The Pittsburgh Pirates baseball team made history in 2013. It did so by ending the international professional sporting world’s record for most losing seasons in a row. Their ninety-four victories in 2013 propelled the Bucs to their first winning campaign since the one that ended twenty-two years ago, a month before a young Bill Clinton was elected president. The team even won a wild-card ticket to the National League Division Series before falling to Saint Louis, whose Cardinals made it to the World Series, only to be struck down by the red-socked beardos of Boston. It was a fine season, all right, heartening Pirates fans mightily. In fact, I’m tearing up right now. But the team has a long way to go before it convinces the disbelievers -- and as I write, their 2014 season isn’t helping.
Maserati, the brand that sits below Ferrari and above Alfa Romeo in Fiat’s hierarchy of Italian luxury brands, also has its work cut out for it. But unlike the Pirates, whose starting rotation and bullpen both showed up for 2014 running on fumes, the trident brand from Modena starts its season with a new Maserati Ghibli up from the farm and popularly priced, starting at $66,900.
Playing alongside the new Quattroporte, refreshed GranTurismos, and an upcoming Maserati SUV with which it will share plenty, including the task of being the real sales lumber, the mid-size Maserati Ghibli is meant to power a steep sales climb, aided by unprecedented marketing money (the brand’s first-ever U.S. television commercial ran during the Super Bowl) and a host of new U.S. dealers. The volumes projected are not huge -- 50,000 worldwide sales per year is the goal -- but it’s not hyperbole to say the Ghibli is a cornerstone of the operation to save Italian automobile manufacturing.
To reduce labor costs, Fiat Chrysler supremo Sergio Marchionne has been moving small-car production out of Italy. Miraculously, he has managed to avoid tar and feathering at the hands of unruly mobs by (a) spending a lot of time in Michigan and (b) promising greater sales of Maseratis and Alfas built in the high-cost old country, which, he says, will preserve the industry’s vital role in the Italian economy.
Whether that really pencils out or not, it’ll have to do. Fiat long ago became Italy’s privately held answer to British Leyland -- an agglomeration of pretty much the entire Italian car industry still standing. Minus Lamborghini, which is so Italian these days it’s actually German. Fiat Chrysler Automobiles may be legally headquartered in the Netherlands, but its health is still a vital matter of jobs and national pride in Italy. It’s also a subject of interest to enthusiasts, who support more diversity of choice, especially when it means new sport sedans designed and built in Italy with Ferrari engines and priced to compete with midgrade 5-series BMWs, E-class Mercedes-Benzes, and sporty Cadillacs.
I lay out these two challenging comeback cases because I experienced them firsthand recently. Combining Pirates fandom with every sentient gearhead’s penchant for road-tripping Italian-style, I drove my family to Pittsburgh from New York to catch a weekend series with the divisional-nemesis Cardinals in a new Maserati Ghibli, an electric blue S Q4. The twin-turbocharged all-wheel-drive model ($76,900) reels in 60 mph in 4.7 seconds, which was fast enough for us. Sportingly, an S Q4 directs 100 percent of its power to the rear wheels, except as needed up front. What the Pirates have done with their power, I don’t know.
So that our traveling party could include all three generations of current Kitmans -- notably El Marvin-o, patriarch and Pirate fan No. 1, celebrating his eighty-fourth birthday with a trip to the city of his birth and PNC Park, its gem of a bandbox stadium -- we needed a second car. It only made sense to run one of the Maser’s distant cousins, a four-door Fiat 500L, as a tender. Cast in the roles of chauffeur and footman to the senior members of our delegation, college lads Ike Clemente Kitman and Mark Gorenstein reprised a part played in the ’burgh thirty-five years earlier by me and my old college chum Richard Hart, who returned with us to mark the anniversary.
The last time the Pirates went to the World Series, in October 1979, they beat the Baltimore Orioles in seven games. The middle three games were held in Pittsburgh, and I was there with my folks and Richard. He and I had just graduated from college that fall, a little later than scheduled but graduated nonetheless, which lent everything a bit of an extra-celebratory air. The two of us drove my parents’ 1976 Saab 99EMS from New York, which imparted even more extra-celebratory vibes, because the older generation flew ahead. Absent parental units, I could wind the EMS up, out, and over the Pennsylvania hills with only state troopers to complain.
We’d do the same with the new Maserati. Measured by the number of admiring comments it drew, the Maserati Ghibli looks great. But it also goes and sounds great -- relaxed as you please until you drop down a gear or two and stand on it, at which time the near-silent multicam V-6 suddenly becomes an angry yet eloquent loudmouth, hurtling you forward with a mellifluous, vociferous din. The Ferrari-spawn V-6 is the star virtue of the Ghibli’s basic lineup of attributes and the crux of its value proposition. It is an easy machine to drive fast. A speedometer with gradation trickily reading 10, 20, 30, 40, 50, 70, means it’s an even easier machine to drive too fast, no small achievement considering the immodest curb weight of 4650 pounds. Weight is something Maserati needs to address in future generations, and now is a good time to mention it.
The AWD chassis is worthy, however. The ride is basically fine (an optional sport suspension was not above crashing), and the steering is more engaging than feared, if not truly lively. The interior is just spacious enough and plausibly upscale, with plenty of leather available in a riot of color choices, although the infotainment system really ought to look different from the Chrysler refugee it so blatantly is. Against that, it’s easy to understand and it works -- nothing to sneeze at in an Italian car and nothing a graphics reskin couldn’t fix.
The season is young, however. The rebirth of an Italian option in this part of the car-buying scale is to be celebrated and its successes cheered, even when the odds against perennial underdogs are always long. We wish Maserati well. Its chances are at least as good as the Pirates’, and if they don’t win, it’s a shame.