The MC20 Is Unlike Any Other Maserati Before

Can Maserati conjure its gilded past? We search for answers on the California coast.

The MC20 Is Unlike Any Other Maserati Before
Benjamin Rasmussen

On an impeccable road, my car pointed at the California coast, in a squall of engine and exhaust noise, the sucking of the turbos, the rushing air, screaming brakes, suspension thumping as it loads onto hills, I start to hear a weird sound.

This story originally appeared in Volume 11 of Road & Track.

It isn’t the engine, a compact and fascinating twin-turbo V-6 with a name all its own—Nettuno, Italian for Neptune, the god of the sea. And it isn’t the big carbon-ceramic rotors (a $10,000 option), which do everything I ask of them if I press hard enough on the demanding brake-by-wire pedal.

When you’re driving a $258,000 Maserati MC20—a wonderful, entirely new two-seat supercar from a company that needed a big swing—at this speed, on a road that is perfectly suited to this class of car, a part of your brain is always listening. For pleasure, for trouble, for surprises—especially surprises.

Turns out the sound is the photographer, Ben Rasmussen. In my driving zone, I’d forgotten all about him, strapped into the comfortable Sabelt seat with his Nikon camera and its baseball-bat-size 500-mm lens. There’s not much room inside the two-seat Maserati, especially considering how big the car actually is (it’s longer than a Chevy Corvette), and Ben is getting tossed around as he vies for a good shooting angle.

The MC20 Is Unlike Any Other Maserati Before

The redwoods of Big Sur attract as many annual visitors as Yosemite National Park. Plan accordingly.

Benjamin Rasmussen

The sound is Ben laughing with pleasure. As uncomfortable as he is, he knows as well as I do that I have found the road, and it is the road that we all dream about, that we think we see in glossy photos on wall calendars and Instagram feeds of adventurous influencers: winding over hillocks of heather, with banked turns, off-camber surprises, deep dips, and hair-raising crests.

The kicker: The tarmac is brand-new. It is impeccable. I could eat off it. The new Bridgestone Potenza Sports touching the road have never felt anything like it.

This is the road trip we all lust after. The Pacific Coast, up to Big Sur and Carmel and Monterey. I make it every August for Monterey Car Week and the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance. For me, Car Week and the trek to the peninsula are an annual pilgrimage, as important as religion is to some. The only problem with that week is the roads are clotted with slow tourists, ravenous highway patrol, and just too many people. This trip is off-­season. The roads are mostly empty. This is my time.

You, my fellow lover of cars, might be forgiven if you look at the Maserati MC20, with its svelte roofline and lack of obvious aerodynamic elements, and get a taste of its terror-inducing clean-sheet, (mostly) one-off twin-turbo V-6, and ask: Where in the hell did this car come from? We’ve become accustomed to Maserati churning out mild if elegant, stylish if forgettable models for, well, my entire life. Back in the Eighties, when I first started reading car magazines, I remember seeing an evisceration of the notorious 1984 Maserati Biturbo in the pages of this very publication.

The MC20 Is Unlike Any Other Maserati Before
Benjamin Rasmussen

Maserati is one of history’s great racing marques. Its race cars have won the Indianapolis 500 and multiple European championships as a factory team. Fangio was a Maserati driver. But the company’s involvement with the sport ended after the 1957 Mille Miglia, when Alfonso de Portago, driving a Ferrari 335 S, lost control in a village and killed himself and 10 spectators—including five children. The carnage led Italy to ban racing on public roads, and the Maserati factory program threw in the motorsport towel for generations to come.

And so the marque slouched into a phase of perennially underachieving luxury car, a victim of the oil crisis, European economic collapse, and a variety of other woes. Its series of subsequent owners, including Citroën, De Tomaso, Fiat, Chrysler, Ferrari, and various combinations thereof, didn’t do it any favors. The Ferrari regime saw Maserati through some of its leanest years, foundering in Ferrari’s dark shadow, an underappreciated stepsibling. A rousing Quattroporte and a serviceable Gran Turismo are the hallmarks of this era. And Ferrari’s ownership resulted in Maserati’s first racer since 1957, the excellent MC12, which was built on the Enzo’s platform.

The MC20 is the liberation for Maserati, finally free from Ferrari, with new owner Stellantis ­writing some substantial checks to make it ­possible. Stellantis and Maserati wanted to introduce a halo car, with its own engine and a carbon-fiber monocoque, something beautiful to change the conversation.

The MC20 Is Unlike Any Other Maserati Before
Benjamin Rasmussen

And so Maserati hired Matteo Valentini as the car’s chief engineer. He would run Maserati’s first in-house engine program in two decades, and he began work on the Nettuno from plans drawn up in 2018. This new engine became a collaboration between the Maserati Innovation Lab in Modena and its Engine Hub, which offers bespoke dynos, workshops, and assembly areas. The Nettuno’s design and prototyping were carried out under one roof, supported by suppliers.

The MC20’s design presented a unique challenge: a mid-mounted layout in a monocoque built by Dallara in nearby Varano de Melegari, which would also have to accommodate an electric drivetrain when Maserati transitions to EVs.

Valentini also needed a low, aerodynamic roofline, which constrained the available space. All downforce-generating aerodynamic measures would be moved beneath the car.

“This focused development on a compact six-cylinder architecture,” Valentini said, and also required a dry sump system with scavenge pumps and an external oil tank. The net result is an engine that can be mounted 150 millimeters lower in the chassis without compromising ground clearance.

The MC20 Is Unlike Any Other Maserati Before
Benjamin Rasmussen

“We analyzed a lot of different engine architecture solutions because we had to fit a very compact package,” he says. “But the V-6 90-degree architecture is the best solution to achieve the lowest center of gravity and it met all the packaging ­constraints and the [targeted] power-to-weight ratio.”

The company claims it’s “100 percent Maserati,” though Road & Track did a deep analysis of the parts and discovered overlapping geometry and inspiration derived from the Ferrari F154 V-8 and Alfa Romeo 690T engines, both cousins of the Nettuno.

At the end of the day, who cares? This little engine produces 621 hp at 7500 rpm and maxes out at 538 lb-ft of torque at 3000 rpm. Ben and I open the dihedral doors and slide into the comfortable seats, from which I survey a surprisingly roomy interior whose only concession to being a supercar is a lack of cup holders. The engine cracks to life, and as I roll onto Interstate 5 out of Los Angeles and hammer the throttle, the power hits the 305/30R-20 Bridgestone Potenza Sport rear tires in a very adult fashion. The sound and fury generated at those levels are absolutely nuts. This is unlike any Maserati I’ve ever driven. It’s unlike any Maserati anyone has driven, for that matter.

The MC20 Is Unlike Any Other Maserati Before

Soaking in the drama of the PCH is all about finding the right time to drive—and avoiding the wrong times. Either way, it’s worth the hassle.

Benjamin Rasmussen

I’m deeply ambivalent about disclosing the location of the best driving road in California. Some of you might know of it; others may be hoarding it like me. After all, there are a finite number of veins that run between the monotonous I-5 artery and the Pacific Coast Highway. We all know about Route 33, which begins in the lemony enclave of Ojai and winds up through the Los Padres National Forest. It is legendary. Less legendary is a road that crosses 33 in the town of McKittrick. This road has no intersections. It is concealed by hideous tracts of oil derricks and slow-moving petrotransporters.

I take I-5 to McKittrick, and when I arrive, the fuel tank is half full. I can make it, I think. It’s only 40 miles to San Luis Obispo. And so I come to a stop sign at the start of Route 58, switch the drive mode from Sport to Corsa, take a breath, and nail the throttle. I flip through the gears, one after another. The Tremec TR-9080 dual-clutch eight-speed is the exact model used in the C8 Corvette, and it operates with dramatic effect, snapping smoothly as I hit that juicy 7000-rpm zone in search of all the horses. The scenery shifts from arid plain to green Scottish hills to ponderosas.

The MC20 is a complete redefinition of the Maserati narrative, a return to an era no one would have thought possible. Of course, it still makes those luxury sedans, and people still love them and buy them. But after a furious, hysterical hour pounding along 58, the Bridgestones and the aero and the engine all come together in a theatrical performance of anything anyone could want from a supercar. It is a sensory delight.

The MC20 Is Unlike Any Other Maserati Before
Benjamin Rasmussen

I nearly ran out of gas. Before reaching San Luis Obispo and the slowed traffic of the PCH, I was averaging 7 miles per gallon in Corsa. The ribbon of road that travels from SLO to Carmel is the most dramatic and photographed in the U.S. Even still, dropping the MC20 back into Sport mode and falling in line with the traffic, it’s a bit of a letdown. But the MC20 is a comfortable cruiser, like any Maserati, really, and the carbon-fiber monocoque didn’t transmit too much of the road to my lower back. It’s a pleasant car for a Sunday drive.

We finally reach Big Sur and the spooky canopy of redwoods, live oaks, and cottonwoods. I’m spending the night at the Ventana, which is a reach for me, but is a resort that should be on any road-trip bucket list. Over a dinner of beef tenderloin at the Ventana’s Sur House, I watch pelicans fishing 1000 feet below. The MC20 is a first-of-its-kind car, but it’s also a last of its kind. Like so many sports cars, it will be electric before you know it. Part of me is lamenting the loss of the screaming Nettuno; maybe the same voice quietly wonders why it didn’t pack a V-8 to start with.

But Maserati has done something special with this car, something that would have been unthinkable 10 or even five years ago. It has reclaimed a nearly 100-year-old sporting heritage and built a car that can run with the best in class.

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