By Alex Taylor III
July 19, 2010

After 96 years of engineering and design triumph mixed with disappointment and a series of parent companies, Maserati prospers today. And it has a new convertible to show for it.

Few marques can equal the racing heritage and just plain longevity of Maserati.

If feeling like you are a part of that history appeals to you, then you will find that it adds to the excitement of driving the Gran Turismo Convertible.

The Italian automaker was founded in 1914 in Bologna, Italy by the five Maserati brothers: Alfieri, Bindo, Carlo, Ettore, and Ernesto.

After constructing cars for a racing team for 12 years, the brothers went out on their own in 1926 and built the first Maserati.

The cars were known for their technology and balanced handling. They were so good they beat cars from big German manufacturers like Mercedes-Benz and Auto Union, and even won the Indianapolis 500 in 1939 and 1940. The legendary Argentinean driver Juan Manuel Fangio campaigned Maseratis in the 1950s.

Maserati retired from racing in 1957 after an accident at the Mille Miglia in which ten spectators, including five children, were killed, and turned its focus toward exotic road cars with names like Ghibli, Bora, and Berak.

In 1968, Citroen, the French manufacturer, took over Maserati. Citroen declared bankruptcy in 1974, and Maserati passed into the hands of racing driver-turned entrepreneur Alessandro de Tomaso.

An ill-fated joint development project with Chrysler to build a Maserati on a K-car platform (Chrysler TC by Maserati) was one of the low points of de Tomaso’s ownership, and Fiat group acquired the company in 1993.

Maserati was placed under the wing of Ferrari in 1997, but Fiat auto took it back in 2005 and merged it with Alfa-Romeo. In the second quarter of 2007, Maserati made a profit for the first time in 17 years.

Maserati engines are still built by Ferrari and the bodies are painted in Ferrari’s Maranello factory before being trucked back to Modena for final assembly.

The Gran Turismo convertible is the third entrant in the Maserati product line, which also includes a sedan and a coupe.

Exclusivity is assured. Maserati sold 1450 cars in the U.S. last year and expects to sell just 600 convertibles annually. With a base price of $139,700, including delivery, casual shoppers will be easily deterred.

The competition is equally exclusive. The Maserati convertible competes in a rarefied super-luxury segment against such brands as Bentley, Jaguar, and Aston Martin.

My test car (the only one in the U.S. at the time of writing and built to European specifications) came equipped with a leather-covered steering wheel, dashboard, and rear tonneau cover as part of a $4,600 option package. The pearlescent Bianco Fuji paint added another $10,800.

Total as-tested price: $155,900.

What do you get for this price besides bloodlines, history, and exclusivity?

Drop dead styling, for one. From its open-mouthed grille topped by the Maserati trident to the suavely proportioned rear fascia, the Pininfarina-styled convertible is one of the most eye-catching cars on the road.

Maserati has sensibly eschewed the current trend toward hardtop convertibles and stuck with canvas roofs. That eliminates the need for a widening of the car’s haunches to accommodate the metal roof and frees up trunk space.

It also frees up leg room for the rear seats. Maserati claims the longest wheelbase in its class and it shows. When the top is down, four adults can travel in relative comfort.

Inside, the craftsmanship is flawless, with beautiful leathers combining with fine wools. “Seriously tactile” is the way one discerning friend described it. The instrument panel is sensibly laid out and includes a modern video screen.

One surprise is the old-fashioned key-activated ignition. Somewhere in the Maserati archives there must be an elegant start-stop button that could be married to a modern remote switch.

Under the hood, the Ferrari-assembled V-8 engine produces 433 horsepower and rockets the car to 60 miles per hour in 5.3 seconds, making lovely raspy noises along the way. Its top speed is 176 miles per hour.

If the Maserati brothers are watching, they may be disappointed that racing is no longer part of the corporate manifest, but they must be gratified that their enterprise has survived 96 years and is prospering today.

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