For one reason or another, this is a car people stare at. They might be drawn to its curvaceous shape riding on immense wheels. They could be intrigued by its gaping, blacked-out grille which houses an equally outsized trident logo, or doing quick calculations about the last time they saw a car wearing the name Maserati. It may be its sports-car-like proportions mixed with achingly long, four-door bodywork that draws their eye.
Or, and I urge you to consider this theory carefully, the people taking notice of this Maserati Ghibli S Q4 might simply be newly alert after hearing the sound of its exhaust ricocheting off any solid thing nearby as I drive past grinning like a certified asshat.
I spent a week hammering this all-wheel-drive Ghibli as hard as I dared in the last truly miserable stretch of the God Awful Winter of 2014. I can honestly say that I enjoyed myself, shocked at both the frank way this new challenger luxury car went down the road as well as the attention it garnered in the process.
Since the Ghibli left my charge, I’ve also spent a lot of time thinking about how significantly flawed the newest Maserati is, just how I’d explain that to all of you, and how I almost love it despite its failings. A story of desire and conflict – how Italian.
I touched on it already, but it bears repeating that Maserati has designed a truly excellent shape with this latest Ghibli. The third Maserati to wear the nameplate, this sedan is long and lean (more than two inches longer than a BMW 5 Series and four more than a Mercedes-Benz E-Class), with that effect exaggerated by the steeply raked front glass and the 20-inch wheels pushed out to the car’s extremities. I don’t typically care for white sedans, especially when I have to photograph them in snow-sodden Michigan, but the Bianco paint covered this athletic shape rather well.
It has been a long time since I’ve seen a car as pointed at and fussed over by passing drivers as this one.
Forget my opinion on a subject as tempestuous as attractiveness, if you would, but do note that it has been a long time since I’ve seen a car as pointed at and fussed over by passing drivers as this one. At least for the moment, you’re going to struggle to be an anonymous Ghibli driver.
Of course, I didn’t let any of those lookie-loos take a seat behind the wheel. Had I, some portion of them might have come away considerably less impressed with the interior.
The cabin is nice, tidy and well finished, but I don’t feel conflicted in saying that it lacks the element of specialness evoked by the Ghibli’s exterior. Highlights include a nicely sized steering wheel that’s great to look at and hold, the effortlessly cool blue-face gauges that sit just behind it, and two front seats that are soft enough for long trips and grabby enough for truly challenging roads. Lowlights include leather that, while plentiful, seemed far too waxy and textureless to be decorating the insides of a Maserati, and lower-half dash plastics that feel downright common. There is also a huge cast of characters from the Chrysler Family parts bin.
The cabin lacks the element of specialness evoked by the Ghibli’s exterior.
Honestly, the shared Chrysler bits are almost a net positive in my book, though, and I’m not sure they’ll register as downmarket with potential buyers who haven’t been in a 300 or a Durango in the last few years. It’s true that, in theory, nobody wants their quasi-exotic sedan to have the same bank of window switches as the world’s most popular minivan, but there are definitely plusses, too. The infotainment screen that dominates the Ghibli’s centre stack, for instance, is very clearly running the same UConnect software that has been lauded industry-wide, and it’s an epic step up from the Atari 2600-powered navigation system that shipped with the last-generation Quattroporte.
Does that make up for the commonness of some the air vent surrounds or the wiper stalks? I’m not sure, but I’m sure that “common” isn’t a word that’ll come up a lot when the gas pedal has been engaged.
Since the Maserati brothers first starting spinning propeller shafts, cars bearing their name haven’t exactly lacked for power to turn a wheel. With a twin-turbocharged, 3.0-litre V6, the Ghibli S Q4 is no slouch on that front, either. The 404 horsepower and 406 pound-feet of torque kicked out from this Ferrari-assembled engine is enough to mostly match performance on offer from the car’s V8-engined competitive set. Sixty miles per hour (96 km/h) comes up in some 4.7 seconds in this 1,860-kilogram (4,100-pound car), with the upper limit being a heady 280 km/h (175 mph) according to the manufacturer. Secretly, I was relieved when I read that spec that I wouldn’t have to risk my career on a top speed run – a limit of 300 km/h (185 mph) would have almost certainly forced me to try and earn a head nod from an apocryphal Joe Walsh.
The Ghibli is fantastically quick if you’ve a will to make it move.
The first clue that the Ghibli is at its very best when its being pushed the hardest comes when you flick the eight-speed transmission into the automatic Sport mode – out of the normal setting that saps most of the fun from the engine with snail-slow shifts – and get on with it. The engine’s torque peak is under 2,000 rpm and its horsepower peak is at 5,500 rpm, which helps the power delivery feel almost like that of a very starchy, naturally aspirated engine. The paddle shifters don’t give lightning quick responses when asked for input, so I mostly let the excellent sport programming do the work for me as I accelerated hard on the dry straight bits that connect the icy corners of my test roads.
The Ghibli is fantastically quick if you’ve a will to make it move, though it certainly couldn’t stand up to the brutal power of true performance cars in the segment like M5 and E63 AMG. But the progressive power its engine – along with the Latinate opera it sings as you cane it – make it almost as rewarding as those streetable racecars. I liked the sound so much, in fact, that I convinced our film crew to meet up with me and document it for our second Autoblog Unplugged video.
As you can hear, the exhaust note is ripping. But there’s also actually a nice balance of in-cabin quiet and sporting sound from behind the wheel. You really only hear the engine and exhaust at their peaks, and when that happens, it’s really wonderful. The quiet-into-loud character also made me want to drive the Maser fast… and often.
The quiet-into-loud character made me want to drive the Maser fast… and often.
The Ghibli S Q4 I tested was running Pirelli snow tires to enhance its all-wheel drive, and the combination proved more than adequate for the wintry conditions. As you might expect, the low, shovel-like nose was more of a concern in deeper snow than was the ability of the Maser to claw into low-grip surfaces. No one living in an area with regular winter snowfall, near urban or suburban areas, should concern themselves that the Q4 might not be up to seasonal driving tasks.
It was harder to suss out, if I’m honest, just exactly what kind of effect the AWD setup had in high-performance handling situations. Conditions weren’t acceptable on my favourite backroads test route for pushing the Maserati to its handling limits, though I can say that the overall experience felt very close to that of a very well-balanced, rear-drive car. (Which makes sense, since normal, dry driving conditions see the all-wheel drive system send 100-per cent of torque rearward.) There wasn’t any untoward nose-heavy behaviour, and the car rotated on command with the precision of something at least one size smaller. Given more dynamic circumstances, the Ghibli’s long wheelbase might have started to call it out on tight roads, but overall the performance from corner to corner was excellent.
Feedback from the steering wheel was, quite frankly, shockingly high.
What was also unmissable during my drive was the sheer volume with which the Ghibli communicated about the road conditions beneath it. Feedback from the steering wheel was, quite frankly, shockingly high. Despite a rather low amount of effort needed to turn the wheel at low speed, the wheel tightened up meaningfully at higher velocities, and provided tons of information about the goings on under the tires at all times. Stacking quick corners one after another, and not pushing the car because of the snow and ice, I could still easily feel just what the tires were up to.
The suspension also did its fair share of communicating while I drove, though the results were a lot tougher to deal with on the battered, cracked roads I sometimes encountered. Not equipped with the optional Skyhook damping control, the non-variable suspension settings on this Ghibli were exceptionally firm. “Crashy” might be a better way of putting it, actually. Cruising on smooth highways was one thing, but putting the Maser on compelling back roads often proved almost more jarring an experience than it was worth. That last part is really pretty sad for me, considering that lithe, great handling, highly tactile sedans are not exactly thick on the ground in North America, and they’re pretty much exactly what every enthusiast claims to want in their garage at some point.
Mercedes has never cared much about competing for out-and-out sportiness of handling in its E-Class (AMG aside), and BMW has built sedans with truly fine ride/handling balance, but more of them have worn 3 Series badges than 5. Considering that, I love the idea that Maserati is infusing its race-bred heritage into an executive-sized sedan. But I’m also quite certain that the market for a luxury sedan that handles like a hardcore sports car is pretty small. Now, with the variable dampers or a life lived on the mostly smooth roads that cross the always sunny regions of our country, the Maser’s stiffness might feel a lot more like an asset to fast driving than a liability to one’s fillings. But here in Pothole Land, I’m not sure the compromise is worth it.
For Maserati to make a lasting dent, it’ll need to rely on more than just the shock of its good looks and the sex appeal of its badge.
That’s because, these days, all of the German luxury brands, Cadillac, Lexus and Jaguar all make executive sedans that are fast, good looking and decent to toss around the occasional section of hot tarmac. The segment is ultra competitive, and for Maserati to make a lasting dent, it’ll need to rely on more than just the shock of its good looks and the sex appeal of its badge. The car is selling so well in the early going that I’ve got to believe many buyers are intrigued by that combination of attributes in the showroom right now, but for that success to stick, the ownership experience is going to have to perform every bit as well.
Fair or not, the expectation of every car to wear the Maserati trident is that it must be somewhat magical. If not completely transcendent; at least impressive, and iconoclastic and emotional enough to justify its impeccable breeding. I’m willing to say that the cachet of the Maserati brand is worth paying extra for, but the car must feel a little bit unbelievable, too. This Ghibli gets very close to that, but I still wonder if its angles are strong enough to ward off its demons when the freshness of its face starts to fade.