Maserati MC20 Cielo Driven: is gas still more exciting than electric?

One of the criticisms that diehard ‘gearheads’ level at electric vehicles is that they lack passion. Complaints concern the absence of noise, failure to shift gears and reduced driver involvement in both. After testing many very fast EVs during my time as an electric car journalist, I thought it was high time to explore what it feels like to return to a car with a great combustion engine. The vehicle in question was the Maserati MC20, one of the best supercars on the market today.

The MC20 I had was the Cielo version, Italian for air. This indicates the Spyder rather than the coupe. While the coupe was released in late 2020, the Cielo arrived two years later. However, this is no ordinary spy. The Cielo has three roof modes instead of two. You can have the hardtop up or down, but this is essentially glass equipped with Polymer-Dispersed Liquid Crystal (PDLC) technology, which can change from cloudy to clear with an electrical input. The BMW iX’s panoramic roof can offer this feature, but Maserati’s version is more extreme, going from completely opaque to transparent at the touch of a button on the LCD panel.

This is a useful halfway house, as above 60mph the Cielo is very noisy, so you won’t have much luck listening to music, talking to your passenger or hearing navigation directions. Making the glass transparent gives you some of the open-top experience in a form you can enjoy at highway speeds. However, on a sunny day on a trip into the countryside you’ll want to have the roof open so you can enjoy the roar of that glorious fossil fuel engine behind you, and the appreciative comments from passers-by. A kid on a bicycle overtook me when he stopped at a city traffic light line just to tell me how much he liked the car (he even knew what model it was).

Maserati MC20 Cielo: a real racer through and through

However, the MC20 Cielo is not a fashion accessory for posers, even though it has an incredible visual presence. The three-litre V6 ‘Netuno’ twin-turbo engine delivers no less than 630 hp at 7,500 rpm and 730 Nm of torque from 3,000 rpm – entirely through the rear wheels. The transmission is an eight-speed oil-immersed dual-clutch system with six speeds and two overdrive speeds. While cars in every class have become heavier, the MC20’s body is made of carbon fiber and composite materials, keeping the curb weight at an impressive 1,540kg. The roof adds only 65 kg to the weight compared to the coupe. This means the official 0 to 100 km/h sprint figure is listed as “under 3 seconds” with a top speed of “over 310 km/h”.

Since I only drove the MC20 Cielo on public roads, it was impossible to get close to the limit. But it’s brilliant on undulating British A-roads, although very difficult to stay within legal limits. A rotary knob in the center console provides access to five driving modes. There’s WET for slippery conditions, while the default mode is GT. Then there’s SPORT mode, which speeds up automatic shifting, stiffens the suspension and adjusts traction control. In addition, CORSA mode increases the engine’s turbo boost, makes gear changes even quicker and further adjusts the suspension for racing. In addition, you can opt for CORSA with the electronic stability control completely disabled, something I didn’t want to try on public roads in a car with so much power.

However, I’ve tried the other modes and the most obvious difference is the throttle response. In GT mode, power comes in relatively gradually. The accelerator pedal provides a quicker return in SPORT mode, and even quicker in CORSA. The latter also enables the Launch Control button on the dashboard, where you can enjoy the full experience of that acceleration from 0 to 100 km/h in less than three seconds. You can use the steering wheel-mounted paddle shifters to downshift the gear, allowing you to react more quickly when overtaking. The car will then return to automatic mode after a short time. However, even in CORSA mode, the engine torque doesn’t kick in as immediately as the fastest EVs I’ve driven. But when it arrives, it’s just as brutal and is accompanied by an engine note that’s sure to put a smile on your face.

Considering how powerful this car is, it’s also surprisingly easy to drive in ‘normal’ conditions, thanks to the dual-clutch robotic manual gearbox. Even in stop-start traffic you can relax and let the car take over, although you may need to engage the electric parking brake if you’re stopped on a hill. This isn’t a cruising GT car in supercar clothing, though. It is a real racing car for the road. Although I didn’t get to drive it on the track myself, I was lucky enough last year to be driven up the Goodwood hill climb in wet conditions by a professional driver in the same car. It was very clearly a monster on the track.

So how does the MC20 compare to the fastest EVs?

The Maserati MC20 Cielo ticks the bill as the pinnacle of automotive combustion engine technology, but is it better than the best electric vehicles? A few things that EV skeptics criticize are the quietness of the electric car and the lack of gears. The MC20 certainly has a lot of noise, making its combustion engine familiar to everyone from the first press of the Start button. However, performance cars of this caliber nowadays generally have the ‘flappy paddle’ robotic manual gearboxes, just like Formula 1 cars, because they are faster than using the clutch yourself. The Maserati’s automatic system is so good that on a race track you only bother to shift gears yourself. The driving style is therefore often not that different from that of an EV without gears.

As enjoyable as the MC20’s massive power is, the throttle isn’t as direct as the fastest EVs I’ve tried, even in CORSA mode. The Tesla Model S Plaid can deliver instant acceleration enough to make you physically ill. The ZEEKR 001 FR, which I drove on a race track in China a few weeks ago, is about as extreme as a road-going electric car can get. It may be a shooting brake, but it has no less than 1,300 hp and a sprint from 0 to 100 km/h in 2.02 seconds. The ZEEKR 001 Performance holds two Guinness World records, including the fastest drift for an electric car. It even features a ‘Raikkonen mode’, developed with the help of 2007 Formula 1 champion Kimi Raikkonen. Despite its size, the 001 FR commands a race track with aplomb. This is astonishing considering its weight of over 2,400 kg.

However, despite the wizardry the ZEEKR performs in holding corners, there’s no escaping the extra 8-900kg it has over the MC20, meaning the latter will turn in at much higher speeds and hold a corner . Maserati’s own all-electric Gran Turismo Folgore also accelerates faster than the MC20 in a straight line, hitting 60 mph in 2.7 seconds. After all, it has 751 horsepower. I was driven around the Misano race circuit by a driver in that car before the Formula E race weekend, and the acceleration is ungodly, leaving you feeling light off the line. But GranTurismo Folgore is only about 70 kg lighter than the ZEEKR. He tackled Misano at an incredible pace, but the driving style consisted of slowing down enough to get the weight around the corner, and then using that monstrous acceleration. This is a strategy similar to driving a Porsche 911.

The electric car I’ve done the most circuit laps in is a Polestar 2 on the main Goodwood circuit (not the hill climb). The biggest difference with combustion cars that I’ve experienced on the track is how the regeneration sits between hard acceleration and conventional braking. Formula E drivers love the predictability and progression of their cars’ regenerative braking system, but on an electric car where regeneration kicks in as soon as you take your foot off the accelerator, it takes some dexterity to find the right balance. Driving fast with an internal combustion engine car on track basically means accelerating between turns, braking as late as possible to make the turn, maintaining speed as you drive around, and then accelerating out of the apex. The MC20 is a classic example of this, and during my Goodwood hillclimb experience the rear end vibrated in a satisfying manner, but the car rounded every corner with exceptional speed.

Combustion versus electric: horses for courses

The Maserati MC20 Cielo is a fantastic vehicle. The regular version has deservedly won several awards, including Evo’s Car of the Year 2022, and the Cielo adds the extra fun of the open air without sacrificing its fantastic racing pedigree. It’s a track demon that you could easily use for your daily commute if you’re very rich and a little crazy. That does come at a price, as the car I had for testing cost more than £322,000 ($409,000). That is more than, for example, a McLaren Artura Spider, but you cannot buy such a car based on price-quality ratio.

No car I’ve driven has generated as much love from friends and passersby as the MC20. It is incredibly beautiful, especially in the “Rosso Vincente” red of the one I borrowed. Where a Ferrari or Lamborghini seems a bit obvious, the Maserati MC20 also has something rare and classy about it, even if those scissor doors are a bit flashy. My own very fast EV felt a bit mundane after driving the MC20, as you’d hope, although the instantaneous torque is slightly more useful for moving forward on public roads. However, there is an electric version of the MC20 on the horizon. If Maserati can keep the weight down while delivering even better acceleration than the GranTurismo Folgore, it will be an absolute beast. I can not wait.

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