Magnifico Maserati
When I was growing up in Reno, Nev., I had one of the coolest friends ever.

His father worked at the Harrah's Automobile Collection (now the National Auto Museum ), which had one of the premier antique automobile and race car collections in the world.

After closing time, my friend's dad let us climb in and all around the cars.

I remember walking around in the back of a custom Rolls that Queen Elizabeth II gave Bill Harrah for the collection, and a powder-blue Ferrari that Harrah was giving his bride-to-be, Bobby Gentry. (It had a small silver plaque on the dash that said: "To Bobby with love, from Bill.")

But the real thrill was getting close to the exotic European racing cars, like Bizzarini, Lamborghini, Alfa Romeo and Maserati.

And now, decades later, I have the chance to drive a modern day descendant of such a car.

Over the past few years, there's been a trend to bring consumer versions of autos with a vintage racing lineage into the U.S. One of the most recent contributions is from Maserati.

An Italian Job

Fiat ( FIA) took controlling interest in Maserati in the early 1990s, eventually selling the Maserati company to Fiat's Ferrari division.

In 2002, the Maserati brand returned to the U.S. market with its flagship sedan, the Quattroporte.

This auto was first designed by Pietro Frua in 1963, as a high-performance car melded with a premium sedan.

The Quattroporte may be called a production consumer automobile, but it bears no similarity to mass-produced vehicles: Each car is made at the Maserati factory in Modena, Italy, using low-volume production techniques which combine high-tech process with traditional handcrafting.

The current American incarnation of the Quattroporte comes in three flavors: Quattroporte, Quattroporte Executive GT and Quattroporte Sport GT, and retails for roughly $120,000.

Sergio Pininfarina designed the exterior -- a sleek, stylish Italian body -- and the interior has all the treats you'd expect in a European luxury auto.

I'm 6'3", and the cockpit still felt comfortable and spacious, and all controls are within easy reach. Amenities -- such as full-leather tray tables for laptop use, and heating, cooling and massage settings for the front seats -- would help make even sitting in traffic relaxing.

And if you feel that you need to make a more personal statement, the Officine Alfieri Maserati personalization program lets you create your own interior from a choice of four million color and material combinations.

But of course, the raison d'etre for this car is the power plant.

All three variations of the Quattroporte use the same 4.2 liter 32-valve 390 hp engine, a direct descendant of the V8 used in Maserati's 450S racer (driven by teammates Juan Manuel Fangio and Stirling Moss in countless races in the '50s). Even though you're in a luxury sedan, you can definitely hear and feel that ancestral engine roar.

With a top speed of 165 mph, the V8 delivers peak torque at 4750 rpm, and redlines at 7500 rpm. It goes from 0 to 60 mph in 5.1 seconds, a feat not matched by many four-door cars.

On the highway, I felt a remarkable amount of reserve power at 80 mph; tap on the accelerator, though, and you jump to 100 mph almost instantly.

Road stability is superb as well, as the Maserati stability program and transaxle layout help you hug the curves at high speeds, without any feeling of pitch or roll.

Paddle to the Metal

The most unique feature of the Quattroporte, however, is its six-speed electro-hydraulic Maserati duoselect transmission.

Commonly called "paddles," after Formula racing gear boxes, the gearbox has three modes: manual (semi-automatic), sport (full manual) and automatic.

As soon as you start the car, the system selects the automatic driving mode.

However, using the paddle shifters mounted directly behind the steering wheel, you can manually select a specific gear without deactivating the automatic mode.

Or, for complete control, you can move the console mounted shift button to manual, and move up and down through the gears using the paddles.

Getting used to the paddles takes a little while; it's far easier if you're used to a standard gearbox and understand rpm's relationship to shifting.

Once you get the hang of it, however, the paddles are very simple to use.

And when in the semi-automatic mode, the transmission not only prevents redlining but also downshifts into first gear when coming to a stop.

But because it doesn't employ a torque converter, the fully automatic mode doesn't really have the feel of a good automatic transmission like in a BMW or Lexus. (This mode probably exists on the Maserati so someone who can't drive a car without a slush box can take it out without panicking.)

Hop In

Michael Mastrangelo, General Manager of the Wide World of Cars dealership in Spring Valley, N.Y., said that last year Maserati sold about 2,200 cars in the U.S., well above their goal of 1,800.

In a plan to be more fully embraced by the U.S. market, though, Maserati is introducing a fully developed automatic transmission in the country this coming spring.

But you wouldn't get this car to drive around in fully automatic mode.

You'll get it because you want the power and handling of a true Italian Gran Turismo sport racing descendant, and to experience that special feeling you get every time you start up that engine.



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Russell Dean Vines is the president and founder of The RDV Group Inc., a New York-based security consulting services firm, and a bestselling author. His most recent book is "Phishing: Cutting the Identity Theft Line," published by John S. Wiley and Sons.