Maserati is about to enter a new chapter and the MC20 marks this occasion. At the start of this year, parent company Fiat Chrysler Automobiles and France's Group PSA announced a 50-50 merger with the resulting company, Stellantis , becoming the world's fourth largest car brand. Much investment is planned for all the various facilities to include strengthening Maserati's operations.
The MC20 leads the way in this new chapter. This is Maserati's first modern mid-engine super sportscar, designed internally at Centro Stile Maserati in Turin and built at the marque's historic Viale Ciro Menotti plant in downtown Modena – home of Maserati since 1940. The technology comes from Formula 1 racing for a motor car that performs equally well on the track and open road. Beneath the refined sculpture with its dramatic butterfly doors, sits the marque's latest 630 horsepower twin turbocharged V6 "Nettuno" engine, said to reach 62mph in less than 3 seconds.
The MC20 is launched in this coupé version with an open-top spyder sibling arriving soon, followed by a high-performance electrified version. The MC20 joins the recently renewed Ghibli, Quattroporte and Levante models and introduces a newly refined Trident badge for Maserati to signify the new beginnings. For a closer look at the MC20 design, I linked onto a video call with head of Maserati design Klaus Busse, he at his home near Turin and me from mine in London.
Nargess Banks: The MC20 is a pretty special car. I admire how it blends luxury and performance, but rather than resort to a generic supercar design, you appear to have taken a uniquely Italian and exotically Maserati journey here.
Klaus Busse: Everything you say is correct. When you say exotic, this not only explains the design but also the dramatic proportions. And I'm glad you see the Italian connection. We live in the age of computers and lasers and virtual reality. Of course, we use technology at Maserati, but only to amplify and improve quality and add a human touch to the cars.
Can you explain?
The upper part of the MC20 represents the human touch, while the raw lower part is about the technology. Maserati treats these opposites in a unique way — combining Italian sculpture and high performance. This is part of the Maserati philosophy. It goes back to the mid 1950s and beautiful, legendary cars like the A6 GCS.
You have been Maserati's head of design since 2015. Living in Italy you must be consumed by the surrounding cultural influences and the country's rich art history. How much does this impact on you creatively?
Living in Italy you cannot ignore the legacy, the renaissance, the cultural history. Think of Leonardo da Vinci. He was someone who was driven by research and technology and almost as a result of that came beautiful objects. He wasn't creating art for the sake of art. Nor are we. We are also driven by advancing technology. This is especially the case with the MC20 – a car that is designed to perform, yet look beautiful.
I read that aerodynamic performance played a fundamental role in sculpting the MC20 form, with 2,000 hours allocated to the wind tunnel to ensure the very best downforce. Yet, interestingly you avoid some typical performance car signifiers such as a moving spoiler. Why?
We had clear objectives to accomplish a certain level of performance. For such a sports car, performance means aerodynamics and pressure, not only in terms of efficiency but also downforce. But we avoided including a moving spoiler for two reasons: it adds weight but more importantly the MC20 needed to have a high-level of purity of design.
How then did you get the necessary downforce without the addition of the moving spoiler?
This is why aerodynamics became so important, not only in the car's silhouette but also with the functional pieces on the lower half of the car. Our engineers worked every element to the maximum to compensate for the missing spoiler and allow us designers to create this pure shape. Essentially, the engineers designed the lower part of the MC20 and we the upper, which is part of the Maserati philosophy we talked about earlier.
I like that philosophy. On this car you seem to have purposely made a visual statement of this process though.
Yes, we deliberately wanted the design to reflect this approach. So, the upper part was hand modelled by our design team while the lower part is completely designed by computers in an engineering way and in real time by an aerodynamicist in Modena. It was a beautiful use of the human hand and the human brain.
The Maserati personality is to be much more than a performance vehicle. These motor cars are designed to be grand tourers – GTs in the purest of sense.
Absolutely, gran turismo is an overarching philosophy for Maserati and so one of the main priorities was long-distance comfort. These are cars that exist on the racetrack but equally should perform long distances in comfort. This is why the cabin is a few centimeters taller and why in this car we have created two luggage spaces at the front and rear. Not including a rear moving spoiler also allowed for more space for the luggage.
The other noticeable visual element is the absence of aggressive air intakes, which is so much of a feature in other mid-engine high-performance cars. Did you do so to enhance the purity of shape?
Mid-engine supercars seem to be designed around big air intakes. When we spoke with our engineers, we realized that even though we clearly need air coming in, they don't have to be so prominent. Instead, we packaged our air intakes flat so from the sideview you don't see them and only get a glimpse when you open the doors.
You also created some openings on the engine cover with an unusual design. You may need to explain this to me.
The abstract Trident shape on the engine cover is a detail I love. The idea was born around technology driving beauty. We were not planning for any opening in that area and the design had been finalized. Then late in the process, we had a request from engineering to add three horizontal openings for hot air to exit the engine compartment. My team came up with the abstract Trident shape, which we applied not as an oversized logo but something you perhaps discover on your second sight of the car. I've noticed it's been the main focus on most social media posts!
And why decide on butterfly doors apart from, naturally, the sheer visual drama they create?
We wanted to make a psychological transition from the outside to the inside, from this beautiful sculpture to taking the pilot seat in a performance machine. The butterfly doors celebrate this act and are a reminder that entering this car is a special moment. The door completely opens up to the area behind the front wheel so when you step into the car, you not only see the exposed carbon-fiber tub, but the massive front tire. You know this car needs your full attention.
Is this why you simplified the MC20's user-experience by making the interaction between man and machine, driver and performance-led technology, less intimidating through a minimalist driver-focused interior design?
Don't let the beauty fool you: this is a serious piece of machine. In a car like this the hands belong on the steering wheel, the eyes on the road. The central screen is positioned close to steering wheel, so you don't move your hand too far to function it. We work very hard with our Modena team to create a user experience that allows the driver to focus on what matters.
The interior textures also have a uniquely modern Italian expression to them but without being a retro take in "made in Italy".
Twenty years ago, we would have celebrated pure craftmanship, but now we use technology to make something beautiful. Italy may have a love of sculpture, but this doesn't mean we ignore the potential of technology. For the MC20 we worked with a pretty unique technology for the seats whereby we fused two materials with a laser removing the upper layer to reveal the lower. On the Ghibli, we worked with textile company Zegna's unique machine woven leather. You see for Maserati technology has to be used to make a difference – be it with aerodynamics, or color and trim.
Leather feels so essential to Maserati, yet going forward, how will you express luxury in a more progressive way?
I agree, leather is absolutely hot topic. We currently offer vegan "leather". We are also exploring technology and innovation that is more respectful to the environment, such as using local olive leaves for the leather tanning process.
As we progress further and further technologically, are we risking losing that all-important human touch — beauty in design. What are your thoughts on this?
I like your observation not just because this is Italy, the land of art and sculpture, but I strongly believe in the human evolution. We were trained to see the human shape as something positive, while angular shapes as aggressive and potentially dangerous. Maserati can do hard edges — we have the same technology as other car companies at our disposal. But I want to design cars that have a certain sensuality and a positive outlook. We are in a critical phase with society's relationship with cars and we cannot ignore our role in this. It is important to design vehicles that reward the owner and give them that special moment, but without being shouty.
How does this apply to Maserati?
My single most beautiful moment in a Maserati was when I first arrived in Italy. I was driving a Levante into the city of Como with my sunroof open, when I saw an old lady and her granddaughter. As I drove past, I heard the grandmother shout "Maserati!!" I still get goose bumps remembering that moment. Even at a young age, the name Maserati and the Trident logo were the coolest of things. They carry a lot of weight. They are powerful symbols. You don't need to over-design a Maserati.
I have experienced similar reactions driving Maserati cars in Italy and with locals clapping as we drove past. There is such pride and passion for Maserati, Ferrari, Alfa Romeo… these cars are fundamental to the landscape and the people. How do you respond as a design director?
We have a choice, either to create cars that celebrates the driver but show disrespect to society, or we can design cars that add visual value to the environment — almost like a rolling sculpture. As the manifesto of Maserati, the MC20 is not just a car to get you from A to B or drive a racetrack. This will be at Concours d’Elegance, it will be exhibited and will end up a collector's car. Therefore, our approach has been to design something that is very beautiful and will send a positive message.
Who do you design for when imagining a new car like this MC20?
We are very aware of how differently Maserati is perceived globally. We have the classic Italian customer, a refined old-money gentleman with fine silver hair, tailored blue suite, the perfect shoes – you can picture him! Whereas in China, our customer may be a young twenty-something self-made millionaire. You cannot design for either as you will lose your way. We have been sharpening our view of what Maserati is. The MC20 is a manifesto of where we want to go with much of what we have discussed finding their way to our cars and be even more amplified.
I'm excited to see and hopefully experience the upcoming GranCabrio and this MC20 with electric drive. In my mind, there is so much to be celebrated in the marriage of purity of design, performance and sustainable power. Where do you see Maserati's position as we evolve further in this new and exciting age of transport?
I am also so excited about electrification. The emotional sensation of a Maserati has always been visual and audible. Since electric cars drive in silence, when we started the path to electrification, we asked what we can do to make up for the loss of the excitement of sound. We came across a video footage of a Maserati A6 GCS going through the streets of Brescia at the end of Mille Miglia with no engine sound, only music. The car was even more beautiful without any sound. It reminded us that Maserati is dependent on amazing proportions, sculpture and design — that the visual sensation has to make up for the loss of the audible with electric drive. So, imagine when you arrive in silence with a rolling sculpture… the sensational will be even more powerful.
What have you learnt and taken from the pandemic?
Firstly, how capable we are as a society when we have to respond to an existential threat. And look how quickly we have adopted to new ways of working. I can see how comfortable you are on this video call.
On another level, the pandemic has reinforced something for me when it comes to Maserati. People still want to reward themselves, but Maserati cannot be "fast automotive fashion". Our customers keep their cars. These cars are an investment. Saying that, a car like this MC20 needs to show respect to society and this is something that has gained further weight in the pandemic.
Read what other design directors are saying about sustainable transport and the role of the design community in shaping the future landscape: Chris Bangle , Polestar's CEO Thomas Ingenlath , Volvo's head of design Robin Page , BMW Group design VP Adrian van Hooydonk , Daimler's creative VP Gordon Wagener and VW Group's design director Klaus Bischoff .
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