A Maserati On Italian Roads

May 22 (Bloomberg) — Look into the cockpit of a gorgeous, exotic car and — what’s this? — you discover no manual gear shift. Not so long ago, such a pairing would have been like wearing a tuxedo to a wedding without the pants. Not just a bit embarrassing.

In the past 15 years, though, there’s been a huge shift in shifting: Fewer and fewer drivers even know how to drive a stick these days (and you’re less likely to be made fun of for the lack, too). If the manual transmission were in a hospital, it would be in intensive care. And in performance, automatics have crossed a great divide.

Which brings us to the gorgeous Maserati Quattroporte sports sedan and its Big Problem: Its transmission was a so- called clutchless manual — not quite a manual, not really an automatic — and it rankled many drivers.

The Quattroporte was first seen in 2003, with a DuoSelect transmission that used a robotized, six-speed manual gearbox. It was designed to be shifted primarily with Formula One-style paddles located behind the steering wheel (the driver does not engage a clutch) and was ideal for aggressive driving.

Forgo the paddles and engage the automatic mode — while cruising in town for instance — and it would clumsily waffle between gears, seeming to scoff at a driver so lazy that he actually, you know, used it. To Maserati’s regret, many a driver scoffed right back. After all, the Quattroporte (the name means “four doors”) was supposed to be a saloon with sporting chops, not a Ferrari Enzo.

New Transmission

Maserati’s charismatic chief executive, Roberto Ronchi, admits to the misstep. “It is a luxury sedan that competes with cars like the Mercedes S-Class, BMW 7 series and the Audi A8 — not a Ferrari.” He shrugs. “This car was not able to fully satisfy all customers, especially in the U.S. market. They found that the gearbox needed a certain level of awareness, and not all were comfortable with that.”

So the auto underwent a major redesign. On the exterior, the Quattroporte Automatic looks the same as the DuoSelect (which is still available). With its rounded front bumpers and voluptuous swells around the rear wheels, the Pininfarina design is almost Rubenesque.

Mechanics-wise, though, in addition to the new six-speed automatic transmission (created by German company ZF), the engine was also moved forward and tweaked and given a wet-sump oil system.

I’ve driven the DuoSelect on the track at Lime Rock Park in Connecticut. This time around, though, I’m at the company’s factory in Modena, Italy. Ferrari’s home is just down the road in Maranello, and Lamborghini and Ducati are less than an hour away. I figure the surrounding roads have got to be good: Something compelled all those Italian guys to go fast, right?

Either way I’ll find out if the re-engineered Quattroporte has lost her soul or found her sweet spot.

Smooth and Easy

Leaving the cramped streets of Modena in “normal” auto mode, I find the drive smooth and easy. The transmission is what you would expect of a luxury automatic: You don’t notice it. The cabin itself is comfortable, with body-pleasing leather seats, gorgeous wooden inlays and bits of shiny metal. Since the cars are completely handmade, Maserati offers a huge array of personalization options, including wood choices in rosewood, walnut and mahogany and interior colors ranging from Bordeaux to navy blue.

My tester is a base Automatic; it also comes in Executive GT and GT versions. Frustratingly, only the GT comes standard with paddle shifters, and of course it was never available with a conventional stick. (Note to Maserati: It’s not like we’re actually scared of paddles. That’s overkill.)

Zig-Zag Roads

It’s raining and cold, and as I drive south to the mountains, I discover that it is snowing lightly. The two-lane road that connects mountain villages with names like Zocca and Gaggio Montano is made up of incredibly tortured, corkscrewing zig-zags.

Is the Mas up to it?

Dropping it into “sport” mode, I control the gears using the shifter — higher gears are engaged by pulling it back — and the suspension grows tenser and the engine note gnarlier. I dash into curves and snap out of sharp, vertiginous corners without guard rails. Pushing harder, I wait for the back to break out, or the wheels to slip, yet the stability control only engages the few times when I deliberately try to fishtail out. The sedan tips into turns exactly as one would hope and unwinds the corkscrews with style. Through it all, the automatic transmission is lovely, hanging on gamely to high revs.

Learning to drive a stick shift is a rite of passage. Or, at least, it used to be. I’m sorry to see the skill fade. Yet I can’t call the Quattroporte Automatic out: It may be more automated than ever, yet it hasn’t lost its soul.

The Maserati Quattroporte Automatic at a Glance

Power: 4.2-liter V-8, with 400 horsepower and 339 pound- feet of torque.

Drive train: six-speed ZF automatic transmission.

Speed: 0-60 in 5.5 seconds.

Price as tested: $116,500.

Best feature: Mix of Italian styling and performance in a comfortable package.

Worst feature: Lack of standard paddle shifters on the base and Executive GT models.

Target buyer: Someone looking for a luxury sedan with the allure of an exotic.

(Jason Harper writes about autos for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)