Review: Hair-Raising Maserati MC20 Cielo Fulfills a “Speed Racer” Fantasy

Review: Hair-Raising Maserati MC20 Cielo Fulfills a “Speed Racer” Fantasy

Inside Hook / April 13, 2023 / Nicholas McClelland

Enthusiasts much cooler than I am will tell you their passion for cars was born watching names like Stewart, Prost, Senna and Schumacher rack up world championships and dominate Formula 1. Young’uns might even cite F1’s modern star Lewis Hamilton as their guiding engine light.

I am decidedly less cool, tracing my need for speed back not to motorsport but rather…Speed Racer. (Reruns, that is. I’m not nearly old enough to have seen them broadcast live.)

Yes, my love sprang from a car-toon (we can address my penchant for puns another time). As a kid, I would pretend to outrun Skull Duggery and Snake Oiler en route to the checkered flag, drop-kicking a few henchmen along the way. I still catch myself humming the theme from time to time. It’s funny how hard some things from your childhood imprint on your psyche.

It’s an old trope in the car world, but this earnest fascination with a 50-year-old animated show is why I gravitate toward open-roof sports cars, despite their historical performance disadvantages compared to coupes. I love a targa. I love a spider. Even some cabriolets give me the kind of Mach 5 vibes I’ve been searching for since I was too short to reach the pedals.

Enter: the stunning Maserati MC20 Cielo. The second I laid eyes on the convertible at Monterey Car Week last year, my heart sang, “This is it!” Swooning, I begged to drive it as soon as possible.

Months went by, but I was eventually offered the opportunity to get behind the wheel of both the Cielo and the coupe versions in Italy, bookending the test program for the new GranTurismos earlier this year, to see if Maserati could make my childhood dreams a reality.

A Demon on Wheels

The first thing you notice when you fire up the MC20, in either coupe or convertible form, is the twin-turbocharged Nettuno V6. Blindfolded, you might think someone was cold-starting a diesel tractor. This is quite clearly not your dad’s V12 supercar. That said, it does have just as many spark plugs thanks to the dual combustion chamber engine design, which, with the help of twin turbos, throws down an almost implausible 621 horsepower and 538 lb-ft of torque, all to the rear wheels. Maserati says both versions will dash from a dead stop to 60 mph in 2.7 seconds with a top speed of a tick over 200 mph. Not too shabby for a three liter.  

As the engine warms, so does its personality. Work the throttle a bit and its voice begins to snarl and growl. At lower revs, you can hear the turbos whizz a bit off beat, but when you push the throttle harder and move the tachometer beyond 3,000, the engine bridges into full supercar song. With the power unit sitting right behind your ears, those screaming notes sound good in the coupe but the crescendo is even better with the top down on the Cielo. 

The model name Cielo, by the way, comes from the Italian word for sky (pronounced chielo)Weighing in at roughly 3,400 pounds, it’s only 143 pounds heavier than the coupe. In fact, the carbon fiber monocoque (passenger area) used in both versions, to keep the cars light and nimble, was designed with an eye on the convertible version. So the overall rigidity is the same, though the front suspension is slightly softer in the Cielo. 

How the $250,000 Cielo Drives

Venture off the autostrada north of Rome and you’ll find some excellent driving roads with space to hammer the throttle plus plenty of twists and bends to apex and exit. In either flavor of the MC20, you’ll want to challenge all of them. Push the pedal to the metal and you’ll experience a bit of whiplash before your peripheral vision becomes a Gaussian blur. When it’s time to rein in the speed, the magnificent Brembo carbon-ceramic brakes take little effort to achieve a suitable rate of entry while the eight-speed dual-clutch transmission fires off ultra-rapid shifts. 

Steering is precise, instantaneous and nearly effortless, while grip levels are downright mind-bending, even on winter tires, which were required given the chill in the Lazio air.

Maserati offers four dynamic driving modes: Wet, GT, Sport and Corsa. Conditions during my drives were dry, so I didn’t bother with the Wet setting. The GT is perfect for cruising the highways and less energetic drives around town or in city traffic. But the throttle seems almost disinterested unless you give it a firm push. In Sport, the MC20 comes alive, responding deftly and almost as quickly as you ask. The steering also becomes heavier and more satisfying. The traction control loosens the reins but steps in quickly as the rear moves out.

I was cautioned against using the Corsa setting on the winter tires as it disables the traction assistance features, but I had to hear the loudest exhaust setting for myself (sorry, not sorry). My ears loved it, but jamming down the pedal just the once on a rural road was plenty for me to understand the warning. After all, it’s a $250,000 machine that’s not mine. 

Each dynamic setting also allows the driver to choose between two suspension settings. So if the roads are a bit rough, you can soften the setup and still enjoy quicker responses. 

Modern Supercar, Vintage Inspiration

Much to my personal disappointment, the MC20’s design wasn’t based on the animated Mach 5 racer. Instead, it was inspired by a Maserati of the past: the A6GCS Berlinetta. 

That may not be evident right away. “Shape-wise, it’s completely different, right?” Klaus Busse, Maserati’s head of design, tells me. “But what always inspired me about the A6GCS was this super clean fuselage upper design. It’s very pure, very clean, and then this kind of brutal cutaway of the dorsal and the exposure of technology.” 

The design team also found inspiration from old Formula 1 cars, like the Maserati 250F, evidenced by the low, wide mouth in the front.  

The MC20 Cielo is truly a unique rolling sculpture that does more than catch eyes — it fully rotates heads. Driving back from Ostia outside Rome, I found myself going the opposite direction of some stand-still traffic. It was almost comical watching each and every driver crane their necks on cue as I went by.  

No Gadgets, But Plenty of Carbon Fiber

The MC20 coupe and Cielo are contemporary sports cars, so obviously there is carbon fiber and microsuede pretty much everywhere, and very little else. The sport seats are firm, but not uncomfortable. Though I probably wouldn’t love them by the end of an eight-hour drive. 

The buttons on the steering wheel in the MC20 aren’t lettered A through G like the Mach 5 and don’t control buzz saws, or springs to jump over traffic, or even turn the car into a submarine. (Come on, Maserati! Aston Martin has gotten into the gadget game.) Instead they control the ignition, launch control, telephone, volume and cruise control, which, by the way, is the only driver’s aid. After all, why would you want a computer to drive your Maserati?

The main difference between the Cielo and the coupe is, of course, the roof. But this isn’t just any convertible top. When closed, the retractable glass roof features electrochromic dimming to darken or lighten the cabin a shade or two. When the weather is nice, it can be opened (or closed) in a scant 12 seconds. If you want to use it while moving, the roof mechanism is operable at speeds of up to 31 mph, but there is no dedicated switch. Instead, you need to use the central touchscreen to activate it. Perhaps not the most intuitive system, and even the Maserati handlers fumbled for a minute to get the top open. 

I will also note that, on my first drive, the navigation system began to update itself and never came back online. So I got a little lost on the drive route. But that just means more time behind the wheel. La vita è bella.

Adventure’s Waiting Just Ahead 

Back in the day, convertible supercars suffered from diminished performance compared to the coupe siblings. Today, thanks to a number of technological advancements, the difference is less pronounced. In the MC20 Cielo, it’s barely noticeable.

That being the case, I’d wager even people who don’t count themselves as Speed Racer wannabes will find themselves on the waitlist for this Maserati. But in case you do happen to be under the same delusions as me, I specced this one on the Maserati website…

Think they could turn those racing stripes into an “M” and paint a number 5 on the door?