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e r t Thea r i A n e Op

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Pictures Khaled Termanini,

Nothing assaults the senses like a convertible supercar. Dimitri Pesin lifts the lids on the three hottest drop-tops around: the Maserati GranCabrio, Ferrari California and Audi R8 Spyder

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he last time I saw this sort of panorama, it was glaring at me from a thick, glossy holiday brochure. The sky is crystal clear and cloud-free, turning from an inky blue at its top, to a hazy orange in the horizon. This particular horizon is made up of the Dubai skyline. Lucidly lit up by the setting sun, it glimmers in the twilight. The water shimmers and is more navy in hue than a Photoshopfiend could ever muster, and just to the left of the picture postcard view in front of me is a skydiver descending onto solid ground on the other side of the waterfront, the parachute gently crumpling as it falls at his back. Just behind him is the propellor-powered light aircraft, diving earthwards to land. Shortly afterwards, just as a perfectly calm and cooling breeze blows by, a sailing boat flows into view. This is the kind of image a travel agent brochure is made out of. Yet that image is now live, in all its multidimensional, warm, high definition glory. It’s not often you come across a city view that leads you to simply stand and stare as you refrain from blinking for longer than usual, absorbing what’s coming through your pupils. If you could box this view and sell it to the tourism board, you’d probably be able to retire the next day. Dear Wife/ Friend/Other: Wish you were here... etc.

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We’re at Dubai’s Palm Jumeirah, of course, on one of the ‘branches’ that curve round the water back towards the coast of the UAE. Few other spots in the city could afford such a view. And what makes it even better is the trio of convertibles sited in the foreground of this living postcard. Like the rare alignment of a solar eclipse, this couldn’t be a more appropriate moment to cast three drop-tops. It’s the beginning of the day's end and the tail-end of October - a period that leads into the cooler winter months for the GCC. And not forgetting that we have the most in-the-moment motors, the most exciting trio of convertibles, all basking in the sunset like it was a profession. A picture worth a thousand words? More like a thousand dollars. Or five hundred and thirty six thousand, to be exact. When bunched up in a few square metres of concrete, somehow the eye seems to momentarily pass the California and GranCabrio and naturally fall on the R8 Spyder. It’s a striking, compact, semi-futuristic design that’s oh-so hard to ignore. The R8 may be three years old now, but it’s almost like with the removal of the roof, Audi has given it a whole new look. Every line flows neatly into another. The eye seems to float from nose to tail rather than dart about the details. It’s just right. So is the Maserati. Its sleek, elegant lines make it more feminine, but it’s none the worse for it. It

Right: could there be a more fitting background for these three? Above: folding tops all store neatly in each respective car's rear compartment; all look better with roofs down

‘Like the alignment of a solar eclipse, there couldn't be a more appropriate time to cast three convertibles’

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GR ANCABRIO v CALIFORNIA v R8 SPYDER just has a calmer, Italian-style flair that’s created by the longer body, an extra pair of protruding headrests and the exterior aluminium touches. Top up though, it isn’t as coherent, the canvas lid clumsily meeting the rear section, almost like a toupee sat awkwardly on a bald head. The California? The California’s smiling nose has hints of the 612 Scaglietti about it (that’s not a plus, in case you’re wondering) and the rear seems bulky and somewhat lacking coherence. There is just a hint of cool about it, but really, Ferrari hasn’t produced a truly good-looking car in yonks. While the R8 Spyder isn’t classically beautiful (side on, the front section looks too light) but there’s no denying it’s the most arresting. It’s the panty-dropper of the three. But enough of the pulchritude. When you ignite the 26 cylinders that contain over 14 litres of air/fuel mixture, 1405 horsepower and 1110lb ft of twist, the three come alive with a cacophony of urgent crackle, yowl and bark that dispurses surrounding birds and shakes leaves off nearby trees. The Palm’s air of peace and dreamy tranquility is no more. Here we have three snug sportscars, all with a hint of comfort, all with spot-on driving positions and great visibility. It’s only right that they should be driven. Hard.

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By dint of it being the newest car here, I start with the GranCabrio and drive out of the limiting roads of The Palm. It’s longer, wider and higher than the other two, and has two useable back seats. It’s also the least powerful and carries over 200 more kilos in its long wheelbase. Sounds a little soft and leisurely. The secondor-so 0-100kph time deficit and 30kph shortfall in top end to the other two says as much. Mind you, I can’t picture many owners extending themselves anywhere near 300kph. For such a svelte-looking thing, the GranCabrio is a surprisingly beefy driving experience. From idle to red line, there’s a virile crackle and rasp to the soundtrack that gets louder as the inner valves change tack and the exhaust gases find a shorter route to the tailpipes. It’s urgent and wonderfully addictive, and peaks sonorously at 8000rpm. The steering is always meaty, particularly at roundabouts and junctions, the weight never subsiding. When you’ve tensed your biceps up a bit, you notice it’s direct and fires snaps of messages to your palms. Leave the GranCabrio in comfort mode and you feel its proportions in the movements and responses. It does the cruiser thing well, with plenty of compliancy in the ride and a forgiving

Opposite page: Ferrari and its crackle-finish V8 makes it look like a throbbing heart, Audi's V10 is sadly hidden from view, while the Maserati's V8 is neat and sits compactly in the engine bay

level of wheel travel without too much float. That you cannot deny it. When it comes to getting a move on though, it doesn’t provide the get-upand-go you long for. The right pedal needs to go to its stop and the left one similarly so if you’re interested in testing the limits. Switch to Sport mode and things improve, with more throttle response, a more alert ZF auto, tauter damping and an unhinged exhaust adding some welcome drama. Better this time, but still no cigar. What it requires of you is to dig deep into its Skyhook dampers and take it by the scruff of its canvas roof. It’s then this third incarnation of Maserati’s Quattroporte platform begins to plant itself onto the tarmac, begins to settle on its rump (it may be front-engined, but its weight is rearbiased) and hook into a bend. You still sense the extra pies through your ribs and backside, but it tracks its line accurately and there’s no kickback mid-bend. You can push hard, the Maser hanging on gamely. The 100 kilos of strengthening added over the GranTurismo have clearly done the trick. Only thing is you have to commit and be consistent with your inputs; don’t try to change your line half-way through. Accuracy is key here. Good thing Maserati ditched the hardtop idea at the last minute to save weight. It would’ve been

more of a jelly otherwise. With a $34K price increase, the Ferrari ups the drama rating. Sat in the firmly-bolstered, deep-sided ‘Daytona’ seat, dead ahead is the centred yellow rev counter, and surrounding you is a clutter-free interior with a neat little bridge on the centre console that houses the launch control, e-brake and auto-mode buttons. You hold the candy-red button, the starter whirrs for a moment and the flat-plane crank V8 (derived from the F430) fires with a quick high-pitched wail, settling to a baritone idle. A quick prod on the throttle reveals a lovely, low-intertia response, with the needle having no trouble jumping to ‘7’, the shift-lights at the top of the rim lighting up in your line of sight. It’s already an event. It’s also instantly keener than the Maser. The steering is light, the front end direct and it’s more relaxed. You don’t feel as connected through the steering, yet it flows so effortlessly, stays firm and absorbant, snuffing out the worst dips. There’s almost no flex when you lean on it, only a certain amount of bodyroll you have to get used to. Instead of using the usual double wishbones at the rear, Ferrari chose a multi-link setup so the California can dampen mid-corner bumps, as most of the load is on the rear. While

‘When it comes to power delivery the California produces an all-new type of eargasm’

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GR ANCABRIO v CALIFORNIA v R8 SPYDER it does work, in the Sport or CST setting, when the optional electro-magnetic dampers are hardened, you have to watch your inputs, be measured and smooth, because the front is full of grip, but the rear is mobile. It’ll happily slide. The California couldn’t be more different in execution to the GranCabrio when it comes to power delivery, either. Stepping out of the Maserati, you’d be left satiated by the smooth auto and the aural experience. By most standards, it’s sufficient. You’re happy to leave it at that. You'd be wrong to. The California produces an all new type of eargasm. It’s a complex blend of an angry-sounding wail, mixed with garggles and a bassy undertone. Its ferocity depends on how you want to drive the California. Even though the torque figure doesn’t suggest it, the direct-injected V8 is just as nonplussed pulling cleanly from 2000rpm (deep, gruffy baritone), as it is winding its way to 8000rpm (all-out, ferocious howl). Punch through the magically-fast double-clutch gearbox with the featherlight paddles, and on top of the acoustics, you’ve got the gun fire on upchanges and crackle on throttle-blip downchanges – all delivered with no break in torque delivery. It simply punches the gears home. Ferrari has done something that, even as I write this, I still can’t get over. It’s managed to work emotions into paddleshift gearchanges and give them a real texture. And there we were, thinking the need for a third pedal was paramount to deriving maximum cog-swapping pleasure... The GranCabrio’s ZF auto isn’t slow, but it’s more geared towards the car’s relaxed nature. So the Maser needs goading to extract its all. The Ferrari doesn't need to be asked - with that drivetrain it's always at your beck and call. That leads me to the R8 Spyder, whose R-tronic automated manual needs to be excised, filled with TNT, sent to the next galaxy and then detonated. It’s not so much the concept of the system that irks – though the idea of a computer constantly doubledeclutching was never going to be an efficient one. It’s more the application. It constantly whines as the motor builds hydraulic pressure. You have to ease in the throttle off the line and at low speeds for fear of frying the ’box, the revs rising and falling. Upchanges are head-noddingly jerky. So much so that, if you shift mid-bend, the pause in power delivery and resultant weight transfer cocks up the balance and throws you off-line. Very unsettling. It’s a blemish on what is otherwise a peach of a car. A mild, malleable, approachable supercar that can serve as a daily drive while having the ability to batter your senses with a wonderfully urgent and linear V10. A V10 that produces an unashamed blare; the sort of all-enveloping bark that’s full of character and one that's very similar to the Lamborghini Gallardo. It's just how you'd want it to sound when you absorb the low, reptilian stance. And just how you'd want it to accelerate. Power is on tap across the rev range, but the moment it really lets loose is above 5000rpm. Then its lungs are emptied, firing you up the road, the all-out fury released. As for the helm, it's progressive and avoids being too darty. Its weight is well-judged, falling between the California’s and GranCabrio’s. Same goes for the neutral balance that means 052 |


Right: Spyder's crisp and clean nobs and fascia doesn't charm, but neither does it disappoint; GranTurismo has a more classical mood to it; California's interior is an event

'The Maser needs goading, but the Ferrari doesn't - it's always at your beck and call'

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SPECIFICATIONS Engine Location Displacement Cylinder block Cylinder head Fuel and ignition Max power Max torque Transmission Front suspension Rear suspension Brakes Wheels Tyres Weight (kerb) Power-to-weight 0-100kph Top speed Price


V10 Mid, longitudinal 5204cc Aluminium alloy, dry sump Aluminium alloy, dohc per bank, 4v per cyl, variable valve timing Bosch MED 9.1 management, direct fuel injection 518bhp @ 8000rpm 390lb ft @ 6500rpm Six-speed automated manual R-tronic gearbox, four-wheel drive, e-diff lock, ASR Double wishbones, coil springs, magnetic dampers, anti-roll bar Double wishbones, coil springs, magnetic dampers, anti-roll bar Vented and cross-drilled discs, 365mm front and rear, ABS 19in diameter front and rear, aluminium alloy 235/35 ZR19 front, 295/30 ZR19 rear, Pirelli P Zero 1720kg 306bhp/ton 4.1sec (claimed) 312kph (claimed) $148,000



V8 Front, longitudinal 4287cc Aluminium alloy Aluminium alloy, dohc per bank, 4v per cyl, variable valve timing Electronic engine management, direct fuel injection 453bhp @ 7750rpm 358lb ft @ 5000rpm Seven-speed dual-clutch gearbox with paddleshift, rear-wheel drive, CST, F1 Trac Double wishbones, coil springs, MagneRide dampers, anti-roll bar Multi-link, coil springs, MagneRide dampers, anti-roll bar Vented carbon-ceramic discs, 390mm front, 360mm rear, ABS 19in diameter front and rear, aluminium alloy (20in on test car) 245/40 ZR19 front, 285/40 ZR19 rear, Pirelli P Zero 1735kg 265bhp/ton 3.9sec (claimed) 311kph (claimed) $211,000



V8 Front, longitudinal 4691cc Aluminium alloy Aluminium alloy, wet sump, dohc per bank, 4v per cyl Bosch electronic engine, management, multipoint fuel injection 434bhp @ 7000rpm 362lb ft @ 4750rpm Six-speed automatic gearbox, rear-wheel drive, limited-slip differential, MSP, ASR, EBD Double wishbones, Skyhook dampers, coaxical helical springs, anti-roll bar Double wishbones, Skyhook gas dampers, coil springs Ventilated discs, 360mm front, 330mm rear, ABS 8.5J x 20in front, 10.5J x 20in rear, aluminium alloy 245/35 ZR20 front, 285/35 ZR20 rear Pirelli P Zero 1980kg 219bhp/ton 5.3sec (claimed) 283kph (claimed) $177,000

'All three cars are high on the desirability scale; all deliver on-demand performance, just in varying ways'


Audi wins the 'coolest alloys' part of the test by some margin; California's 20in rims are pretty tasty. Ferrari is also the only car here to have carbon-ceramic discs as standard 054 |


you're comfortable leaning on the wide Pirellis. It’s hard to unstick. Leave the traction on and there’s the faint hint of understeer, while in the Sport setting or with traction off, you begin to alter your mindset from four- to rear-wheel drive mode, as it settles into oversteer out of bends. The cast iron brakes offer gradual, feelsome stopping power from any speed and the ride from the magnetic dampers is just benign. Only fairies will ever know how Audi has managed to create such an absorbant and supple ride from such minimal suspension travel, because there’s hardly any space between tyre and wheelarch. In terms of pure isolation from the road, the Ferrari and Maserati fair better, but its overall composure is compliant enough to not make you pay too much attention to the surface of the road, and firm enough to inspire confidence. Sitting so low you get the impression the headless R8 will bottom out. Remarkably, even at speed and when the road gets uncomfortably

bumpy, it never does. Don’t think for a moment, however, that by considering ride comfort and the fairer sex with the California, that Ferrari's product planners have besmirched the late Enzo’s surname. Or that the GranCabrio might not cut it dynamically in this company because there’s the small factor of two extra bodies in the back to consider. All three of these are high on the desirability scale. All deliver on-demand performance, just in varying ways. The Maserati needs coaxing but has sufficient breadth of abilities to make it a sprightly sportscar and a consummate, soothing cruiser. The California is still a red-blooded Ferrari but isn’t obviously so, and it will cross countries with ease. There’s also the practical benefit of a larger loading capacity, more boot space and the longest (theoretical) range of the three at 595km, compared to Audi’s 563km and Maserati’s 490km. Then you have the refinement

of the hard top roof and the fastest lid here, taking just 14 seconds to fold flat, compared to the Spyder’s 20 seconds and the GranCabrio’s 28 seconds. But it’s not that simple. Call it the Toyota Corolla of clichés, yet there’s a certain amount of glamour and allure involved in owning a convertible supercar. What you’d plump for comes down to how you’d like to drive through the picture postcard described earlier. Tearing through with little abandon? The R8 Spyder’s your best bet. Cruising by at pace and admiring the view while pedestrians admire you? It’s the GranCabrio. Something in between? The California. If the local tourism board was to make a new holiday brochure for Dubai, it could do worse than use a picture of the local skyline I saw earlier at sunset. But even better, it should get itself one of these convertibles and stick it in front of a cameraman's lens.

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