Los Angeles Times's view

THE Maserati Quattroporte is the most beautiful, best-handling super-sedan on the planet. Oh, if that were only enough.

This effortlessly gorgeous hunk of Italian swank, this sinister spark from coachbuilder Pininfarina’s grinding wheel, ignites envy and major car-jealousy wherever it lands. To drive one is to know the feeling of Roman senators plotting against you. Big and inexpressibly masculine, broad and low, with a rising rhythm from nose to tail and perfect isometric tension, the QP has a self-possession and – lan that makes its six-figure, four-door competitors – Mercedes-Benz AMG S-class, Audi S8, BMW 760Li – look like prison dentistry.

But then, looks were never this car’s problem. Neither was exclusivity. With about 1,500 QPs sold in the U.S. last year, these cars are spread as thinly as Spartans at Thermopylae.

Nor were driving dynamics. The QP is, after all, the four-door bastard son of Ferrari. Ginned up at a time when Maserati was owned directly by Maranello, the QP feels, smells and handles a lot like one of the Prancing Horses, which is to say: fierce, heroic, surgically precise, magically delicious. Assembled in Maserati’s old brick factory in Modena, powered by a Ferrari-built 4.2-liter V8, and sharing suppliers for things like brakes and leather, the QP seemed the answer to a tifosi’s pagan prayer: Ye gods, send me a Ferrari at half the price and twice the doors.

Trouble was, Maserati followed the Ferrari blueprint a little too closely in the original QPs when it installed an automated manual gearbox, a paddle-shifted six-speed transaxle like that in a Ferrari F430 Modena. These race-inspired cog-changers are perfect in extreme sports cars – to hear the wail of an F430 throttle-blipping through automated downshifts is to weep great covetous tears – but the Maserati’s transmission (called DuoSelect) didn’t have half the refinement it needed for an executive-class sedan. Sure, when you drove the car hard, the gearbox performed sensationally, but unless your hobby is transporting organs on ice between hospitals, the appreciation curve was precipitous. Meanwhile, the around-town Automatic mode was a balking, stumbling horror show.

The result: Despite hosannas from the enthusiast press, ultra-cool product placement on shows such as “24” and “Entourage,” and owners such as Nobel-winner-in-waiting Bono, the QP has been a sales dud.

The cure comes in the form of the QP Automatica, a new model with a conventional six-speed automatic transmission – a wonderful and transparent alteration that merely required Maserati to re-engineer the whole flipping car. The DuoSelect is a rear-transaxle unit, while the new ZF-supplied automatic is bolted to the engine up front. Not only that, but the Maser’s longitudinal-mounted V8 is set well back behind the front axle line, so there wasn’t a lot of room to work with. No one knows how much it cost Maserati – and its new paymaster, Fiat – to retrofit the automatic to the QP, but when you start monkeying with floor pans and engine mounts, adding interior gearshift consoles and subtracting rear transaxles, you start spending real money. For the record, Maserati says the delay in bringing the automatic was that ZF didn’t have a unit that could handle the V8’s 7,000 rpm.

Was it worth it? I’m not sure. The QP Automatica is infinitely easier to drive around town. Stick the wood-trimmed gear shifter (with a bronze trident on it) in D and be done with it. The throttle tip-in feels a little abrupt, so it takes half a day to educate your right foot, and the gearshifts aren’t as fluid as those of an Audi or BMW, but it’s no big deal. Similarly, parking is a breeze, whereas the DuoSelect’s Reverse gear was an adventure. Well, I say parking is a breeze; that’s discounting the fact that this car has the turning radius of the Bush White House.

It still feels like a QP. This car, which weighs nearly 4,400 pounds, is sprung pretty tightly, with a stiff, trembling low-ride ride that is quintessentially exotic. What’s Italian for “bleeding kidneys”?This car just does not want to give up much wheel travel to road imperfections.

Out on the mountain roads, the magic returns full force, and it’s clear that the QP’s suspension – with the Skyhook adaptive damping system – works better when it’s getting exercised. One of the most astonishing things about the QP is its steady-state cornering grip – better than 1 g. This car just hangs on like Bob Barker. Our test car was rocking the finest alloy rims and Italian rubber: no-profile 19-inch Pirelli P-Zeros. With its slight rear-biased weight distribution (51/49 rear/front), the QP’s turn-in behavior and transient responses are superb. The steering is heavy but precise, the brakes unequivocal. This is wide-receiver agility in a linebacker body.

And yet, for this class and price, you’d have to say the QP has defensive end speed. The car’s 4.2-liter, naturally aspirated engine puts out 400 horsepower, which is by no means shabby except when compared with the 507 hp of a Mercedes-Benz CLS55 or the 450 hp of the Audi S8. Also, trannies have their own liabilities, the first of which is that they tend to swallow low-end torque, of which the high-spinning V8 has little to spare.

The net is that, for all its corner-carving heroics, the QP feels pretty soft at full throttle. My wife has the “butterfly index,” which refers to the fluttering of excitement she feels when a car accelerates hard. The QP is low on butterflies. I put 0-to-60 mph acceleration at 5.5 seconds. It isn’t until the car is fully on the cam – say, fourth gear, 100 mph, at 4,900 rpm – that it feels and sounds like its old, raunchy self. This thing should sing at La Scala.

The trouble with the QP is that, while the company scrambled to correct its out-of-the-gate mistake with the DuoSelect, the rest of the car was locked in development amber. The nav system, for instance, is CD-based, not DVD-based, and it feels really primitive compared with the class of the field. QP drivers will forgo the pleasures of iPod and Bluetooth. There is no smart-key available, no power trunk closure, no road-following headlamps.

What the QP lacks in technology, it almost makes up for in grace and character. The company has a wonderful selection of inlaid woods, leathers and seat piping colors. And you have to love the little touches that tell you this car is meant to corner, hard and often. The cup holders, for instance, have the grip of a Marine recruiter.

Peculiar? Let me count the ways. First off, in the tranny’s sequential shift gate, upshifts are down (toward the driver) and downshifts are up, unlike every race car I’ve driven with a sequential box.

The panel illumination has two controls for no apparent purpose. There are two ways to release the parking brake, a lever and a button. The dash display has a seat comfort mode for driver and passenger, for those times when you simply must know what’s going on with your passenger’s lumbar region.

Does the QP look good and drive well? Does Karl Lagerfeld have weird hair? The QP’s biggest challenge is that it has given away its three-year head start in the four-door premium sports car market. Now, just as it’s getting sorted, Aston Martin is coming with its divine Rapide, and Porsche is readying its Panamera. Meanwhile, the panache of the Ferrari connection has been dimmed now that the company has reverted back to Fiat ownership.

As a company, Maserati was always painting bull’s eyes on its own feet, so at least it’s being faithful to brand history. I think the grand but troubled QP is troubled still.

2007 Maserati Quattroporte Automatica

Base price: $116,000

Price, as tested: $130,000

Powertrain: 4.2-liter, 32-valve DOHC V8 with variable valve timing; six-speed automatic transmission with manual-shift mode; rear-wheel drive

Horsepower: 400 at 7,000 rpm

Torque: 339 pound-feet at 4,250 rpm

Curb weight: 4,387 pounds

0-60 mph: 5.5 seconds

Wheelbase: 120.6 inches

Overall length: 198.9 inches

EPA fuel economy: 14 miles per gallon city, 19 mpg highway

Final thoughts: Easier, but not easy

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