Saturday, April 26, 2014


Lamborghini Espada—36 years after the car went out of production. And for decades, Maserati has been another punch line that proves the rule.

But after passing through the hands of various owners to land in the lap of Fiat Chrysler, Maserati’s prospects have never been better. The brand wants to more than triple its worldwide sales by 2015, to 50,000 units per year, through a barrage of new products. The attack plan started with the redesigned Quattroporte last year and now proceeds with the new Ghibli, which is basically a short-wheelbase Quattroporte. Later, an SUV will appear using similar hardware. While that last model is still in development, we want to send an urgent plea to management to slow down and take a breath. To figure out what elements make a Maserati special, what qualities are necessary to encourage customers to walk through a blossoming garden of excellent luxury products from blue-chip brands to select a car from the makers of the Biturbo.Because it sure as heck isn’t the mediocre infotainment unit from the Dodge Charger. Or a powertrain that goes AWOL between idle and full throttle. Or seats that will be Christmas come early for chiropractors. If Maserati’s ambitions are to be anything more than the hot wind the Ghibli takes its name from, the company has to fix these problems now while it still has its finger on the brand’s reset button.

Much about the Ghibli appears to indicate undue haste, starting with its name, which seems expediently pilfered from Giugiaro’s two-door, two-seat masterpiece of 1967–1973. If anything, the new car should have been named for the later Kyalami, a 2+2 that was also a shortened Quattroporte. But that’s a petty complaint. More important, the styling just isn’t emotional enough. The Ghibli’s lurid cab-rearward proportions nicely evoke the previous-gen Q’porte, but it’s rendered in much heavier and more simplistic terms, especially in the rear third, where the hips need some liposuction. The back is so anonymous that it’ll be confused with any number of Asian pretenders. If a Maserati isn’t the most gorgeous car in its segment, what is it?

Well, this one is roughly the length of a Benz CLS or an Audi A7, but its wheelbase is considerably longer at 118 inches. You get a spacious 18-cubic-foot trunk out of the deal and a relatively large 21.1-gallon fuel tank (you’ll need it), but the rear seat shorts its occupants of legroom. Owners of Italian cars have long endured the complaints of their passengers because the driver’s seat was so fabulous, but here the Ghibli stumbles, too.

The front buckets have center sections that feel like leather wrapped around planks of mahogany. And these boards protrude, always pushing you out of the seat and leaving your upper back and shoulders dangling unsupported. After an hour, our backs were in spastic revolt.

After a week, you develop a certain numbness to it, which allows you to turn your attention forward. The cockpit design is uncomplicated, with its fans of leather upholstery and heavy slabs of carbon-fiber accent trim. That’s because it’s dominated by the seven-inch thin-film transistor (TFT) touch screen that turns many functions usually handled with real buttons, from seat heaters to the rear-window-shade control, into virtual buttons. Before you can do anything, though, including adjust the cabin temperature, you must “accept” the lawyer warning. Very five-years-ago.As in every other Chrysler product that runs this touch-it-for-everything system, from the Dart to the Grand Cherokee, the nav displays are Garmin-generic down to the same cheerful “Where to?” button found on Nuvi units sold at Walmart. The processor is slow, so map zooms take time to re-render. And what possible excuse can Maserati give for not supplying a console-control knob like that in an Audi, Mercedes, Lexus, BMW, or even a Mazda? Urgent note to Fiat Chrysler: “The Charger doesn’t have one” is not an excuse that will fly with these buyers.

The cockpit photographs better than it feels or works in practical usage. A door of not-especially-luxurious plastic covers the cup holders, which are sized for nothing larger than a 12-ounce soda can. The center console has an extra-deep bin at least, at the bottom of which are more sized-too-small cup holders. A good relation with the wheel and pedals is possible thanks to lots of adjustments, but the two large, analog gauges are always crowded by the thick wheel rim. Between them is a multi-info screen that will display a simple numerical speed upon command, and it becomes your go-to gauge in daily use.

Using cheap-car parts to save money in a way that’s hidden from the customer is an art form. VW-Audi have nailed it; Chrysler-Maserati not so much, though with engines they are at least much closer. The Ghibli’s 3.0-liter twin-turbo V-6 block starts life as an aluminum die-casting from Chrysler’s Kokomo, Indiana, plant, but its path quickly diverges from blocks headed for less glamorous duty as it goes overseas to Ferrari’s Maranello campus for its machining and assembly with Ferrari-cast heads.

Once its fur is up, the little 404-hp V-6 can make this 4649-pound car really move, though its labors give it an 18-mpg appetite for premium. At wide-open, the four pipes out back start barking in Latin, and quick upshifts are accompanied by the same thrilling slam-buzz-bang of an F430. The Ghibli racks up 60 mph in 4.7 seconds and the quarter in 13.4 seconds at 105 mph, robust scores for such a heavy car. We saw 175 mph on the big oval.

If you take manual control of the ZF eight-speed automatic via the steering column’s big metal paddles, you may never experience anything but love for the Ghibli’s powertrain. Keep the engine at a permanent low boil and turbo lag is nearly nonexistent. The party stops when the trans is left in auto. It lunges for the top gear and a low-rpm economy setting, so the boost drops off and everything goes to sleep—unless you put it in sport mode, which locks out eighth gear and is thus not great for everyday driving.

When you need speed, things are slow to wake back up. Prod the car with half the throttle and nothing much happens. Nail it and time passes while the trans drops three gears and the boost builds. If you’re eyeing the open freeway lane next to your stopped one, goose it well before jumping out or risk being rear-ended. That’s when you notice how small 3.0 liters is in a two-ton-plus car. And our four-wheel-drive S Q4 version had the powered-up 3.0-liter. Just imagine the 345-hp version of this engine in the rear-drive Ghibli. It’s all or nothing with this engine, the “all” being, granted, rather spectacular.

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