Feature: Maseratis Ultimate Drive Experience
Owning an Italian sports car is an experience in itself.
But, for most, actually experiencing the true performance of their machine is near impossible.
Sure, they can soak in the sumptuous hand-crafted leather, listen to the glorious soundtrack of the engine purring away and feel the immediacy of the connection to the road underneath them while crawling through congested inner-city traffic or cruising at Australia’s maximum highway speed.
But that is like opening a bottle of Penfolds Grange and only sniffing the cork, or buying an expensive suit just to watch television in it. Australia is not the sports car playground that Italy is, where driving enthusiasts can easily escape into the Alps or slice along the edge of the Mediterranean on some of the world’s greatest roads, where speed limits arent as draconian and where other motorists smile, rather than sneer, at a car wearing a badge with a prancing horse, a raging bull or Neptune’s trident.
Thankfully, top-end Italian brands like Ferrari, Lamborghini and Maserati create their own playgrounds in Australia and host a variety of exclusive events where owners can flock together and experience the full potential of their machinery.
Recently, we participated in what Maserati calls The Ultimate Drive Day Experience at Sydney Motorsport Park to, well, experience what its customers experience.
The invite-only event is only offered to existing Maserati owners - or potential new customers that could be coaxed to lay down their cash - meaning the price of entry is at least $125,000, which is how much the most affordable Maserati costs with the entry-level Levante SUV.
But this is well beyond a grubby day at the racetrack, as Maserati decks out one of the garages as if it was a VIP lounge, complete with luxurious couches, shelves filled with books on the storied history of the brand, it’s racing heritage and glamorous cars while, in another corner, a barista offers Italian coffees to jump start the day. The pitlane has also been transformed into an al fresco lounge so participants can kick back and soak in the on-track action in comfort - and the shade.
The day begins with Glen Sealey, the COO of Maserati Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, giving an overview of Maserati, highlighting its unique place as a brand focused on style and craftsmanship with rapid yet comfortable cars created for grand touring rather than purely neck-snapping speed. Sealey also points out Maserati’s recent growth since the arrival of the Levante, the company’s first SUV, and forecasts how that will continue with a broader model range in the future, which will include the high-performance, V8-powered GTS and Trofeo variants due late in 2019.
Then, as per normal, participants are given a comprehensive overview and safety briefing of the activities ahead of them by Maserati’s chief driving instructor, Renato Loberto, who then introduces his team of assistants before splitting the group into three.
The first exercise is on SMSP’s skid pan, where a hulking black Quattroporte limousine and simmering red Gran Turismo coupe await, reflecting on the saturated surface.
Here, it’s all about showcasing the effectiveness of electronic stability control in slippery conditions with a series of donuts around a circle of safety cones, first with ESP fully engaged, which ensures either car remains faithfully stable by cutting power and clamping individual brakes to keep it travelling in the intended direction of travel, and then in the Sport setting, which relaxes the point of intervention to allow a degree of lateral slip.
Both work perfectly well, but the most fun part of the lesson happens when ESP is disengaged and the nut behind the wheel - not the computer - has to tame the beasts, which descends into a dance of sideways drifts, and the occasional spin-out.
The Quattroporte GTS, surprisingly, is the easier of the pair to drive with its tail hanging out, owing to its longer wheelbase and the low-down pulling power of its 390kW/710Nm 3.8-litre twin-turbo V8, whereas the Gran Turismo is sharper and snappier, and its naturally-aspirated 4.7-litre V8 needs the tacho needle spinning close to its 7500rpm ceiling for maximum torque.
The next exercise is a basic cornering test using SMSP’s tricky turn two hairpin section to fine-tune elements such as braking, vision, traction and pin-pointing the optimum racing line.
This is done in the smaller Ghibli sedan, another Quattroporte, and an open-top Gran Cabrio - each of which requires a different approach to nailing the exercise; the Ghibli offering the best balance while the Quattroporte requires patience to manage its mass in the middle of the corner and the sharper Gran Turismo needs more precise inputs.
The last exercise in the morning is away from the racetrack and on the dirt, which is an environment you wouldn’t normally see a Maserati. But the Levante isn’t like any of its low-slung siblings, which becomes evident as soon as we engage its off-road mode and the air suspension lifts the body higher off the ground in order to tackle a series of steep descents and inclines on SMSP’s four-wheel drive course.
Despite being fitted with road-biased Pirelli P Zero tyres, the Levante is amazingly competent over the rough stuff, using its electronic hill descent control function to maintain a steady speed down a sandy 30-degree descent and a soft throttle map to access the twin-tine-turbo V6’s low-down torque for a fuss-free climb back up to the top.
While it’s highly unlikely you’ll see a Levante among Toyota LandCruisers, Nissan Patrols and the plethora of four-wheel drive utes being used by off-road enthusiasts out in the bush, or on the beach, but here it has proven that it will go well beyond the boundaries of Mosman and Toorak where most currently reside.
With each of the three exercises given an hour, participants are afforded plenty of opportunity to experience the cars, and their capabilities.
Upon their completion, the three groups are wrangled back together for a superb lunch by Giovanni Pilu from the award-winning Italian restaurant Pilu on Freshwater in Sydney’s northern beaches.
Thankfully, there’s no sign of a rich desert at the end as the remainder of the afternoon is spent hot-lapping through the collection of cars on the full Grand Prix circuit, combining the critical elements from the on-track exercises in terms of vision, braking, cornering, accelerating and racing lines to really experience the full performance of each model.
There is an obvious Maserati strand in the DNA of the Levante, Ghibli, Quattroporte and Gran Turismo/Gran Cabrio twin that links them together despite their physical differences.
The Levante is - perhaps not surprisingly - quite a sporty machine out on the track, its Pirelli P Zero tyres providing plenty of grip and the taut Sport setting in its suspension managing to control its high-riding body through the corners.
The Quattroporte is a rocket ship down the straights when it can unleash the full fury of its torque-laden V8, but it feels more cumbersome than the smaller, more agile Ghibli in the bends and the Gran Turismo and Gran Cabrio sound glorious at full noise, their old-school naturally-aspirated V8s wailing at over 7000rpm.
While none are proper track-day machines, all are fast without being intimidating and all are comfortable while being extremely capable.
It’s that middle ground that makes a Maserati both engaging and yet liveable, and while their best attributes are more accessible and can be enjoyed more often than other Italian sports cars in everyday environments, there’s nothing like a day at the track to appreciate what they can truly do.