First Drive: 2022 Maserati MC20

First Drive: 2022 Maserati MC20



The 2022 Maserati MC20


© Provided by Driving.ca
The 2022 Maserati MC20

I have no idea what “semi-virtual” steering is. Oh, I know what “virtual design” is and, indeed, I think I have a pretty accurate grasp of what a feat of engineering it is that 97 per cent of Maserati’s new MC20 supercar was supposedly created virtually, none of that clay modelling and physical suspension testing needed or wanted. But the “virtual” in design — using a complex, digitally-generated mathematical model called Virtual Car and customized by Maser’s own computer boffins — is not at all the same thing as the “virtual” in the steering mechanism.

Perhaps something got lost in the translation from Italian to English, and the company meant “virtuous” (though I suspect even a non-English speaker would have known better to attach the “semi-” prefix). Maybe it’s some sort of new computer control of camber and castor that Maserati wants to keep secret. Whatever the case, like I said, I have no idea what semi-virtual steering means or what it does.

But I certainly can vouch for its effectiveness. Toodling — or, more accurately, strafing — along Ojai, California’s famed Highway 33, the MC20’s steering is everything a supercar should be: light, yet precise; responsive, yet stable; and direct, yet not at all twitchy. I may not know what the “semi-virtual” in its steering is — and, having checked online with all the other scribes that have penned treatises on the MC20, it appears I am not alone — but I can certainly appreciate what it does, rendering the MC20’s steering as fine as anything wearing the Prancing Horse or Raging Bull.

It also handles just as well as the competition and once again, believe it or not, it’s due to something “semi-virtual” as well. This time it’s the suspension, and I think I have an inkling as to what Maserati means in this case, namely that the shock absorbers are semi-active. In other words, the MC20’s suspension varies its damping according to the mode it is in — Wet, GT, Sport, and Corsa — as well as the size of the bumps and the speed at which it encounters them. Yet again, however, I may not be completely sure how said damping works, though I can stipulate that the suspension is amazing. In GT mode, the MC20 all but emulates the very best of gran turismos — Aston Martins’ DB11 and Audi RS7, to name but a couple — with controlled, yet compliant, damping. Nothing in the mid-engined world, not even the McLaren GT, softest of the “everyday” supercars, can match its day-to-day ride comfort.

But, dial the Maser into Sport or Corsa mode, and roll becomes almost nonexistent, the steering I lauded earlier even sharper, and the grip from the front pretty darned amazing. Indeed, in this regard, the new Maserati most resembles Ferrari’s long-gone-but-certainly-not-forgotten 458, whose front end was the four-wheeled equivalent of a 600-cc superbike. The MC’s front sticks like glue no matter how deep you brake into switchback, a feat even more modern Ferraris — the 488, by way of example — can’t match. Grip from the front Bridgestone Potenza Sports is nothing less than extraordinary. The tail may wag and the rear 305/30R20s will eventually start sliding, but the front 245/35R20s will never capitulate.

There’s more virtual design in the MC20’s chassis, which, unlike Ferrari — whose designers doesn’t deign to carbon fibre at this price point — is a McLaren-like carbon fibre tub. As tough as nails and solid as the proverbial rock, it’s the perfect platform for the almost-perfect suspension. Designed by race car specialist Dallara, the MC’s carbon-fibre tub takes “virtual” customizability even one step beyond the English marque’s advanced design, not only creating a separate centre chassis for the forthcoming Spyder version (with more torsional rigidity to compensate for its roofless design) but also a completely different tub for a promised battery-powered, fully electric version of the MC.

Little has been revealed about the BEV version, other than its performance will at least match the gas-powered version, and that thanks to the virtual design of its tub — the changes will add even more rigidity as well as protect all those lithium ions — and the low centre of gravity thanks to a floor full of batteries, the handling I so laud in this fossil-fueled coupe might even be better.

For now, however, we must make do with the MC20’s take on internal combustion. And what an engine it is. The highest-tech ICE engine in the supercar realm, Maserati’s new Nettuno 3.0L V6 is the first piston-powered powerplant to incorporate the same pre-chamber combustion technology that powers Formula 1 engines. A (much-)advanced version of the two-chamber design that powered old Honda CVCC engines, the goal is much the same. At low loads, firing a small prechamber — rather than the entire combustion chamber — allows ultra-lean fueling for reduced emissions (just 262 grams of CO2 per kilometre) and consumption (Maserati claims 9.4 L/100 km on the highway). Mat the throttle and it’s all hands on deck with both fuel injection systems — direct injection feeding the main combustion chamber, a lower-pressure “indirect” system supplying the prechamber — and two big turbochargers kicking in max boost.

Now, I’m not sure if the Nettuno is virtually designed or if it’s spent thousands of hours of a dyno. But I do know that it’s the first internal-combustion engine Maserati has designed all by its lonesome — i.e. without any Ferrari input whatsoever — in the last 20 or so years.

That makes its exemplary performance yet another incredible accomplishment. Foot to the floorboard, there’s 621 high-revving horsepower available at its peak, and 538 grunty pound-feet of torque down low. In between, there’s immediate throttle response and linear power production, a rarity in turbocharged supercars which are all wait — then wait some more — and then a big bang. Despite this comparative civility, Maserati claims the MC20 has the best power-to-weight ratio in its segment — just 2.4 kilograms for every one of those 621 hp — thanks to its lean 1,496-kilogram curb weight. Certainly, it easily mustered all the power I was willing to direct to the rear wheels. Indeed, this is rock-slide season in California and the 33 was festooned with pebbles and dust, which means that, despite Maserati’s traction control being on full alert, it was sometime a struggle to keep the rear wheels in line with the front. The lesson to be learnt is that six cylinders are not a performance liability if they are designed with F1 technology.



 The 2022 Maserati MC20


© Maserati
The 2022 Maserati MC20

There’s one last point I’d like to address before I move along to the new Maser’s price point and its sole downside. Some wonk — unnamed, unfortunately — at Top Gear criticized the MC20’s Nettuno V6 for not being as sonorous as a Ferrari. Well, here’s the thing; until you move all the way up to the recent SF90 Stradale, even Ferraris don’t sound like Ferraris these days, turbochargers being really good at the physics of internal combustion, less so with its aural attributes. So no, the Maserati doesn’t sound like a Ferrari.

But it does sound a lot like a miniature Bugatti, all huffing turbo impellers and wastegates. You can literally hear the air being pressurized as the revs build and then an audible blowing off of steam, as the engine seems to breath an audible sigh of relief from having to deal with a whooping 29.0 psi of piston-stressing turbo boost. It may not scream like a 458, but emulating a Veyron at full chat is no bad thing either.

There’s one last surprise regarding all this supercar goodness. The MC20’s base price will be $248,209. Yes, in Canadian loonies. As seemingly nonsensical as calling a quarter of a million dollars “affordable” may seem, the only mid-engine supercar — besides Chevy’s C8 Corvette, which is long on the mid-engine, but a little short on the “super” — is McLaren’s GT, essentially the lowest form of continental exotica. The F8 Tributo, the Ferrari whose performance Maserati says the MC20 so closely emulates, will set you back a cool $360,000. That’s a whopping $110,000 less for something that might not only be quicker, but is also probably better looking to boot.

There is a price to be paid for this relative affordability and that is an interior that tends to the ordinary. Oh, the materials are first rate, the leather and suede of top quality. And you can dress it up with copious amounts or carbon fibre. There’s also, as Maserati sales people will surely point out, some dramatic tri-colour badging of the MC20 nameplate garnishing the dashboard.

Nonetheless, compared to the ornateness that is a typical Lambo, Ferrari, and even McLaren, the MC20’s interior is, well, a bit common. The infotainment screen — powered by Maserati’s versions of Chrysler’s excellent Uconnect system – is unceremoniously tacked onto the dashboard. The mode selector knob is colourful, but hardly ornamented. I think I might not have noticed, however, had the steering wheel been a little more, shall we say, elaborate. But, despite Maserati’s contention that there was no parts-bin raiding for the MC20, its steering wheel switchgear — cruise control buttons et al — looks suspiciously Jeep-like. Compared with the ostentation of a Ferrari steering wheel by example — and admittedly, not all of the 488’s many coloured little buttons are useful — the MC20’s looks more than a little banal. Even the “Launch Control” — surely a function that deserves some glamour — looks ordinary.

At least the eight-speed dual-clutch trannie’s paddle-shifters are made of real aluminum, but they don’t dress up the steering wheel nearly as much as it deserves to be. Considering that that is the part of the MC that the person behind the wheel — and presumably they who paid a quarter of a million bucks for that pleasure — see most, I think a little money to dress it up would have gone a long way.



 The 2022 Maserati MC20


© Maserati
The 2022 Maserati MC20

Interior décor aside, the MC20 is nonetheless truly a feat of superlative engineering, that accomplishment made all the more amazing by the not-inconsequential fact that Maserati doesn’t actually have all that much experience in supercars. In fact, almost none at all. Oh, to be sure, they have Italian sporting pedigree coming out the wing-wang. But almost all of that genealogy comes in the form of Gran Turismo coupes and sedans. Oh, and there’s been race cars: the 250G that Stirling Moss later claimed was the best front-engined F1 car he ever drove; the 420/48 “Eldorado” (also piloted by Moss); and my favourite, the world-famous Tipo 60 “Birdcage,” the car that was so much of the reason I got into engineering almost a half-century ago.

But, as for the mid-engined supercars — the staple of cross-town competitors Ferrari and Lamborghini — there’s been but one, the rare-as-hen’s-teeth MC12 that was built in incredibly small numbers — 50 road-legal units, to be exact — in 2004 and 2005. That’s it. C’est tous .

All of which makes the MC20’s bona fides all the more incredible. That its engineers were able to make something so good with 97 per cent of that virtual design I mentioned is, like I said, impressive. That they were feeding that algorithm parameters and coefficients with so very little experience of what it is that makes a supercar super, well, that makes the MC20 incredible.