PUBLISHED : Saturday, 16 July, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 16 July, 2005, 12:00am

STOP ANYONE AND ask, 'What's the first Italian sports car that springs to mind?' and you'll get Ferrari or Lamborghini. Maserati doesn't stand a chance. One of the world's richest sportsmen makes a living by driving a red Ferrari a couple of hours every other Sunday, and locally Lamborghinis glamorise celebrity exits with their flamboyant gullwing scissor-doors. But Maserati's revival continues, first with the Coupe, then the latest Quattroporte, and now the GranSport. It's the king of the marque's coupes, with 10 more horses under the bonnet, running-gear upgrades, aerodynamic bodywork and a customised interior.

Only a fanatic would be able to tell the GranSport from Maserati's standard coupes. It seems more aggressive, with underskirts, Trofeo wheels and massive drilled brake disks and colour-coded Brembo calipers. Best viewed side-on, the curves swoop from the polished Trident in the nose to the carbon-fibre lip spoiler on the boot lid. Maserati's design team must have put a block of modelling clay in a wind-tunnel, set it on full blast and come back in the evening, to get the look so fluid.

An exclusive mix of carbon fibre, leather and so-called technical fabric wraps the interior in an equally streamlined manner, but, as with all Maseratis, the beauty's in the detail. Polished aluminium panels and chrome rings surround large round buttons, the thin silver strip at the top of the carbon-fibre steering wheel and the trademark Maserati clock between the vents.

The MP3-ready Becker CD deck is impressive, as is the generous expanse of technical fabric, which seems cross-stitched with silver carbon fibre. It's cool and smooth to the touch.

The central console does away with the standard Coupe's Info-Centre, in favour of the quartet of driving-mode buttons, no loss really as it only distracts from the driving. The seats are superbly supportive, with the most comfortable shoulder pads ever. The steering is adjustable and I'm told the pedals can also be moved further apart for left-foot-brakers like me.

There are little ergonomic oddities. The mirror switches are tucked so far behind the handbrake that adjusting them is nigh impossible. The tiny horn buttons are concealed in the steering spokes. Even so, this car is immensely well-equipped and comfortable.

With a firm push on the blue start button, the engine cranks into a deeply resonant, V8 idle. In full-auto mode, it's perfectly civilised around town. The steering's light and the ride smooth. Only a slight boom from the Sport exhaust hints at the power at your right foot. With plenty of torque through the rev range, the Gran Sport happily crawls in Hong Kong traffic in fourth or even fifth gear.

The Cambiocorsa gear-change system is similar to an F1 car, with two paddles behind the steering wheel - you shift up on the right, down on the left. The beauty of this gear system is that it lets you keep both hands on the wheel. This system is also available on the standard Coupe, and easy to get used to, but the GranSport offers 35 per cent faster changes when the Sport button is pressed. That triggers the Skyhook system, which stiffens the car's ride, tightens the handling through electronically controlled dampers, and gives you a more hardcore sports car.

As we reach higher speeds, the engine sounds glorious, even though I'm not gunning it. I kept the Maserati stability programme (MSP) on for the entire drive. The electronics comprise all the safety acronyms you need.

Even with its trick suspension and 400 horsepower, the GranSport's still not a supercar by today's stratospheric standards, but it's a comfy fastie. It disguises speed so well that when I thought I was doing only 80km/h, I was actually well into three figures.

The GranSport weighs a chunky, yet ride-smoothing 1,680kg, but it steers well, thanks to thin Pirellis wrapped around large 19-inch wheels. The 10mm drop in ride height adds poise to cornering, and sensitive drivers will feel the asymmetrical limited-slip differential varying the torque between the rear wheels as the car accelerates and decelerates.

The breaks clamp reassuringly and the automatic heel-and-toe F1 downshifts are punctuated by the fruitiest of exhaust rasps. Upshifts weren't as urgent as I'd hoped - a standard manual would've been faster, but I'm told that the shifts hasten as the going toughens.

As you ease the throttle near 4,500rpm there's a slight ringing reminiscent of over-run igniting in the GranSport's large-bore tailpipes. No one makes exhausts like the Italians. It's so good, I think the Sport button should automatically turn off the music, leaving the aural entertainment entirely to the machinery.

At almost $1.3 million, it's not cheap and there's a four-month waiting list. But if the money's burning a hole in your pocket and you're looking for day-to-day usability and driving satisfaction, the GranSport offers discreet exclusivity.

Only about 20 GranSports will be delivered to Hong Kong, and they'll cruise gracefully past the unaware - until the pedal hits the metal.