MODENA, Italy — Driving along portions of the famed Mille Miglia race route in the Italian countryside, it becomes crystal clear just what a significant piece of history this route has been for the development of some of the best cars to crisscross the world's roadways. From Ferrari, Alfa Romeo, Mercedes-Benz and Maserati, the names of the manufacturers who raced on this storied venue read like a who's who in automotive circles.

One of history's true car gods, Enzo Ferrari, once said of the Mille Miglia race: “The Miglia created our cars and the Italian automobile industry. The Mille Miglia permitted the birth of GT, or grand touring cars, which are now sold all over the world.”

Using the Mille Miglia track as a backdrop, Maserati showcases its new Spyder, which already has made its debut in Europe and will be the first Maserati brand vehicle to touch U.S. asphalt in twelve years (see story, p.50).

The Maserati brand was acquired by Fiat Auto in 1993 and was transferred under full control of the Ferrari Group in 1997. Since that time, Ferrari has been investing significant resources to transform Maserati into a global automotive player. Unlike Ferrari, Maserati plans to expand its product offerings to encompass 4-door sedans and other models that are more user-friendly in their ride and handling than a pure performance vehicle like Ferrari.

The difference between Ferrari and Maserati vehicles became crystal clear driving along the Mille. Compared to relatively Spartan Ferraris, Maserati vehicles are designed to provide owners with the perfect combination of almost opulent luxury amenities and a strong performance backbone.

In the case of the new Spyder, Maserati has planted a 390-hp DOHC V-8 under the hood of this beautifully styled 2-door. With that not-inconsiderable thrust, the Spyder achieves a top speed of 175 mph (283 km/h) and can travel from 0-to-62 mph (100 km/h) in 5 seconds.

The engine was developed by Maserati's parent, utilizing lightweight materials while building off the structure of some of the latest Ferrari racing engines.

Like the engine, the Spyder's transmissions also were developed with the assistance of Ferrari. The Spyder can be configured with either a 6-speed manual gearbox or an electronically “robotized” manual that Maserati dubs cambiocorsa. Whether you opt for the manual or cambiocorsa versions, both transmissions are placed at the rear of the vehicle, which helps to provide the best balance and weight distribution. The cambiocorsa version features F-1 inspired shift paddles placed behind the steering wheel for ease of control during upshifts and downshifts. There's also an “auto” button on the center console that switches the cambiocorsa to full automatic mode.

The power and agility of the Spyder is translated to the driver through a suspension carefully designed to project the right combination of luxury and sportiness. The front and rear double wishbones have forged-aluminum hub carriers and struts. The rear suspension has a supplementary strut control toe-in to better guarantee improved control of the linkage, which provides improved tire grip in virtually any situation.

The Spyder is available with a standard suspension setup, which includes fixed-rate, gas-charged dampers, or with electronically controlled variable damping. The setting of the dampers is controlled by Maserati's “Skyhook” system.

Skyhook is comprised of six acceleration sensors: three that record the movements of the body and are positioned in the front struts and the right-hand rear strut of the dampers; two are inside the hub carriers of the front wheels; and there's also a lateral acceleration sensor in the front part of the chassis. The information from the sensors enables Skyhook's main processor to monitor the movement of the wheels and body of the Spyder with precision and adjusts the dampers to the appropriate setting.

All of this technology comes together to provide a ride that is on par with the best performance coupes in high-speed maneuvers, yet avoids the jarring pain commonly delivered by overtly sporty suspension tuning.

The Maserati Spyder proves that beauty is definitely more than skin deep, although the exterior styling of the Spyder is exceptional.

Exterior styling design of the Spyder was done by Italdesign-Giugiaro and is meant to convey a combination of elegance and sportiness. The Spyder utilizes some of the styling cues from Maserati's 3200 GT — like its rear taillights, which utilize clear lenses. Maserati's historical oval shield returns to the front end of the Spyder along with Maserati's trident, which is centered on the grille. The overall exterior body treatment is tastefully done, with clean lines and an overall supple look, with the top up or down.