From the April 2022 issue of Car and Driver.
The debut of a mid-engine supercar is always an event worth commemorating. Roll out a new car with a gnarly engine mounted somewhere just ahead of the rear wheels, and we’ll be scouring Google Maps for twisty roads quicker than you can say “The C8 Corvette democratized this whole category.” So when Maserati unveiled the 2022 MC20, we couldn’t let the occasion pass without smashing a figurative champagne bottle over the prow. By which we mean bring an MC20 to the most glorious, desolate roads we could find and see how it stacks up against the 2021 Porsche 911 Turbo S Lightweight.
“But,” you cry, as your blood pressure skyrockets and your dog runs away, “the Porsche 911 Turbo S is not mid-engined! I reject this premise!” Well, we’re sorry, but the 911 Turbo S resists easy categorization. Life is messy—sometimes two cars compete for the same customers, but one has its engine behind the rear wheels and the other just ahead of them. That difference aside, both the MC20 and the 911 Turbo S Lightweight use 600-plus-hp turbocharged six-cylinders and eight-speed dual-clutch automatics, and their base prices are close to each other. Plus, if you’re going to compare a new Maserati to anything, you may as well pit it against the reigning king of exotic-adjacent performance for going on 47 years.
The MC20 would seem a worthy challenger. With Ferrari cast out of the Stellantis empire, Maserati is the conglomerate’s Italian crown jewel, and it intends to start acting the part. To that end, the MC20 gets its own new engine, the Nettuno V-6—3.0 liters, 621 horsepower, and unique to Maserati. Its Italian bona fides run from the carbon tub (Dallara) to the seats (Sabelt) and even the sound system (Sonus Faber). Maserati’s Viale Ciro Menotti factory in Modena can build only six or seven cars per day; you will never see a screaming lease deal on an MC20. This is a new model, sure, but it’s primarily a declaration of intent.
The 911 Turbo is in its fifth decade of continuous development. This 992-generation S Lightweight embraces a few tricks from the GT3—lightweight aluminosilicate glass, rear-seat delete, fixed carbon-fiber buckets—to drop 89 pounds, making its 640-hp flat-six feel that much more ferocious. Which, you know, is exactly what it needed.
To find out whether the MC20 is ready to take on the 911 Turbo S (and thus, the world), we staged both cars on the California coast north of Los Angeles and headed up into the hills and high desert for a few days of Route 33’s blind corners, big climbs, and long, desolate straights. Turbos huffed, tarmac was tattooed with rubber, conclusions were reached. Will you be surprised?
2022 Maserati MC20
Highs: Striking looks, surprisingly comfy cabin, 207.6 horsepower per liter.
Lows: Performance numbers don’t match price, V-6 blat.
Verdict: A giant step forward for Maserati that would be even better with a little more power and less weight.
We wanted the MC20 to win. It’s the more interesting car and the unlikely underdog. The jaded denizens of Los Angeles, who’ve all seen three Veyrons and a Pagani by lunchtime, pull alongside to throw a thumbs-up. Kids linger in crosswalks to gawk. The valet will leave it right out front like a head on a trident, warning pretenders in lesser machines to head to the public garage down the street. And in the case of the Maserati MC20, almost everything else is a lesser machine.
Plenty of cars claim to deliver a race-car experience, but the MC20 really makes you feel like you’ve strapped into a Le Mans Prototype, from the theatrics of the dihedral doors to the view from the driver’s seat—the roofline encroaching like the visor of your helmet, a single wiper sweeping the windshield. The rearview mirror can show a video feed from a rear-mounted camera, which is nice, because the actual mirror somehow manages to capture the reflections off the rear glass, hence what’s in front of you rather than behind.
Digging into the throttle unleashes an auditory tsunami from the rear half of the car as the 3.0-liter V-6 sets about generating a staggering 207.6 horsepower per liter. Maserati’s new engine uses a novel (and patented) prechamber ignition with its own spark plug. At steady throttle, you hear what sounds like detonation, as if you caught a batch of 82 octane at the last fuel stop. But wind it up and that angry gurgle gives way to animated screes and chirps and huffy exhales from the turbochargers overlaid with a bass blat from the exhaust. It’s not the most dulcet harmony, but it’s certainly original.
And the power is there. Cue up launch control and the MC20 fights wheelspin on its way to a 3.2-second time to 60 mph and an 11.0-second quarter-mile at 131 mph. If those numbers don’t seem as otherworldly as expected from a carbon-fiber waif with 621 horses, blame off-the-line traction and weight. Maserati may say that the MC20 weighs less than 3307 pounds, but our scales showed 3757 pounds—200 more than the all-wheel-drive 911 Turbo S Lightweight. If you take launch control out of the equation, the MC20 and 911 are within a tenth of a second of each other in our rolling-start 5-to-60-, 30-to-50-, and 50-to-70-mph passing tests. Think of what the MC20 could do if it were as trim as Maserati claims.
On Route 33’s lumpy apexes, we were glad that suspension can be adjusted independently from drivetrain. Select Sport mode and you get sharp throttle response and a throaty bark from the exhaust, yet you can still dial up the most compliant suspension setting—perfect for real-world roads. But the Brembo brake calipers and carbon-ceramic rotors don’t really get working until the pedal nears the end of its travel. That makes for easy brake modulation in relaxed driving but doesn’t instill confidence when you’re going hot into a blind corner bounded by guardrail and blue sky. It is a brake-by-wire system, so carefully selected ones and zeros could improve the feel.
The Maserati’s cabin drew praise for its all-day-comfortable seats and apparent absence of Stellantis hand-me-downs. Trunks front and rear enable road-trip aspirations, though the frunk is about the size of a glovebox and used as such (the owner’s manual lives there). Even though Maserati’s sales goals are modest, the MC20’s appeal is broad. It can relax and do a reasonable impersonation of practical transportation, then spit flames and bash your head into the seat when that’s what you want. We love what this car says about Maserati and its newfound ambition. But it’ll need to keep striving to catch the 911 Turbo S.
2021 Porsche 911 Turbo S Lightweight
Highs: It’ll dust just about everything, kind of practical, looks like other 911s.
Lows: Costs $223,230, looks like other 911s.
Verdict: Your perception of speed will be permanently recalibrated.
Look, numbers aren’t everything. But the 911 Turbo S generates some of the most superlative digits we’ve ever seen. It gets to 30 mph in 0.8 second, hits 60 mph in 2.1 seconds, and dispatches the quarter-mile in 9.9 seconds at 138 mph. It pulls 1.14 g’s on the skidpad and outbrakes the MC20 from both 70 and 100 mph. One moment you’re stopped; 12.0 seconds later you’re doing 150 mph. That sounds like hyperbole, but it’s an actual stat.
On the third day of our test, a driver who began the day in the Porsche climbed into the Maserati and asked, “Is something wrong with the MC20? It doesn’t feel as fast as it did yesterday.” Technical editor David Beard replied, “There’s nothing wrong with it. Your butt dyno just got recalibrated by the Turbo S.”
He was right. The 911 Turbo S lives on its own planet, one with different rules and different gravity. And yet, this is no humorless automaton built solely to impress the VBox testing equipment. On a road like Route 33, it’s alive—involving, incredibly rapid, and benign all at once. You feel like you can climb in and immediately access 95 percent of its performance potential, which in most cases translates to “the quickest thing on the road, anywhere.” Compared with the pillbox Maserati, the Porsche has a panoramic forward view, its slender A-pillars framing the fenders and letting you know precisely where you’re placing those front wheels. You can choose your own gears if you want to, but chances are the dual-clutch automatic has already selected the ideal ratio on its own, leaving you free to sight down to the next corner and apply as much throttle as you dare.
This car is about having it both ways: The short wheelbase makes it nimble, while the rear-axle steering makes it stable. Sport Plus mode deploys a pavement-scraping chin spoiler; however, you can retract that and lift the front end in case you want to pull onto the shoulder to rip a U-turn and go for round two on a choice set of sweepers. The fixed-back carbon-fiber seats are as snug as an iron maiden yet somehow comfortable for hours. Between the front trunk and the rear cargo area (where a 911’s rear seats normally reside), there’s plenty of room for your stuff. And in the rare air of supercars, the 911 Turbo S even qualifies as a good deal—its as-tested price of $223,230 undercuts the MC20’s by $36,815.
The main knock on the Turbo S is that its relatively everyday looks don’t match the exoticism of its performance (and, okay, its price). The doors swing open in a conventional manner, like a Honda’s. There’s no GT3-style aerodynamic weaponry on display. The shape is the shape of more than a million 911s before it. Nobody acknowledges you, let alone congratulates you, at gas stations or in L.A. traffic. But that’s also a big part of the appeal. This isn’t a machine you take to Cars & Coffee to bask in reflected adulation. It’s one you drive right past that, up into the hills, to revel in speed and handling that seems scarcely plausible. If you want to unbind the shackles of gravity, forget a ticket to space. We’ve got your ride right here.
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