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From the NYT:

http://www.nytimes.com/pages/automobiles/index.html

Maserati Quattroporte: Ciao, Bella: An Italian Opera in Four Doors
By TED WEST
Englewood Cliffs, N.J.

THEY took back my Maserati today. No, worse. They made me drive it to Maserati North America in New Jersey and surrender it. That wasn't easy.

In no more time than it takes to floss a healthy adult bear, my Maserati and I had become a couple. We shared matters of temperament and taste. We were intrigued by each other's personality, spontaneity, impetuousness - in computer-dating terms, we had ample cause to form a relationship.

I have a weakness for things Italian, and my Maserati Quattroporte - all right, it was a test car in my possession for just a week - was so Italian, it communicated with its hands.

In these homogenous automotive times, the ethnic motorcar has become seriously blurred. For German precision and reliability, we buy Japanese; for Japanese thrift at the cost of style, we buy from Detroit; and for Detroit pizazz and over-the-top performance, we go to the Germans.

Yet cars from Italy somehow remain defiantly Italian, in all their Verdian grandiosity. My Quattroporte (it means four doors) was proof.

Why "my" Maserati?

When we met, it looked me straight in the eye and, in a rich Bolognese accent, said: "My friend, if we are to get along, you must first learn some things about me. And if you do, I will make you feel stupendo!"

I'd been through this vetting process before. I remember sitting at a table in Perugia long ago trying to coil tagliatelle around my fork - no loose strands - without resorting to the silly soup spoon supplied for foreigners. The first time I succeeded, ah, signore, bravo!

How does the tagliatelle test apply to a Maserati Quattroporte?

Well, consider my experience in learning to use the six-speed DuoSelect transmission. Reflecting Formula One racing-car technology (sort of), it employs nothing so mundane as a shift lever or clutch pedal. Instead, two paddles are situated behind the steering wheel, one on each side. Pull the right paddle and you shift up a gear; pull the left paddle and you shift down. Leave them alone and DuoSelect shifts automatically, like your son's ratty Oldsmobile.

The good news: getting used to these paddles is intuitive. But remember I said that the Quattroporte has personality, to wit: operated in full automatic, DuoSelect will effortlessly guide you through the indignities of rush-hour stop and go. But dare to use the shift paddles and presto, you are deep in the complexities of la bella Italia.

What does that mean? Here is what it does not mean: If DuoSelect were German, operating a paddle would initiate 200,000 earnest binary calculations, after which the transmission would give you a patronizing nod and do what it was planning to do anyway. But if you flip the paddle on the Maser, it does just what you ask. So ask carefully.

On my first few tries, DuoSelect shifted like a bag of broken glass. Upshifting and downshifting to keep pace with the roller-derby of traffic outside the windshield, I got an assortment of surging, bucking shifts - tuh-thunk, tuh-thunk. This was upsetting, because the Quattroporte has the heart of a lion. Its 4.2-liter V-8 makes 395 horsepower and 326 pound-feet of torque, and the car rages to 60 miles an hour in 5.1 seconds. The government reckons fuel economy at a profligate 16 m.p.g. on the highway and 11 in town, accounting for a gas-guzzler tax of $3,700. And with the front engine set far back in the chassis and the transmission on the rear axle, the car has excellent weight distribution: 48 percent in front and 52 in the rear. The Quattroporte never met a curve it wouldn't romance.

Surely, then, such Italianate elegance should shift elegantly, too. It would be easy to say, naw, the thing's no good. Yet having long ago passed the tagliatelle test - no loose strands! - I knew that in matters Italian, some technique may be required. And the Maserati people had told me I would find some "tricks" driving this car, which sounded gratuitous at the time.

But after a day or two of tuh-thunk, tuh-thunk, I knew that the DuoSelect was a bit sluggish about matching engine speed with wheel speed as it shifted, accounting for the bucking and surging. I experimented by giving the throttle a crisp blip while downshifting, as you would with a manual gearbox.

Hey, smooth!

I even tried blipping the throttle while upshifting, which is illogical on its face. The engine shouldn't need to speed up when meeting a higher gear. But, hey, this is an Italian car. Sure enough, the shift was glass-smooth, and quick, too.

I continued to find finer and finer throttle-blipping subtleties at various engine speeds, and the Maserati came alive - athletic, agile, ready to dance on the head of a pin. All it asked of me was some touch and a little technique. Shifting became like driving the pedals of a pipe organ. I was playing the DuoSelect as if it were Puccini.

As promised, I felt wonderful. My Maserati wasn't a lovely diva with halitosis, but a lady of grace and wit - and she found me fascinating!

The Quattroporte's comforts were never in doubt. Designed for captains of industry who may also play polo, such a car decrees that rich is good but handsome is better. Its interior is straightforward, exquisite and blessedly simple. The combined audio and navigation system affirms that Maserati's goal is not a 500-page driver's manual but undistracted driving pleasure. You set the climate control with one or two jabs - revolutionary by the computer-blighted standards of today's luxury cars. And here is an Italian air-conditioner that overcomes the ugliest meltdowns of a New York summer.

Placed between the large, handsome, blue speedometer and tachometer, an information display tabulates gas mileage, average speed, fuel range and such. Steering-wheel controls regulate the stereo and the phone. (If you require a steering-wheel button that fluffs the pillows in your master bedroom or lowers the spinnaker on your sloop, Cadillac is working on it.)

The steering column tilts and telescopes to your needs, and the girth and grip of the wheel remind you that driving can feel good. Where the gearshift used to be, a tiny T handle grants access to reverse gear.

The seats in my Maserati (I'm not giving up without a fight) were black leather with gray piping. And because this is the kind of car meant for the kind of people who are meant for this kind of car (if you see my point), all four seats are power adjustable.

This is important. If your Quattroporte is to be chauffeur-driven, while you sit in the loges running the world, the rear seats are downright baronial. Call it the boardroom and be done with it. After adjusting your own seat (to arrive slightly higher than your lawyer's, to your left), you may then push what I call the ejection button. This wizard device slides the right-front seat forward, affording il patrone - you - the almost limitless legroom you so richly deserve. The front seats are for salaried staff anyway. Let them bump their knees.

For privacy, there is an electric deep-dark rear-window shade. Your lawyer will think that's so cool.

But this car is about more than sumptuousness: learning to use its DuoSelect is central to grasping its personality. This is above all a driver's car, one with which you must come to an "accommodation."

It put me in mind of a time long ago when I was hitchhiking in the Italian Alps, a fool's errand if ever there was one. I'd waited hours for a ride before, finally, a sleek Alfa Romeo Giulietta Sprint coupe stopped. The driver and his teenage son had the front seats, so I rolled up in a ball in the back - but after the long wait, I wasn't complaining. The driver was a classic northern Italian: tanned, with gray sidewalls, wearing flawless tailored tweed. Audrey Hepburn would've looked him over, twice.

He accelerated down the veering and swooping Alpine two-lane at full throttle, tires shrieking through every curve. We were flying. But it wasn't the driver's speed that intrigued me - it was his skilled, utter calm. The definitive Italian gentleman driver, he knew what he was doing every millimeter of the way.

My point? Today, he would drive a Quattroporte DuoSelect - fast and flawlessly, without a tuh-thunk in a decade.

Great Italian cars aren't for everyone, and not simply because this one costs $106,850. Financials aside, the Quattroporte is out of reach to many on philosophical grounds. A performance car that takes your measure, it expects skills possessed by people who care passionately about driving, and it rewards these skills with more involvement, more pure automotive character, than anything this side of a racecar.

But what of its idiosyncrasies, you ask. What of them? The ticks and oddities of great Italian cars endear them to their drivers. DuoSelect's manual mode not only gives you better control over engine speed and wheel speed than fully automatic shifting, you're also invited to practice a satisfying new technique.

The Quattroporte competes against six-figure megasedans like the Mercedes-Benz S600 and BMW 760Li. Maserati is selling some 1,000 of the cars annually in the United States, with another 1,000 finding buyers elsewhere in the world.

Two new versions of the car arrive for 2006, a more aggressive Sport GT and a more cushy Executive GT.

The Quattroporte beckons to those stalwart few who believe a car should have a soul. Such drivers love a car whose individuality is unmistakable. After all, the greatest human personalities are shot through with idiosyncrasies. Why not a great performance car?

INSIDE TRACK: Now that's Italian!
 

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Makes me want to run out and buy a QP.
 
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