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Maserati MC Stradale hits the Pyrenees

  1. Evening closes in as I trundle out of the Modena suburbs, tweaking the seat and mirrors, getting used to the switchgear and satnav. Stop forthe autostrada toll-gate. Wriggle out of the four-point harness, reach for a ticket. Wedge back into the harness. Poke the Race button, which jams the exhaust bypass open and sets the gearshift to stun. Deep breath. Floor it.

    Words: Paul Horrell
    Photos: Joe Windsor-Williams

    This feature was originally published in the March issue of Top Gear magazine

  2. Woaah-bang-wooaaah-bang-wooaaaah-bang-woooaaaaaah-bang…
    and ease back to a cruise. Gently settling into that near-stasis, the humming
    of a clear, straight motorway, the hypnotic rhythm of lane markers pinging back
    under the car’s flanks. Flame-throwing rails of xenon light ahead,
    percussion-drilling spirals of V8 exhaust sound behind. Feeling that delicious
    moment as anticipation turns to gratification when there’s a long journey ahead
    of you and you’ve got a fast car and a full tank of fuel.

  3. Long? We’re off to Barcelona - out of Italy, clear across
    France and over the Pyrenees into Spain. Fast? A £109,995 Maserati GranTurismo
    MC Stradale has a roaring 4.7 V8, and is 110kg lighter than the regular
    GranTurismo S. It corners and stops faster, thanks to stern chassis settings
    and carbon brakes and new aero not entirely unrelated to the GT4 racing car’s.
    MC stands for Maserati Corse, the company’s race division. This is essentially
    a delivery job to Barcelona. We must be cheaper than trucking it. But no one’s told
    us what route to take. Wahey. Let’s make it 1,000 miles, taking some of the
    very choicest roads we know - and discovering some even more choice ones that
    we didn’t.

  4. Up the Po plain, the only sensible option is to hightail it
    on the autostrada. It turns out the Stradale can cruise. The steering’s
    high-geared but precise enough never to be twitchy, and the ride’s supple
    enough to take motorway cross-ridges in its stride. Looping north of Piacenza
    and south of Alessandria, I and it are becoming an item.

    Time to put some load into the tyres and dampers as the
    autostrada carves up and over the Ligurian hills, then down through the twisty
    tunnels alongside the Gulf of Genoa. And it’s fine - the steering precise and
    the body motions controlled, even as the fast turns coincide with rumpled
    tracts of roadway. At big speed, the aero presses it into its path with new
    resolve. And the tunnels? Windows down, exhaust back to the naughty position,
    drop three gears. The walls are probably still reverberating the harmonics as
    you read this.

  5. We roll out of Nice an hour before dawn, ready to be up
    through Grasse and onto the first section the Route Napoléon with the coming of
    the light. There’s mist beyond Grasse, but just as the last of the cluster of
    villages falls behind, we pop up into a pink-rimmed cobalt hemisphere of 7am
    sky, looking back down on the ocean of cloud.

  6. It’s an epic view, and the road matches it. In-between
    taking great gulps of its wonderfulness, you wonder how such a highway got
    there, and how come you’ve been left alone with its delights. Well, Napoleon
    wanted a secret route back from the coast to Grenoble on his way back from
    exile on Elba, so he took a lonely track over the hills to avoid the Rhone
    valley. In 1936, the French government built a high-quality Route Nationale
    along the same path, but nowadays they want you to take the autoroutes so it’s
    been declassified. On old maps, it’s the N85, but today it’s the D6085 and
    D4085. Good: this makes it less conspicuous to everyone else’s maps and satnavs.
    It begins with that series of uphill sweeps punctuated by hairpins as it
    zigzags to the sky, then steams like a theme-park ride through waves of jagged
    valleys and cols till you’re fair intoxicated on the rhythm of it all.

  7. The road loves this car, and it’s completely mutual. The
    long, wide, flowing contours of the GranTurismo’s bodyshell cast a big shadow,
    but the arched front wings give your vision a frame to aim through. The
    high-geared steering opens a window on flat, decisive cornering. It soon turns
    out that although this car comes with all the semi-track vernacular - aero,
    venting, carbon brakes, one-piece seats, cage and harnesses - it doesn’t come
    with the jitteriness that’s often the price. When the road goes damp, it still
    finds traction, and the cold tarmac doesn’t seem to be causing the tyres to
    shirk either.

  8. The engine eggs you on with every passing mile. The natural aspiration and instantaneous precision of the throttle make you the master of every little stiffening or relaxing of the push in your back. Output mirrors the rising revs too, so you always get the answer you expected. This is a quick car - 187mph and 0-62 in 4.6 - but not a shocker. Let’s face it: 450bhp isn’t such an unusual number these days. But if it were more powerful, you’d have fewer chances to enjoy its magical voice when you’re holding the tap right open.

  9. Some V8s have a frenzied racer’s nature, some are softly
    upholstered luxury movers, some are Italian and famously operatic, some have
    the bubba-bubba of an American motor. And then there’s this V8, which blends
    the lot of them in a band that should be riven with musical differences, but
    never is. Play the right foot, and you can bring all the various voices to the
    front of the mix. With the Auto button pressed, the exhausts are valved
    discreetly and it’ll cruise quietly and ease its way through town like a model
    citizen. But as it gets to work, and you press the Sport or Race buttons, the
    exhaust bypass opens, and the big-chested mid-range opens its way to a high-rev
    magic that takes a cascade of Stratocaster major chords and adds a distant,
    qualifying-lap howl.

  10. Compared with the normal GranTurismo S, the MC Stradale has
    only an extra 10bhp. The sums end up at 450bhp at 7,100rpm, and 376lb ft of
    torque. The gains come not from the usual method of burning more fuel, but by
    polishing away internal friction to burn less. So it’s more economical - well,
    I got nearly 18mpg in our 1,000 miles of hooning, and if that sounds bad,
    experience of cars like this tells me it isn’t.

  11. The engine is hooked to a pretty canny ‘box too. It’s
    rear-mounted for better weight distribution, but it always was. What’s new is
    that where Maserati’s early flappy-paddle manifestations were hesitant and
    hare-brained, this development can send each shift through in just two-thirds
    of one-tenth of a second. Bang. That’s at full throttle in Race mode. But
    actually on a light throttle, it still goes smoothly. Race mode also opens up
    the ESP to more slip, but over the course of the trip it proved itself
    subtle-acting and trustworthy. So by the end, Race became default.

  12. Peeling off the Route Napoléon at Castellane, we’re into the
    Gorges du Verdon, a scary 700m deep cleft in the landscape. The road that
    traces the gorge is little more than the scratch of a dinosaur’s talon halfway
    up the rock wall. This car is too big and too fast for a narrow still-icy road
    bounded on the right by unforgiving rock and on the left by terminal-velocity
    drops. Time to ease back and enjoy the view.

  13. There’s only one place where you can get to the French
    Mediterranean coast and be alone with your car and your thoughts. The Camargue,
    that marshy, salty, slightly sinister plain bounding the Rhone delta. But I’m
    not looking forward to it, because last time the mosquitoes had me for lunch,
    and the roads felt boringly straight. My fault for going in summer (mossies) in
    a rental-spec sub-60bhp supermini (roads). Today, I learn that in a Maserati
    with eight times the power, the gentle kinks turn into real corners. “I see
    they built you a race track,” says Joe the photographer.

    But race tracks are smoother than these broken and
    corrugated surfaces. Many track-biased cars take the huff, their steering
    shaken and traction brittle. Not this one - the surprising suppleness means
    it’s both comforting when you’re pushing it and comfortable when you’re not.

  14. Yesterday, I neglected the Alps because tomorrow I want more time in the Pyrenees. We sleep in Perpignan, but long before the night’s over, we’re aiming southwest and climbing. We soon come up behind a 1980-ish Alfa GTV at the end of the dual-carriageway section. This is clearly not a cosseted classic. It’s being driven pretty vividly by someone who clearly knows the road - never wasting an overtaking opportunity, braking seldom enough that when those red lights come on, you know there’s a proper corner ahead, then sailing through on a nice, clean arc. He’s got half my cylinders, half my tyres.

    I ought to be able to muscle past, but local knowledge counts where I’d be fumbling in the dark. Besides, he’s a pleasure to watch, and he turns off just as we get to the steep, twisting uphills where I can make use of the beginnings of daylight and the Maserati’s power and the trust I’ve gained in its steering and traction. Things are turning out better than we could have hoped.

  15. It’s still winter, but it hasn’t snowed for ages, so these
    lower ski resorts are shut and empty, and the road linking them has dried out
    under an azure sky. Towards and across the Spanish border at Puigcerdà, it’s a
    high, rolling plateau, with infinity vistas and wonderful, open-visibility
    curves. So we’re all set for a spiralling, oscillating, down-shifting,
    carbon-braked run off the mountains and down to the palm trees and buzz of
    Barcelona. In the city, it gets star treatment - double-takes and thumbs-up and
    phonecam-clicks from every quarter. It’s a looker all right, inside and out.
    Most of the track-bred elements sit nicely on the extravagant lines and decor
    of the stock GranTurismo. And so much the better for doing without some
    bolted-on plank of a high-level rear wing.

  16. But here’s the banana skin that it slips on. The GranTurismo
    is a big car, pretty well a full four-seater. The Stradale obstinately declares
    its quasi-track mission by doing without a rear seat. The test car even has an
    optional roll cage and unfeasibly inconvenient four-point harnesses. But the
    Stradale starts from the wrong place. True, it feels lighter than its 1,700kg
    kerbweight, but to make a lightweight sports car you wouldn’t honestly begin
    with something this big.

  17. You’re reminded of this conflict every time you use it. You turn round to reverse, and you see that spacious rear compartment rendered uselessly inaccessible by the cage. It’s like stretching yourself to buy a house in an expensive area and then filling the spare room with cheap junk. I’m willing to bet that once the two-seat version has established the car’s driving smarts in the minds of the world’s petrolheads, Maserati will quietly launch a rear-seat option. And it’ll be one of the great sport four-seaters of the world. 

  18. I know how great, because my mind is still full of the exact
    way that we came down off the Pyrenees. A road called the N152. At its start is
    a sign warning of double bends for the next 40km. And we passed just two
    vehicles along that entire straight-free length. These aren’t mountain
    hairpins, but wriggles of every radius in a new, smooth road that cleaves to
    the contour halfway up yet another gigantic valley face.

  19. I’m leaning onto the tyres with ever-happier confidence with
    each of those countless bends. Plipping the paddles for another few hundred
    flash-fast shifts. And bidding an endless goodbye to the perfect-precision
    mechanisms of its engine as it magnetises itself to the upper end of the rev
    counter, its many voices creatively remixed by the rock walls. I’ve found my
    new favourite road. How I could not love the car that found me it?


    Engine 4.7-litre, V8, 450bhp @ 7,100rpm, 376lb ft @4,750rpm
    Performance 0-62mph in 4.6 seconds, 187mph max speed
    Transmission Paddleshift six-speed manual
    Weight 1,670kg

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