Maserati magic shines in centenary year
Mas-er-ar-ti. There aren’t many names in the car world as muscular as that. Just rolling those syllables around your tongue conjures up so much. Stirling Moss in the 250F. The beautiful 300S. The wonderful Birdcage. Winning in Formula One, winning at Indianapolis. Setting records on land and on water – Maserati speedboats in the 1960s were the ones to beat. And their road car names! Indy, Mexico, Ghibli, Khamsin, Bora, Merak, the Four Door (okay, so the last one sounds better in Italian).
In its heyday Maserati was a force to be reckoned with. The first really big international race at Goodwood – the Richmond Trophy for F1 cars on Easter Monday 1949, just a few months after the circuit opened – was won by Reg Parnell in a Maserati. Maserati won the trophy again the following year, and the year after that, among countless other victories here. The trident was just as at home in Sussex as it was in Neptune’s grip in the fountain in Maserati’s home town of Bologna.
Still is, of course. Goodwood in the Festival or Speed and Revival era would be incomplete without Maserati – whether it’s a Birdcage on the circuit or a Bora at the Breakfast Club. Or, indeed, a brand new Ghibli making its UK debut at the Festival of Speed last year.
And now they – like all the most human and flawed car companies, Maserati is most definitely ‘they’ rather than ‘it’ – are celebrating their 100th year, an occasion to be marked at the Festival of Speed this year. The centenary is somewhat against the odds you would have to say, and a tad early; in contrast to Aston Martin, whose 100th we celebrated last year, the first ‘Maserati’ (an Isotta Fraschini chassis with Hispano Suiza engine) didn’t actually hit the racetrack until 1921, and they didn’t start building road cars until 1947. Through it all Maserati had more flaky moments, changes of direction and different owners than most car companies. It’s one of the things that makes them interesting.
Maserati’s second century promises to be less racy but far more stable and successful. The Fiat Group has embraced the trident brand as its ticket into the performance premium market, aiming at an eightfold increase in production to 50,000 a year, with the UK expected to be the third biggest market after the US and China. Maserati are on the cusp of more commercial success than they have ever enjoyed previously.
And no, it shouldn’t worry us that they are using a glorious heritage to sell a diesel model to bored 5-series drivers, and currently putting the finishing touches to an SUV to rival Porsche’s Cayenne. That would only be beyond the pale if they had insisted on using the concept’s weird Kubang moniker (the new SUV will in fact be badged Levante, after the old Bologna factory). Executive diesels and SUVs are commercial realities no company can ignore. The important thing is that Maserati don’t lose their mojo doing them.
The new Ghibli is fast and good looking, even if it does owe less to Giugiaro’s back catalogue than the benefit-in-kind rulebook. In 1967 the original Ghibli was at that point the Italian master’s most significant design, its bonnet seemingly even longer than that of its chief rival, the Ferrari Daytona. It still looks fantastic today. The new Ghibli is no flamboyant sports coupe but by being a junior version of the Quattroporte (which first came out four years before the Ghibli) it most definitely has a precedent in Maserati’s history.
How did the four-door Maserati come about? The story is an Italian journalist suggested to the then-ruling Orsi dynasty that Maserati should put a racing engine under the bonnet of a saloon car. There’s any number of sports saloons like that today but then it was an entirely new idea. With the title of world’s fastest saloon under its belt, the elegant and luxurious 1963 car was an instant hit. With admirable restraint it was called simply the Maserati Quattroporte.
Now an all-new, sixth generation Quattroporte has joined the (much bigger selling) Ghibli in the UK. Give or take a foot in length, the option of a V8 engine and styling differences, they are essentially the same car. It’s bigger than the old QP – long-wheelbase Jaguar XJ/Mercedes S-class big. But thanks to being all-new everywhere and aluminium where it matters, it’s 100kg lighter than before.
One thing is for sure, it’s not about to relinquish its fastest four-door title. Maserati are quite rightly not interested in the 155mph top speed club – the GTS model does a much more exciting 190mph. The engines for the QP are new: all twin-turbo (funny how they don’t call them biturbo anymore…) and comprise two 3.0-litre V6s (yes, one of them is a diesel) and a 3.8-litre V8. Power ranges from 271bhp to 523bhp. Torque is immense in all. All get a ZF eight-speed automatic with optional paddle shifters. All have 50:50 weight distribution and come with a mechanical limited slip diff and Skyhook active damping.
It is of course a shame that the 4.7-litre normally-aspirated V8 has hit the buffers. It’s a pity not because the new engines lack grunt, or even because they don’t sound good – they sound OK, even the diesel – but because inevitably some Maserati character has been lost. One quick go in the dated but adorable GranTurismo MC Stradale with the old V8 quickly demonstrated that. Standing back and admiring the coupe likewise showed its beautifully resolved design, something the QP and the Ghibli do not capture quite so confidently. And however good looking the two saloons are, you do have to look twice to tell them apart.
At the UK drive programme in the pricier bits of Berkshire – prime QP real estate, if not driving territory – I drove two. The GTS (£108,000) with 523bhp and the 271bhp/442lb ft diesel (not that it says diesel on the body anywhere of course) at £69,000. Both prices plus options and, yes, the list is wallet-emptying, as it is for its rivals.
I much preferred the GTS. The real world may need the diesel version’s 45mpg and 163g/km of C02, but a Maserati to me needs a V8 and 190mph top speed. This is a fast and agile luxury saloon, just 4.7 seconds to 0-62mph and it feels like it. You can use it, too, because despite its size it readily threads itself through the traffic while on a track its eager turn in, great damping control and well balanced nature allow you to explore its considerable limits with confidence, lightish steering not withstanding.
Buy it for its wafting ability and you might be disappointed. It doesn’t waft as well as it dispatches the bends at speed. There’s no shortage of room inside a subtly luxurious cabin, and the body stays pretty level when pressing on, but in the limo-of-the-year stakes there may be others that are smoother and quieter.
Things to investigate further on a longer test drive include tardy step-off performance in the diesel. Dive for that gap in the traffic and the delay in getting going is perceptible. No such problems with the GTS there. I also found that at low speeds in wet and bumpy Berks the diesel QP was not as efficient at getting its power down as the GTS. When that diesel torque arrives there’s a wall of it and the ESP rather too often has to take over and tame things. An all-wheel drive version is available elsewhere but has not been engineered for right-hand drive. The transmission had its odd jerky moments in traffic, too.
These are gripes found on the day that may, or may not, be commonplace; apart from anything else, the extensive options (including sports suspension and bigger wheels) mean that probably no two QPs are identical, or drive identically. The one killer complaint about this car that simply cannot be leveled is that, for all its success at playing by the big boys’ rules, it has become vanilla. Or as the Maserati chaps say about their customers, “The only thing they really fear is becoming boring.”
I am not sure you could ever really be boring in a Quattroporte.
PS: Apologies for the launch photography, it was raining when we drove the car in the UK and our camera failed us