport GT.
This automatic transmission is a key technology for Maserati, which wants to grow much larger in the U.S. to help fulfill the 10,000-car production capacity of its assembly plant in Modena, Italy.
Maserati's ZF-built automatic is built to the same design as the excellent transmission we've already experienced in the BMW 3 Series convertible, and its fast, smooth shifts and crisp throttle response might make it the world's best automatic.
The Quattroporte Automatica places the shift lever properly close to your right hand. In proper European style, you push the lever forward to downshift to a lower gear and pull it back to upshift to a higher gear. Shift paddles mounted on the steering column are optional.
It's true, the hydraulic torque converter of the Automatica's conventional six-speed automatic transmission makes this Quattroporte a little less sporty than with the DuoSelect's six-speed servo-actuated automated manual gearbox.
But the Automatica's more familiar gear-selection procedure and the crisp yet friendly predictability of its shifts are just right for the American luxury-car buyer, who considers an ultra-suave automatic to be a birthright, not a privilege.
Major shifts for a new shifter
The Quattroporte DuoSelect and Automatica models wear the same Pininfarina-penned bodywork, but you can tell them apart by the Automatica's specific grille, wheels and badging.
While the DuoSelect features a rear-mounted transaxle, the Automatica's ZF transmission is mounted in the conventional location right behind the engine, and the propeller shaft that connects it to the rear differential requires some changes to the rear suspension subframe.
Maserati has also converted its V8 engine with its dry-sump oiling system and twin pumps to a conventional wet-sump oiling system with a single pump, a measure to make the Automatica's engine quieter and more comfortable for America, explains Maserati's Ronchi. The engine block and oil breather also have been changed.
Not just another V8
The 4.2-liter V8 itself has received some mechanical refinements, including new pistons and variable valve timing on the intake camshaft. (Maserati calls it a "continuous-phase speed change gear at the aspiration side.") While they were at it, the Maserati guys painted the valve covers of the Automatica V8 blue to complement the DuoSelect V8's red lids.
The Automatica V8 spins out 400 horsepower at 7,000 rpm, yet its internal changes help produce more torque at a lower rpm than the DuoSelect V8, some 340 pound-feet of torque at 4,250 rpm for the Automatica compared to 331 lb-ft at 4,500 rpm from the DuoSelect engine.
The additional low-end grunt helps offset the Automatica's 44 extra pounds of curb weight, although its taller, more fuel-efficient overall gearing makes the car slightly slower than the DuoSelect. At the same time, the Automatica gets almost 10-percent better fuel economy than the DuoSelect.
Still, the Automatica's ability to accelerate from zero to 62 mph in 5.6 seconds is no ugly achievement for a 4,400-pound luxury GT, and we can certainly live with the car's slightly lower top speed of 168 mph.
More important to us, the delivery of the V8's power to the Quattroporte's rear wheels feels unfettered by the automatic transmission, and forward thrust is accompanied by the same exhaust growl note that we loved when we first heard it in the DuoSelect.
Despite the heavier revised powertrain, the Automatica's weight distribution is biased toward the rear as before, though the 49-percent front/51-percent rear distribution isn't as dramatic as the DuoSelect's 47-percent front/53-percent rear. And as before, the engine and transmission fit behind the front axle, plus the top of the Automatica's wet-sump engine sits no higher in the bay than that of the DuoSelect's dry-sump engine.
All this adds up to a car that changes direction swiftly and easily. We felt little desire to explore the limits of the car's handling on the narrow country roads and crowded city streets of this part of France, but a few quick bursts of speed revealed the same responsive yet predictable dynamics we've always experienced in this Quattroporte.
The Automatica's suspension tuning is a bit softer than its sibling's, as befits a car designed for comfort, but we noticed it only when we pushed the car really hard into the corners in the Maritime Alps and some understeer encouraged us to back off the speed.
On the highway along the Côte d'Azur, the Automatica floated along like the best luxury barge until we encountered the customary bumper-to-bumper traffic. And that's when the Automatica's transmission fulfilled all its promise.
Che Bella...and beyond
Getting stuck in traffic is almost a pleasure in the Quattroporte. Even in its most basic form, the Maserati is a stunner inside, a luxuriously elegant place to be.
Naturally, a car that promises a higher degree of exclusivity right out of the box than, say, a Mercedes-Benz S550 or BMW 750i, must also offer embellishments far beyond the Quattroporte's standard Frua leather upholstery and brightly hued Tanganyika wood trim. That's why the Maserati workshops are prepared to fill almost any custom order imaginable, including new combinations of color, leather and wood trim.
The Automatica cockpit differs from that of the DuoSelect chiefly in the presence of the new transmission tunnel with its center console, which contains the shift lever trimmed in wood and leather, a switch for the new electronic parking brake and twin illuminated cupholders (still too small for a Big Gulp, though).
The console also features an ashtray said to be four times larger than before — very politically incorrect, but it's part of the car's unique appeal.
Blasphemy or blessing?
The Automatica might seem like blasphemy for a company that builds automobiles meant to involve you emotionally. But we think it's a blessing, even if somewhat of a mixed one. As we like to say, "Blasphemy is underrated; it's often good business."
The transmission is not perfectly suited to the Ferrari-bred power plant if instant pace is part of your driving style. Some upshifts in "Drive" mode are a bit lackadaisical, though the transmission does deliver the same delicious throttle blips during downshifts that we love in the DuoSelect's transmission. Also, throttle tip-in is too abrupt for the comfort levels promised by the transmission.
For most of us, though, the Automatica's ZF-built six-speed automatic is a better choice for everyday driving than the DuoSelect's automated manual gearbox.
In normal automatic operation, it shifts smoothly, almost seamlessly. Hit the button for the "Sport" mode and the transmission delays upshifts to 4,000 rpm and then holds a gear a bit longer through a corner to take advantage of the engine's torque curve. In manual mode, work the engine yourself with the shift paddles or console shift lever, or even let the transmission shift up at max revs.
As Ronchi laughingly admits, the Automatica returns the Quattroporte to its roots, when an Italian car with an automatic transmission seemed almost futuristic. It helps Maserati get the attention of Audi A8, BMW 7 Series and Mercedes-Benz S-Class drivers who might be looking for something fresh.
You could say the 2007 Maserati Quattroporte delivers the best of both worlds. Unfortunately, you'll have to buy both the Automatica and the DuoSelect versions to enjoy it to the max.
Edmunds attended a manufacturer-sponsored event, to which selected members of the press were invited, to facilitate this report.