Maserati Ghibli: building on heritage

It’s not a coupé, but it is very fast; does the latest incarnation of the classic Italian name live up to the legacy? We drive it on UK roads to find out

The current Maserati Ghibli is still a rare sight on UK roads, and finding out how it behaves on Britain’s challenging tarmac became the priority during a recent test drive. It also felt right to explore whether the new four-door remains appropriately named; in Maserati’s past, the Ghibli moniker was exclusive to excessively fast coupés.

For us, the main advantage the latest Ghibli holds over the rest of the segment is the fact that it makes no attempt to mimic the looks, surface finishes and textures of its German rivals. The rear-wheel-drive saloon not only looks very different from its Teutonic competitors, but it also feels very different to drive on UK roads – a quality that’s becoming progressively rare these days.

Once settled in the well-shaped driver’s seat, finished in a combination of leather and Zegna fabric, and having fired up the V6 turbo, the act of moving off and tackling the first few corners produces a startling revelation.

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The Italian car’s initial turn-in is far superior to that of the latest Porsche Panamera. The very same quality is also displayed in its bigger brother, the Quattroporte. This lack of slackness in the helm immediately instills within the driver a high level of confidence – but it’s merely the amuse-bouche for the main dish that comes later.

I’m referring to the Ghibli’s chassis composure over rough, undulating, twisty UK roads, with their incessant changing grip levels, unexpected crests and adverse camber corners. If you leave the electronic chassis control in the default position (‘Sport’ may only be useful on a racetrack), the car permits a rapid and fluid driving style, with perfectly judged damping and very satisfying, meaty steering.

The latest-generation stability control, engineered in conjunction with Bosch, is much less intrusive than older systems. It can be disengaged, too, as the chassis is initially calibrated by Maserati engineers without the electronic aids.

Yes, the twin-turbo engine, sonorous and smooth, develops 350bhp. It permits the car to accelerate from a standstill to 100kph in 5.5 seconds, and to reach a top speed of 166mph (incidentally, just a smidgen higher than the electronically limited top speed of most high-performance German cars...). Yet that’s not really the point.

What is more pertinent is the subtlety and sophistication of the Ghibli’s cross-country progress. Dismissing the Maserati as not being a serious contender in the segment is wrong – especially if this is done solely on the basis that it doesn’t look like an Audi and doesn’t have Audi-like buttons inside.

Are there any weaknesses?

What are its weaknesses then? No car is perfect, and the Ghibli is no exception. The eight-speed ZF automatic gearbox, also found in a number of other premium cars, seems here to have been better matched with the engine’s characteristics – and the stringent demands of emission controls – than in some other applications. For once, leaving the car to do its own shifting feels right.

However, the Maserati-typical shift paddles behind the steering wheel require some getting used to, should you be inclined to take over control (this can also be done using the gearlever, with down- and upshifts occurring in the correct direction). The left-hand paddle is positioned precariously close to the single column stalk.

That area, although recently redesigned, has a clear Chrysler/Jeep influence, and is slightly overloaded with functions. There isn’t enough clearance between the steering wheel rim, the paddle and the stalk, but perhaps our fingers are simply inordinately long…

Certain other onboard infotainment functions need some practice as well, but overall the build quality, detail fit and finish, and ease of use have progressed massively since the brand was overhauled under the guidance of Sergio Marchionne.

The Ghibli is compact enough to be chucked about on twisty country roads, and comfortable enough to accommodate longer journeys, while the sound system is extremely capable and largely user friendly. But that is all secondary. We like the fact that in RWD guise the Maserati has a proper limited-slip differential, and that it’s somewhat old-fashioned in being pleasant to drive for those who learned their craft not on game consoles, but in cars and on real roads. And yes, the use of the traditional Ghibli name seems entirely appropriate.

1966 Ghibli

Giorgetto Giugiaro penned this sleek coupé, which shared its underlying structure with the Mexico and the first-generation Quattroporte. It was powered by a 330bhp, 4.7-litre V8 with twin cams and four Weber carbs. It was low-slung and light, and quickly gained a reputation as a true driver’s car, with its LSD, four disc brakes, ZF five-speed gearbox and great handling.

In 1970 it gained the SS suffix and a bigger, 4.9-litre engine, making it capable of 170mph almost half a century ago. The rarest of all Ghiblis remain the convertibles – only 100 Spyders and 25 SS Spyders were built. Magnesium Campagnolo wheels were standard, with Borrani wire rims being offered as a factory option.

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1992 Ghibli

The angular Ghibli coupé, known internally as AM336, was first shown in 1992, and is attributed to the great Marcello Gandini. It was powered by a 2.8-litre Biturbo engine for export markets, and a 2.0-litre motor, also twin turbocharged, for the domestic market in Italy, suffering under a luxury car tax. Manual gearboxes and a four-speed automatic were offered.

Two years later the Ghibli was updated, gaining bigger wheels and ABS brakes, among other things. The 1995 Ghibli Cup limited edition had a 2.0-litre engine, developing 330bhp, making it the world’s highest specific output engine (power per litre. It beat both the Bugatti EB110 and the Jaguar XJ220 in that respect.

The Open Cup race series vehicles were based roughly on this model, and their lap times, surprisingly, were getting close to those of the Ferrari 355 Challenge cars. The Ghibli underwent another update in 1996, resulting in the Ghibli GT. This car was produced until 1998, when it was replaced by the Maserati 3200 GT coupé.

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