Thirty seconds into my introduction to the 2014 Maserati Quatttroporte Q4, we were all four wheels off the ground.
I've been all four wheels off the ground before – a few times of my own volition – and it requires a certain level of commitment. My relationship with the Maserati was so new, I wasn't given the chance to form any kind of bond, let alone one that would give me the requisite confidence needed to attempt such a manoeuvre.
As the Maserati came back down to earth, I realized that the only objective evaluation one could make of a car that's just been flying through the air is how well it lands. The acceleration of the car, its braking, handling, steering feel: all of these measures are largely – no, scratch that – all of these measures are entirely irrelevant under such circumstances. A car is good if it lands well; a car is not good if it doesn't land well. Simple – just like an airplane.
For the record, the Quattroporte landed well, surprisingly well considering it's a substantial, 1,930-kilogram sedan intended for squiring passengers to La Scala and not ripping around a racetrack. Following this acrobatic and aeronautic manoeuvre, we landed and tore off in the direction of a tight right-hand bend. I gripped the door handle ever tighter and glanced sideways at the driver. I wanted to gauge precisely how crazy he might be, but his dark sunglasses put an end to that notion. He was smiling, though, not that this revealed any worthwhile insight into the man.
The man was Alex Fiorio, former World Rally Championship (WRC) driver who began his career for Lancia during the notorious Group B era. To any aficionado of rally racing, there is the Group B era and there is nothing else. Punctuated by the bravest of drivers and the most rabid of fans, the period from 1982-86 was also crazy. (Swing by YouTube, type "Group B rally" into the search window and prepare to be either shocked or terrified, depending on your predisposition.)
In the days since his retirement from the WRC in 2002, Fiorio has become a team manager in the Italian championship and an instructor at the Maserati driving school (alongside another famous former racer, ex-Grand Prix driver Ivan Capelli). On this day, Fiorio had, seemingly, also taken on the role of flight captain at the Circuito di Balocco, a test facility 80 kilometres west of Milan.
Built in the early 1960s by Alfa Romeo, the place has since been taken over by the Fiat group and is used for testing all manner of vehicles. The facility is a network of test tracks and race circuits, 65 kilometres worth in total, some of it meant to approximate real roads complete with lane markings and stop signs. It's not a unique concept – I visited Ford's similar Michigan Proving Ground in Romeo years ago – but the Italians definitely have their own sense of style when it comes to these things.
The technical briefing on the Quattroporte took place in one of the many historic buildings on the grounds, all of them marked by distressed red brick walls and red clay tile roofs. All save one, that is: In the lush courtyard, a glass-walled, modernist structure serves as a dining room for more formal occasions. We took our "informal" lunch in the courtyard just outside the briefing room; it was a catered affair, presented with a level of care that heaped shame on every other meal ever to be called a barbecue.
Italians: They know from food.
They also know from performance cars, it turns out. Prior to that spectacular lunch, I had the chance to sample the 2014 Maserati GranTurismo MC Stradale on a drive route surrounding the Balocco test facility. While I was expecting this European-spec version of the Maserati grand touring coupe to be a watered-down version of your typical Ferrari, this presumption was wide of the mark.
Sure, the MC Stradale features a 4.7-litre, 454-horsepower V-8 built by Ferrari at its HQ in Maranello. No, on paper, the Maserati is not a match for even the mildest offering from its corporate cousins – the time to accelerate from 0-100 km/h takes 4.7 seconds, for example, and the car's terminal velocity is less than 300 km/h. But these numbers mattered little.
The engine loves to be revved and, when combined with the direct-shift automatic transmission (which is unavailable on the North American version) and a fantastic sport suspension system, the net effect is a kinetic driving experience.
Over and above these incredible mechanical attributes, the MC Stradale is as sinister-looking a production car as you're likely to find on the road today. The race-inspired touches include a front splitter, carbon fibre hood with central air intake and 20-inch forged alloy wheels. The visual impact is tangible.
For sheer style and supreme road presence, though, the Maserati MC Stradale plays second Stradivarius to the 2014 Maserati GranTurismo MC Convertible. The reason: The soft-top version has the same curvy silhouette and the same underpinnings as the coupe, but its less overtly aggressive nature meshes better with the idea of la dolce vita. Drive through any Italian village at low speed with the top down and you'll be greeted with the admiration once reserved for Monica Belluci.
But the superstars of the show on this day were the brand-new Quattroporte, the first all-wheel-drive vehicle from the Italian manufacturer, and the ex-rally driver putting the car through its paces. Coaxed along by a lead-lined foot, the Maserati showed genuine composure; the AWD system produced prodigious cornering grip and a tendency to perform tail-happy slides at the limit – impressive. One quick lap of the circuit with Fiorio at the controls and it was my turn to take over.
Soon after getting behind the wheel, it became clear that the Maserati was, at minimum, matching many of the standards set by the best German sports/luxury sedans. The engine note was sufficiently seductive and for good reason; the Q4 features a twin-turbo V-6 with 404 horsepower under foot, making this one of the fastest V-6-powered sedans in the world.
The car's eight-speed automatic transmission is supplied by ZF and is a component shared by a number of luxury brands. In the case of the Quattroporte, though, it has been calibrated for quicker shifts – 40 per cent quicker than in other applications, according to Maserati.
The finely tuned drivetrain served to compress the track's straightaways, while the extremely well-balanced chassis made quick work of the corners. The AWD system is aided by a mechanical rear differential and a torque-vectoring brake system at the front wheels that has been honed to a fine point. If there's a weak link in the handling setup, it's the steering, which suffers from weighting that can be unpredictable depending on vehicle speed.
Such minor criticisms aside, the Quattroporte Q4 impressed – as did the other cars, the food, the proving grounds and the experience of riding shotgun with Alex Fiorio. La dolce vita, indeed.