Three hairpins into the Austrian Alps, it hits you-there are sport sedans, and there's the Maserati Quattroporte. Maserati claims to have invented the sport sedan category in 1963 with the very first Quattroporte. But calling this car just a sport sedan seems to sell it a little short. Sink into one of the forward bucket seats and it's evident the car holds more sporting proportion and predisposition than most executive-league sedans. It rides as comfortably as a limo if you're in that mindset, but start stomping on the gas, thrash it into a few corners, and the feel and overall control become extremely un-limo-like.
The S iteration is brand new for 2009. Chief among its revisions is the 4.7-liter V8 power unit originally developed in last year's GranTurismo sport coupe. The extra half-liter of displacement pushes peak output to 425 hp and 361 lb-ft of torque and improves the zero-to-60 elapsed time to 5.3 seconds. This is linked to a six-speed automatic with Normal, Ice and Sport functions. Predictably, Sport is the more aggressive of the three; specific transmission control software was developed to enhance power delivery at low and medium engine revolutions. Do-it-yourself mode is surprisingly crisp, will hold as much rev as you want, and will let you wind the V8 all the way up to 7200 rpm before upshifting. Gear changes may be controlled using either the central gear selector or by Alcantara-accented paddles on the steering column. The wheel itself is also derived from the GranTurismo and features a comfortable, sculpted design that lets your hand fall easily into the pistol-grip nine and three sections with easy finger access to the shift paddles.
New seats are designed to be snugger and "more cosseting"-although I'd have liked to have had tighter lateral bolsters on some of our test roads. Even so, the basic seating position within the Quattroporte says more sports car than luxo-barge. Pedal positioning is especially impressive, the gas and brake inputs positioned close enough together to make you wish for a manual tranny so you can execute the old heel-toe... alas.
Instrumentation has been updated with new graphics, and the new Bose multimedia system features proximity sensors that enable the head unit to react as your hand nears the controls, pre-empting the user with stereo or navigation presets. Other improvements to the cabin include color-matched interior trim. I'd also point out that the Maserati offers material and trim quality as good or better than anything else in production. Even what would be standard black plastic in virtually any other car has a soft, rubberized texture in the Quattroporte. Every surface is a pleasure for the fingertips.
The S uses a signature Skyhook suspension with continuously adjustable electronic damping, along with anti-dive and anti-squat geometry to prevent the chassis from pitching around on hard braking or acceleration. And the exterior has also been updated with elements carried over from, yes, the GranTurismo, like the vertical slats in the grille, a more aggressive front bumper design, LED-accented active headlamps, and streamlined side mirrors.
In an exploding exotic car market posting historically unheard-of sales figures, Maserati maintains a relatively low profile and modest business outlook. Keeping brand elusiveness and low-production exclusivity intact seems just as important as accelerating sales numbers. And the Quattroporte isn't a car that necessarily fits any one class, but one positioned to do battle as an alternative to a wide range of competitors, from the basic luxury sedan segment dominated by the Mercedes S550 and BMW 750i, to the "hyper-sport" segment populated by cars like the CLS63 AMG and BMW M5. The S even serves to close the power gap with such V12-equipped heavy hitters as the BMW 760iL and Mercedes S600, although Maserati brass is quick to point out that their main focus isn't necessarily to go toe-to-toe with the V12 market.