Made in Maranello: 3 cars, 1 engine

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Bartek S.

Alfa Romeo 8C Competizione, Ferrari 430 Scuderia, and Maserati GranTurismo
By Georg Kacher

The doctors from the triangle formed by the towns of Modena, Maranello, and Arese did a splendid job. With the help of scalpel, pacemaker, stent, and bypass, they created three remarkably different versions of one base - but by no means basic - V-8 engine. The three powerplants were implanted into three emphatically different sports cars: the stunning Alfa Romeo 8C, the virtually sold-out ferrari 430 Scuderia, and the stylishly understated Maserati GranTurismo. How does the heartbeat differ in the three thoroughbreds? The only way to answer that is to drive all three.
SPEC SHEET, PAGE ONE. V-8 with a cylinder angle of 90 degrees; 104-mm (4.09-inch) bore-to-bore spacing; block and head made of aluminum; four valves per cylinder; four overhead cam-shafts; electronic fuel injection. These are the common ingredients. But just as every mama has her own pasta-making secrets, each otto vu has its own distinct characteristics. Three chefs tweaked the same recipe for maximum differentiation and individuality: Jean-Jacques His from Ferrari, Jonata Azzali from Maserati, and Pino d'Agostino from Alfa Romeo. Each adapted the apertures in the ribbed cylinder block, determining a key element for power output, torque, and revability. Alfa secured the biggest bore (94.0 mm) and the longest stroke (84.5 mm). Maserati makes do with the smallest pistons (92.0 mm) traveling the shortest distance (79.8 mm). Ferrari opted for the middle ground, at 92.0 and 81.0 mm. Although short-stroke engines are particularly eager to rev, Ferrari's engineers posted the most ambitious redline - 8500 rpm. The Maserati and the Alfa will spin to 7500 rpm.

The Italian V-8s are more athletic and more high-strung than their big-block counterparts from America. They address the libido directly through one's auditory canals and are perfect models for a bedroom poster. But beneath the showy exteriors, the three V-8s exhibit very distinct characteristics.
The Maserati doesn't excite as expertly as do its counterparts. After all, the armchair strategists decided to equip the GranTurismo, the heaviest car in the group, with the least powerful engine. But a fix is already scheduled for this fall, when the 4.7-liter V-8 will find its way into the GranTurismo. Another idiosyncrasy is the absence of dry-sump lubrication. We aren't worried about losing a bit of oil pressure through super-fast corners or a couple tenths of a second on a racetrack due to the slightly higher center of gravity. But what about the loss of charisma and credibility? To the Maserati fraternity, the switch to a conventional sump must be about as sobering as the switch from a wind-up to a quartz is to watch aficionados.

Alfisti can't make up their minds whether to single out the remarkable engine or whether to adore the 8C as the brand's most complete sports car since the Tipo 33 Stradale. The chassis was in essence provided by Maserati, which had enough components from the now-defunct Coupe in its parts bin to help furnish 500 examples of the limited-edition 8C. If the Coupe sounds like 2002, it also feels a bit like 2002. On a polished circuit such as Alfa's Balocco home ground, the 8C is a splendid mix of inspiration and intuition. On pockmarked back roads, however, the Alfa can display agitation and articulation. The short wheelbase, the unyielding spring and damper setup, and the steamroller-inspired twenty-inch wheels add up to the mother of all conflicts of interest. Over rough roads, directional stability is hectic and vague, traction is dished up in coarse slices, roadholding and grip suffer from occasional black spots, and handling is marred by latent outbursts of lurid oversteer. This sounds like the death penalty for the 8C, but the overriding impression is in fact that of a huge challenge, one that our children's children will talk about. The proper way to access the Alfa is by tightening the reins, switching off stability control, and breaking in the car with a heavy right foot. Like a Porsche 911, the 8C loves to be pushed, and like the Porsche, it calls for careful modulation and moderation.

Although the Maserati GranTurismo could do with more muscle and sharper responses, its relaxed attitude is in line with the typical behavior of a classic grand tourer. When all three contenders give their best, a gap is bound to open between the GT and its blood brothers, but it won't widen to a point where it becomes embarrassing. The Maserati's six-speed automatic takes a little longer to jump from cog to cog, and the substantial weight is a handicap in roller-coaster hills and through third-gear kinks and quick esses, where it requires a bit of patience. The occasionally dramatic body roll necessitates a bigger dance floor, and yaw is always liable to deflect your intended path when you least expect it.

Unfortunately, the GranTurismo lacks the riveting, last-minute brakes that the Alfa and the Ferrari enjoy. That's another reason why the Maserati prefers skating to carving: one line, one momentum, one radius, ideally with no second thoughts. Instead of revving the V-8 to the limiter and making stability control work overtime, thus overcooking the tires, the driver who understands his Maserati will try to soften the radii, realign apexes, and adjust gearchanges accordingly. Without a whip and spurs, the GT is remarkably quick. It's only through tight corners that the GT will invite you to waltz.

The Ferrari, on the other hand, is perfectly docile and easy to drive. Its predecessor, the 360 Challenge Stradale, was made for fearless leadfoots with spinal discs made of titanium. The new model is totally different, thanks to Michael Schumacher. The world champion must have grown tired of constantly fighting Ferrari's rawest road car, because he recommended a more compliant adjustable damper setting with a softer comfort mode, which works in all positions of the manettino (the steering-wheel-mounted switch that controls the interplay between powertrain and chassis). But soft doesn't mean spongy, woolly, or indifferent. Soft means more control and more stability on less-than-perfect pavement. Of course, there comes a stage where undulation and compensation no longer correlate. But until this zone is reached, the 430 displays a sensational mix of velocity and controllability. What further cements our confidence in this car are the sharp steering, the quick gearbox, and the strong carbon-ceramic brakes. And the otherworldly grip varies according to the manettino position from "all guardian angels on deck" to "watch this - I can fly!" The best compromise is CT-off, which idles traction control but not stability control, so you get all the wheel spin but with yaw movement kept in check.
In addition to sense and sensibility, every supercar relays a certain dose of senselessness. Examples from this trio include the Alfa's token trunk, the Maserati's compromised back seats, and the Ferrari's superslippery metal footwell. Theoretically, the Scuderia should make less sense than its more practical and pragmatic stablemates, but this is not the case. The 430 has the roomiest-feeling cabin (at least for the driver and the passenger), the most supportive seats (they are comfortable, too), the best outward visibility (OK, the rear-three-quarter view is bad), the best balanced suspension, and the least confusing ergonomics.
Our Scuderia came with contrasting double rally stripes that look pedestrian and cost extra. The GT suffers from unsupportive seats, poor packaging, and a noisy suspension. The 8C is a relatively tight fit, and it's too macho in the NVH department. In terms of overall user-friendliness, the Ferrari almost matches the Maserati. It's a pity, however, about the astronomical running costs.

All three exhibit appalling fuel-economy figures, too, but excessive consumption doesn't yet seem to be an issue in the Italian kitchens, where gluttony is the rule and asceticism is the exception. In the sports car league, premium primarily equals performance, and that's what you get plenty of here. Neither the Ferrari (0 to 62 mph in 3.6 seconds, 198-mph top speed, according to its maker) nor the Alfa Romeo (0 to 62 mph in 4.2 seconds, 181 mph) nor the Maserati (0 to 62 mph in 5.2 seconds, 177 mph) are short of urge and brio. Among these V-8s, maximum torque varies only moderately, from 339 to 347 lb-ft, which corresponds to between 4750 and 5250 rpm. All three engines lack direct injection, turbo- or supercharging, new combustion methods, and innovative strategies such as cylinder deactivation. The increasingly popular dual-clutch transmission is also conspicuous by its absence, but the 430 Scuderia and the 8C both feature rear-mounted transaxles - in the interest of weight distribution - and boast remarkably rapid servo shifts and handy fingertip activation. The Gran Turismo employs a traditional, comparatively lazy automatic, but at least it changes gears smoothly and progressively.
Sadly, Italy isn't quite the driver's paradise it used to be. Mushrooming industrial parks are swallowing one fast road after the other. Motor-ists seem to be primarily interested in talking on their cell phones or programming their portable GPS systems. The increasingly short-tempered cops will flag you down even if your car is painted rosso corsa, talks through a melodious exhaust, and squats on Pirelli's fattest rubber. These are a sign of the times.

After sampling the glory of the country's finest motorcars, we decided to pop the cork of a lovely light Lambrusco and propose a toast to our three musketeers. The prize for the most pragmatic proponent goes to the Maserati, which we would rather buy with next year's 4.7-liter engine. The award for the most irresistible prima donna goes to the Alfa, which might celebrate a comeback in 2009 as the 8C Spider and an encore in 2010 as a decontented, beefed-up Superleggera. The trophy for the ultimate blend of power, poise, and perfection is reserved for the 430 Scuderia, which costs almost as much as Ferrari's V-12-powered 599GTB Fiorano and is almost as desirable. The red thread that unites these three super sports cars is the otto vu, a remarkably versatile powerplant. It's so versatile, in fact, that this year it'll see its fourth iteration, in the all-new, front-engine, two-plus-two Ferrari.

Techtonics: Pedigreed V-8s
At the beginning of this decade, Ferrari engineers designed a new 90-degree V-8 engine architecture with the flexibility to power their own prancing stallions, as well as sports cars from Alfa Romeo and Maserati. Adjusting bore and stroke and dressing one common block casting with different valvetrain, intake manifold, and lubrication systems resulted in three unique engines. The 104-mm bore spacing is also shared with Ferrari's 65-degree V-12.
The key feature that distinguishes Ferrari's 4.3-liter V-8 from its cousins is a crankshaft with throws spaced at 180 degrees instead of the usual 90 degrees. The benefit of this approach, drawn from racing-engine practice, is a consistent 180 degrees of crankshaft rotation between the power pulses in each cylinder bank. (The intervals between power pulses in a 90-degree V-8 are syncopated, varying among 90, 180, and 270 degrees.) The extra space between the Ferrari's intake and exhaust surges facilitates tuning the manifolds for better breathing and greater power. It also yields a blood-boiling 8500-rpm battle cry that prompts involuntary reaches for one's wallet.
The major downside of a 180-degree crankshaft design is that there's no ready way to balance second-order shaking forces. That hardship is less of an issue in the Ferrari, because its engine is located behind the driver and is bolted securely to a transaxle that helps damp vibration. The Alfa and the Maserati have their engines sited ahead of the cockpit, where commotions are more likely to excite the steering column and the floor surfaces. Furthermore, the Alfa's transaxle is at the opposite end of the vehicle, so it can't help damp vibration. Hence, in the interest of smoother, calmer power delivery, Alfa and Maserati's V-8s are both equipped with 90-degree crankshafts.





Wow, the Scuderia looks so roadhungry in that pic!
But I'll have the Alfa here I think.
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