You always go for the guy who’s sitting in a corner by himself, playing with a calculator instead of an iPhone.
At car launches budding motoring journalists quickly learn to stay away from all marketing and communications people and target the lonely engineer, with a lack of language skills and an even more severe lack of public relations understanding. This is where you get saucy details about upcoming models, benchmarking tactics and all the other stuff a PR person would never tell you.
So here’s an interesting anecdote. Bowers & Wilkins does high-end audio for a couple of high-end car manufacturers. When it’s done designing the systems, wrangling with many packaging parameters from pretty much the start of the car’s development process, it demo runs the model to sit back and enjoy its good work. And it is very good.
Well, at the Maserati Ghibli launch event in Italy, a B&W engineer told me that he’s not happy assessing a certain carmaker’s sound quality, because immediately a half dozen rattles develop in the cabin, ruining the aural experience. Obviously he’s got supersonic hearing otherwise he wouldn’t be working at top-level for a world-class speaker company, so you and I may not be able to catch these slight annoyances. But he does, and once he was done with the B&W system in Maserati’s new Ghibli, he demoed several freshly assembled cars and heard not a single rattle. Good old Italian build quality, right?
And believe me, this is not just crafty public relations. I found this near-retiree sitting by himself in a corner, listening to Rage Against The Machine.
So we’re off to a great start. The new Ghibli is obviously well put together. And that’s very important because Maserati is, highly ambitiously, planning to multiply its annual production by eight. Think about that for a second. Here at wheels we’ll print 80 or so pages a week on a good run, and I shudder to imagine my boss walking into one of my naps to order a bumper 640-page issue. It’s OK, I’ll just show myself the door…
It was only four years ago that Maserati built a little more than 4,000 cars. That’s less than half of Ferrari’s annual sales. Fifty-thousand is huge, but you still won’t see chrome Tridents sparkling in the Dubai sunshine on every street corner. Porsche will do over 150,000 cars this year, so owning a Maserati will still remain an exclusive privilege of the very few, but at least soon you’ll have a less-exclusive option of being exclusive. That is to say Maserati is expanding its range. So it won’t be a matter of, “Hmm, should I have a tin-top or a soft-top?” You will have the luxury of choosing between the traditional and obvious, plus an SUV, grand saloon and a small-ish sports saloon. Who knows, they might even stick a twin-turbo V6 in the back of an Alfa 4C — Maserati’s factory is the one building it, after all.
And if you decide you need a Ghibli then Maserati will further spoil you with four additional decisions to mull over. Well, three, because we’re not getting the diesel here. Yes, there will be a diesel now and it has speakers in the exhaust with input from B&W to stop it sounding like a bus. But the others are a 330-horsepower base model — what a world, when 330 is just the beginning — a 410bhp rear-wheel drive Ghibli S, and another 410-horsepower Q4 model that sends drive to all four wheels. From now on let’s just call them 330 and 410, which is nice and romantic especially since Maserati’s racecars usually carried numerical nomenclature instead of names of winds.
The nerdy details are impressive, but first impressions count the most. Is the rear-wheel drive 330 a sports saloon? Not exactly. A Lexus IS 350 is a sports saloon because it’s a Lexus and you lower your enthusiast expectations. That Trident badge glaring down at the asphalt from the angled nostrils of the Maserati, that thing’s shared aluminium real estate with Juan Manuel Fangio, Stirling Moss, Dan Gurney, Masten Gregory… It’s as much a mark of motorsport success as it is Poseidon’s loofah. I therefore step into the Ghibli expecting to become Luigi Musso at Monza circa 1953. But everything around me is still in colour, the car is comfortable, the steering light, the seats cushy and the noise insulation excellent. I’ve merely become some bloke called Jürgen Schmidt. Jürgen is a Munich taxi driver who wheels around in a beige Mercedes-Benz E-Class. The Ghibli reminds me of a nice E-Class. It’s just plain nice.
Right, let’s switch all the electronics off and see if we can find a split personality in there somewhere. Sure enough, Jürgen gets up to no good on his days off. The Ghibli is happy to swing out in every tight corner and grip well through the fast curves. Its tight steering, lacking almost any feel whatsoever but nice and quick, allows you to be minimal with steering inputs without nervously tugging at the wheel to straighten things up again. All the while the car is slightly tipping to the sides, which must be why it rides so well, but can’t ever come across as a proper sports saloon. Something with an M badge would eat it alive — perhaps with a splash of Tuscan balsamic. Luckily we only encounter Pandas and Puntos, all of which are dispatched with a single downshift and a quick swing to the left.
The rear-wheel drive Ghibli 330 is fantastic to munch miles in, to the point where it’s so effective, comfortable and cossetting that we have to open the windows just to get some of that V6 twin-turbo music in. The fun from wheeling it enthusiastically around Siena’s countryside comes from its impeccable balance and easy-to-drive-ness… It’s very receptive to all your inputs, and you can upset its balance at will quite safely, and it will cooperate, but it’s just not flat enough, not planted and firm enough to be any threat to something from Affalterbach. For example, when you’re correcting in a slide, you know exactly what you have to do; the tail goes that way, the steering wheel goes the other. But you do it because of your theory lessons, not because the steering is telling you much of what’s going on and what you should be doing.
I love the engine though; it’s Marvin Gaye’s long-lost twin, so smooth, peaking with 500Nm of torque and shuffling through the eight-speed ’box like a Vegas croupier. The base 330 will reach 100kph from rest in 5.6 seconds but it feels quicker, and its motor exudes a height of emotion depressingly absent in rivals such as the BMW 5 Series, E-Class and Audi A6. Yet for what it’s worth, my initial impression never left my thoughts — the Ghibli 330 is just plain very nice.
When we arrive at the lunch stop somewhere near Siena, I actually dig in for once — usually I’m eager to set off again immediately. But my next scheduled go is in the all-wheel drive Ghibli 410 and I’ve never driven an all-wheel drive model in this class that I could describe as a great driver’s car. They are all lifeless with stonking engines and not much else to excite. Ironically, AWD overpowered German saloons are at their best (and most fun) in a straight line.
Cutting straight to the chase, then, and putting it simply, this Ghibli S Q4 is the best-handling all-wheel drive executive sports saloon on the market. And that should humble more than just one German carmaker.
Ivan Capelli — as in the former Ferrari, Tyrell, Jordan and March Formula 1 driver — warned me the evening before that it’s impossible to make the Q4 understeer or oversteer. Alex Fiorio — as in Cesare Fiorio’s son and former WRC wheelman — was standing next to him scoffing his profiteroles and nodding, affirming that he tried everything but couldn’t upset the Q4. Challenge accepted…
Well now the Q4’s gone and humbled me too. It is absolutely extraordinarily balanced and neutral in its handling intensions, so prompt to respond whichever way the steering wheel swings, turning in like no big car with a driven front axle has any right to. Now this is a sports saloon, even though I can’t work out if that’s the ‘Lexus factor’ — have I lowered my expectations?
Nah, I can honestly say it’s the most enjoyable all-wheel drive large saloon I’ve driven, and that includes as many German twin-turbocharged V8 models you can bother to name. Its uprated V6, the same one coming to our region in the Quattroporte S August, is definitely the one to have, regardless of whether you pick the Q4 chassis or rear-wheel drive. Here it develops 410bhp at 5,500rpm and 550Nm of torque from 1,750rpm, but strangely it’s not the engine that differentiates this car that much from the 330 — that eight-speed transaxle really does feature some flawless mapping whether you’re in automatic mode or utilising the wonderful shift paddles with a heavy mechanical clunk to them. And you should definitely use them as often as possible — there you go, another common, usually useless feature, which in the Maserati wins highly uncommon praise.
Because of the Ghibli’s extremely rigid chassis — with a front aluminium subframe and cross-bracing — and its 50:50 weight distribution, its double-wishbone front suspension and multi-link rear, firm but composed damper tuning and powerful brakes with such meaty, satisfactory feel to the pedal (360mm front discs and 350mm rears), plus of course a proper limited-slip differential, it turns out both Capelli and Fiorio were right. I can’t unstick this thing anywhere, and it’s all the better for it because of its impeccable turn-in nature, immediate steering response and such a feelsome hook-up from the rear end that you keep exploring its upper limits in an entirely secure manner. Remember how I said you can upset the 330’s balance at will quite safely? Well you can try to upset the 410 Q4’s balance at will quite safely too, it’s just that everything happens faster. This is the most fun car in its class to drive, just as you’d expect from a gleaming Trident.
And if I may use my favoured adjective again, the interior is nice too, provided you spec it correctly — stay away from the maroons and the browns. Get the configuration right though and it’s very minimalist, sleek, Italian, like sitting inside a carbon-fibre stiletto; you’re cosy and snug between a supermodel’s toes. Which is great, especially if you have a foot fetish.
Personally I just have a great-car fetish, and I’m feeling satisfied.