In its 99-year history, Maserati has arguably never made a vehicle as important as this all-new Ghibli.
Of course, there have been countless styling breakthroughs, mechanical advances and technical innovations, but no single passenger car has been required to bear the weight of the Italian company like its brand-new sport sedan. If the Ghibli succeeds, Maserati will welcome tens of thousands of new customers and, most importantly, celebrate a rekindled relationship with demanding North American buyers. If the Ghibli fails - well, the truth is, nobody has written an option for failure.
Maserati officially introduced the Ghibli at the Shanghai Motor Show earlier this year, promising a driver-focused sedan that was smaller and more agile than its redone Quattroporte flagship, one capable of battling BMW, Audi and Mercedes-Benz in quality, performance and most importantly, price.
After months of staring at the pictures and poring over the specifications, it's finally time to drive it. To end the speculation, I boarded a new 747-8 and flew one-third of the way around the world to land in beautiful Tuscany. My task? Put the all-new sport sedan with a heart built by Ferrari through its paces on Europe's demanding asphalt.
If you think you've heard the name Ghibli before, your mind isn't fooling you. Ghibli (translated as "Mediterranean wind") is one of the Italian automaker's classic names. It was first attached to a two-door coupé and spider model in 1967, enjoying a seven-year run. After a two-decade absence, its second debut was in 1992 attached to a coupé that was in production for five years. The new-for-2014 Ghibli sedan is the second resurrection of the name, but a big departure from its predecessors. The new model is larger in nearly every dimension, with more power and optional all-wheel drive. It is also the first Maserati to offer a diesel option (but not in the North American market, for now).
Maserati says the standard Ghibli has perfect 50/50 weight distribution.
As speculated, the Ghibli is based heavily on the flagship Maserati Quattroporte, which is also brand-new. The two cars share brakes, steering, suspension and plenty of interior hardware. They also share the marque's new turbocharged V6 and associated drivetrain. All told, the automaker says the two have "45 to 50 percent" parts commonality. Technically speaking, the Ghibli is built on the new E-segment platform from Fiat that will be shared with an upcoming Alfa Romeo and the future Chrysler 300 and Dodge Charger. It will also serve as the bones for the next-gen Maserati GranTurismo.
The chassis of the Ghibli sedan is mostly steel, but the front clip is built around an aluminum casting with a reinforced cross-strut to save weight and add rigidity. Further weight savings are achieved with a cast magnesium dashboard frame and lightweight aluminum alloy skins on all four doors and the hood. Maserati says the standard Ghibli (3,950 pounds) has perfect 50/50 weight distribution. The slightly heavier all-wheel-drive Ghibli Q4 (4,125 pounds) is calculated at 51/49 percent.
The suspension also utilizes extensive alloy construction to reduce mass. Double wishbone, a race-bred tradition at Maserati, is used up front, while the rear is configured with a five-bar multi-link system with four aluminum suspension arms. Damping is fixed on standard models, but all are offered with the automaker's Skyhook adaptive system. The cockpit-controlled two-mode system (Normal and Sport) is designed to reduce lateral and longitudinal load transfers and minimize body roll, though ride height is unaffected. Bucking today's trends to go with electric assist, the steering is a speed-sensitive, servo-powered hydraulic system with an all-new aluminium steering rack.
The two gasoline-fed V6 powerplants are Maserati's own proprietary design, yet manufactured off-site by Ferrari.
The automaker has partnered with Brembo for the brake packages. The standard rear-wheel-drive Ghibli has four-piston calipers up front and single-piston sliding calipers over ventilated rotors in the rear. The upgraded S Q4 features six-piston calipers up front and four-piston calipers in the rear, clamping down on cross-drilled and ventilated Dual Cast rotors (their construction of aluminum hubs and iron friction surfaces makes them lighter and more capable of absorbing heat). Standard wheels are 18-inch alloys, with 19-, 20- and 21-inch wheels available. The cars we drove were all riding on the 19-inch wheels wrapped in high-performance Dunlop Sport Maxx tires (245/45R19 front and 275/45R19 rear).
Maserati will initially fit the sedan with two different engines and two drivelines in the North American market. The two gasoline-fed V6 powerplants, each boasting direct injection, are Maserati's own proprietary design yet manufactured off-site by Ferrari in Maranello, Italy.
The standard rear-wheel-drive Ghibli features a twin-turbocharged 60-degree 3.0-liter V6 rated at 345 horsepower. Mated to a standard ZF HP70 eight-speed automatic transmission with five shift modes (Auto Normal, Auto Sport, Manual Normal, Manual Sport and ICE mode for inclement weather) and a standard bevel-drive, asymmetric, limited-slip differential in the rear, the sedan takes an estimated 5.5 seconds to hit 60 miles per hour.
Rather than split the torque among all four wheels when cruising, Maserati sends 100 percent of the engine's power rearward.
The all-wheel-drive Ghibli S Q4 boasts an upgraded version of the same twin-turbocharged 3.0-liter V6, yet it has been massaged with unique camshafts, increased boost and different engine management tuning to earn a rating of 404 horsepower. The S Q4 also uses the same eight-speed automatic, but power is sent through an all-wheel-drive system to optimize grip. Rather than split the torque among all four wheels when cruising on dry pavement (the way Audi does with Quattro, Mercedes-Benz with 4Matic and BMW with xDrive), Maserati sends 100 percent of the engine's power rearward (0:100) through an electronically controlled multi-plate wet clutch until slip is detected. In worst-case scenarios, the torque is split equally (50:50), but the automaker says the Q4 will rarely send more than 35 percent of its torque (35:65) to the front wheels. Despite a lack of launch control, the S Q4 will run to 60 mph in about 4.6 seconds with an unrestricted top speed of 177 mph.
Other markets will also be offered a Ghibli diesel, a third engine choice. The turbocharged and direct-injected 3.0-liter V6 diesel (sourced from VM Motori, it's the same engine fitted to the Jeep Grand Cherokee) is rated at 275 horsepower and 443 pound-feet of torque. With the eight-speed automatic transmission and rear-wheel drive, the efficient oil burner pulls to 60 mph in about 6.1 seconds. As of now, the diesel is not earmarked for US customers.
Other markets will also be offered a Ghibli diesel – the same engine fitted to the Jeep Grand Cherokee.
Without noticing the small "Q4" badge on the left rear flanks or peering through the wheels at the brakes, it is impossible to tell the Ghibli models apart based on their exteriors. The same can be said about the interiors, too, at least without peering at the tachometer or firing up the engine. The cabins are essentially identical, with the most significant differences being additional-cost options and appointments.
The list of standard equipment is long, including Poltrona Frau leather upholstery, dual-zone automatic climate control, bi-xenon headlights (adaptive on the S Q4), LED exterior illumination, a rear-view camera, keyless ignition, seat heating/ventilation, heated steering wheel and an 8.4-inch Maserati Touch Control (MTC) infotainment display with a Garmin-based navigation system. Options include the aforementioned Skyhook adaptive suspension, WLAN hotspot, double-laminated side glass and a Bowers & Wilkins Premium Surround Sound system with 15 speakers and a 1,280-watt amplifier. Maserati will also offer its customers bespoke options, such as contrasting leather upholsteries and special trims, upon request.
Maserati correctly states that the Quattroporte and Ghibli do not share cabins – the smaller sedan is sportier, says the automaker – although they do share similarities. The three-spoke steering wheel and primary instrument cluster, with prominent analog dial tachometer and speedometer (the water temperature and fuel level gauges are projected on a color multifunction display between them) are nearly identical, as are the climate controls and center console housing the transmission selector. Uniqueness is found in the infotainment stack and well-defined individual upper dashboards, which the automaker calls a "two cockpit" layout. The Ghibli's dashboard is defined by expansive areas of smooth leather, while the more expensive Quattroporte is more intricate, detailed and elegant. Arguably, the air distribution is better in the Ghibli, with its vents set further apart, and its touchscreen is mounted higher, making it easier to read.
The Ghibli's dashboard is defined by expansive areas of smooth leather.
The driver and front passenger will find the front seats very comfortable, as I did even after a day behind the wheel. Even though the bolsters don't appear very aggressive at first glance, my derrière sunk into the leather and I was held firm through even the most spirited maneuvers. Rear seat passengers will find plenty of headroom, but foot room beneath the power-operated front seats may be challenged (kudos to Maserati for putting both a 12-volt outlet and a USB power port in the rear center armrest for passengers). Outward visibility is good from the front seats, but those in the rear may feel the window sills are a bit high for viewing the scenery – especially when they block stunning views of Tuscany.
Yet few in the States will be so fortunate as to gaze out at the Italian countryside through the glass of a Maserati. Rather than fret about the limited view from the back seat, I jumped behind the steering wheel of the standard model sedan first. A quick stab of the ignition button, located to the left of the steering wheel (as it is on the Quattroporte) fired the twin-turbo V6 immediately.
I switched on both the Sport and Skyhook buttons and the Ghibli awakened with a new zest – it had become a Maserati.
Operating the sedan in its standard configuration (transmission in Auto Normal with the Skyhook setting in its default mode) was comfortable, but also rather bland. The good news was that the engine felt strong, the chassis very solid, and the cabin was quiet except for some tire noise when driving over coarse aggregate. The bad news was that the steering was too light, the transmission shifted in a less than assertive manner and the shock damping was about average. In this mode, the Ghibli was pleasant, but nothing made it stand out above the rest in the already crowded premium sport sedan segment.
I switched on both the Sport and Skyhook buttons (their tiny illuminated dots are nearly impossible to see with sunglasses, but thankfully Maserati also puts an indicator on the instrument panel), and the Ghibli awakened with new zest – it had become a Maserati. The steering firmed up, the throttle came to life and the transmission felt as if it had finished several cups of strong espresso.
Diving into the first corner, I gave a firm push on the brake pedal and readied myself for the expected understeer. Surprisingly, it never came. Instead, the front and rear tires shared the load equally. The chassis felt balanced and neutral through the apex, so I applied power and the sedan hunkered back on its driven wheels and pulled out of the corner confidently. I repeated the exercise, thinking it was a fluke, but the Ghibli shook each subsequent corner as easily as it had the first. Other automakers boast a balanced weight distribution, but the Maserati actually delivers that neutrality in the corners. With traction control defeated, the sport sedan even relishes oversteer slides upon exit with only a slight bit of prodding.
Other automakers boast a balanced weight distribution, but the Maserati actually delivered that neutrality in the corners.
Rather impressed with the standard rear-wheel-drive Ghibli, I hustled back to grab keys to the more powerful all-wheel-drive Ghibli S Q4. This model turned out to be the real eye-opener. Again punching both the Sport and Skyhook buttons to put the Maserati in the proper mindset, the additional 60 horsepower could have been mistaken for 100 more, as the four-door shot off the line with an eagerness not experienced in the standard model. Plus, there was a very vocal exhaust growl playing the accompaniment.
The more powerful Ghibli was just as balanced as its sibling in the corners, but it possessed additional talent. As promised, the S Q4 acted like a rear-wheel-drive sedan until its tires had reached their limit, and only then did the driveline funnel power to the front wheels. The transition was seamless, but I could feel the front end start to gently grab and lend its helping hand. Under deceleration, the transmission instinctively downshifted (with a nice bark from the exhaust) providing a near-perfect ratio for the exit. The overall result was effortlessly blistering cornering speeds, superb balance and a fun-to-drive quotient unmatched by the Audi S6/S7, BMW 550i and Mercedes-Benz E550/CLS550. While this is purely speculative, and probably blasphemy, I'd bet the sporty new Ghibli S Q4 will even out-hustle its two-door sibling, the GranTurismo MC, on a road course.
But despite my gushing, the Ghibli is not a flawless machine. I drove several cars back-to-back (including the diesel), and each seemed to have a slightly different steering feel – and none was perfect. Despite traditional hydraulic assistance, the steering felt oddly electric and disconnected. It was accurate, placing the front wheels was never an issue, but the steering inputs didn't seem to provide a linear reactive response from the steering rack. Mid-corner corrections felt rubbery, as if the alignment was off. These were early production models, and they had already been through the wringer with other journalists, so it may have just been the vehicles I drove.
The steering inputs didn't seem to provide a linear reactive response from the steering rack.
My two other nitpicks are both found inside the cabin. First, the column-mounted aluminum paddle shifters are too close to the wheel, and they obstruct the audio controls on the back of the wheel. Second, I expected the interior to have a bit more flair, with more textures and artistry. I also yearned for the richly upholstered cabin to be more aromatic (I'm not the only one who feels Italian leather should have an intoxicating smell, right?).
Maserati is on a quest to sell 50,000 vehicles worldwide by 2015 (bear in mind it sold just 6,200 last year), and the new Ghibli is tasked with spearheading the first push. This daunting objective makes it the most important vehicle the company has ever made. But is its new sport sedan good enough?
Mix in Italian charm with that revered Trident on the grille, and Maserati appears to finally have a winner on its hands.
The Ghibli is not the segment's best sport sedan in the traditional sense of automotive accolades. But thankfully, it really doesn't have to be. At this end of the market, emotion sells. Customers are looking for unique styling, world-class quality and an engaging driving experience. The Ghibli delivers it all. Mix in Italian charm with that revered Trident on the grille and Maserati appears to finally have a winner on its hands.