SIENA, Tuscany -- Like a three-hour, Chianti-fueled lunch, followed by a month long vacation, the 2014 Maserati Ghibli makes perfect sense under that famous Tuscan sun.
Back in the clock-punching States, Americans have just begun to sample the Fiat 500's affordable appetizer, along with traditional Modenese and Maranello delicacies. Alfa Romeo is whipping up its own exotic sauce, beginning with the 4C.
But the Ghibli is a whole new bocce game, for Maserati and America. At roughly $65,000 to $85,000, the Ghibli drops Maserati into low, uncharted price waters -- and into a German shark tank with the smooth-skinned Audi A7, Mercedes CLS and BMW 6-Series Gran Coupe; and Porsche's puffer fish, the Panamera. The Maserati will also brush up against high-end versions of cars like the BMW 5-Series and Mercedes E-Class, plus a few domestic and Asian players.
Even the Jaguar XF and XF-R must seem less mysterious to Americans: Trill the name "Maserrrati" to risk-averse luxury buyers, and they'll picture a cologne-dipped lothario and his Romanian girlfriend. That prospect will then chuckle, buy a prudent A6, and still convince himself that he's shaking up the suburban status quo.
Maserati is keenly aware of the challenges, as its executives stressed during the Ghibli's press drive. The heedless, romantic days of the original Ghibli, that Guigiaro-penned beauty of the late '60s and '70s, are no more. Maserati now answers to both Fiat and Chrysler. And six-figure Quattroporte sedans and Gran Turismos aren't about to deliver the eight-fold boost in global sales that Maserati has brazenly penciled in: From 6,200 units in 2012 to 50,000 by 2015, including Ghiblis and QPs, from the revamped Avvocato Giovanni Agnelli plant near Torino.
So the Ghibli, along with the upcoming Levante crossover, is tasked with luring customers (enticing lease terms for commitment-phobes will surely help) on a scale that that Maserati could never imagine in its 99-year history. Whether the Ghibli can meet that sales promise is a valid question. But the Maserati keeps its performance promise, whispered in Italian.
The dirty secret of pseudo-coupes like the CLS, A7 and Gran Coupe is that, for all their power and capability, they're not all that fun to drive. In contrast to those safely understeering, computer-gorged luxury shuttles, the Ghibli is a salty blast of Mediterranean air. Its "quaint" hydraulic steering is an enthusiast's dream, unmediated by electric motors, unsullied by algorithmic tricks. The brakes are superlative, including six-piston front and four-piston rear calipers on the S Q4 model, with a pedal so attuned and sensitive that it should teach poetry at Oberlin.
A mechanical limited-slip rear differential, 50/50 weight distribution (51/49 for the all-wheel-drive S Q4) and a sophisticated suspension help the Ghibli pull a claimed 1 g in lateral acceleration. As that number suggests, the Ghibli resists understeer like Kiera Knightley resists Big Macs. Push it to the brink, and the Maserati pays you back with a connected brio the current BMW M5 can only dream of -- even if that Bavarian automaton may be objectively faster.
Then there's the engine and its Grammy-worthy soundtrack, the parts you already expect from Ferrari's kissing cousin. Built alongside Ferrari mills in Maranello -- and designed by Paolo Martinelli, former engine maestro of Scuderia Ferrari -- the 3.0-liter, twin-turbo V-6 spins up 345 horsepower and 369 pound-feet in the rear-wheel-drive Ghibli. That's 19 more horses than the Europe-market base Ghibli, and decisively more than German six-cylinder rivals. This direct-injector squirts the Ghibli to 60 mph in roughly 5.5 seconds, abetted by the paddle-shifted, eight-speed ZF automatic. (We also drove the turbo diesel version, but it won't be coming to America).
Ante up roughly $75,000 to start, and the Ghibli S Q4 raises camshaft profiling and turbo boost to pop out 404 horsepower and 406 pound-feet of torque. The S Q4 plays an exclusively rear-drive tune until its potent limited-slip abilities are exhausted. Then, up to 50 percent of torque can shoot forward, or back again, in as little as 150 milliseconds. The entire system, including a multi-plate electronic clutch and power take-off unit, weighs 135 pounds.
The 0-60 dash time falls to 4.8 seconds, and peak velocity is 175 mph -- irreproachable numbers for a sedan that's 1.2 inches longer than a CLS, on a nearly five-inch longer wheelbase.
The styling may be more reproachable, especially by Italian sexpot standards. Viewed from one vineyard over, the Ghibli is hard to distinguish from the nearly foot-longer QP. The front end is appropriately exotic, with its seductive, Trident-topped grille, the rear end a bit indifferent. But if it's not as purely pretty as, say, BMW's Gran Coupe, the streamlined Maserati will still command attention in a lot full of conforming luxury cars. Weight-savers include an aluminum hood and doors and a magnesium dash frame; though the Ghibli, at 4,045 pounds, trims just 155 pounds from the QP.
The payoff for big dimensions is American-sized real estate. Unlike some steep-roofed sedans, the Ghibli welcomes lanky adults in back. The 19.1 cubic foot trunk seems as deep as a coffin, with a usefully low liftover height.
Inevitably, a Maserati that stoops below six figures has to give up something. That something is the cabin. Despite some rich bits -- including shapely seats and thick Poltrona Frau leather, optionally extended over the upper dash -- the interior's middling vibe won't cause any sleepless nights in Audi or Mercedes HQ.
The console shifter is less Bentley-regal and more Buick Regal. This overlarge doorknocker also struggles to find reverse on the first try. Super-sized aluminum shift paddles, mounted on the steering column, are more persuasively rendered. Maserati claims that shifts are up to 40 percent faster than in any previous application of the ZF eight-speed. But credit the Ghibli's minimal, driver-oriented layout, blessedly free of blind-spot monitors, self-parking systems, and other digital detritus.
Main functions are smoothly handled by an 8.4-inch touch screen with Garmin navigation, virtually identical to that of a Jeep Grand Cherokee. Joke if you must about Chrysler's latest -- and hopefully last -- European marriage, but it whips the nav system on any Ferrari. WiFi hotspot capability also hails from Motown, not Modena.
A handsome digital driver's display includes a clever torque-split graphic; we saw up to 30 percent of power divvied to front wheels in various situations. An optional, first-rate Bowers & Wilkins audio system amasses 15 speakers and 1,280 watts.
Simplicity extends to performance controls. One button stiffens the optional Skyhook adaptive dampers. Another adds heft to steering, boosts shift points and speeds, and gooses throttle response. Roaring through the arid hills of Montalcino, home of rich-and-famous Brunello di Montalcino wines, the Ghibli delivers its own vintage performance. Martinelli's V-6 is a rare vocal talent, its crackling call amplified by a two-mode exhaust whose pneumatic valves route from each cylinder bank.
But what else is new? Maseratis always get a hand from auto writers for their zesty performance and La Dolce Vita personality; but then the back of the hand for concerns over reliability or consistent dealer service: The things that make consumers think a Maserati is too great a leap of faith or imagination. Those issues aside, the Ghibli represents a put-up-or-shut up moment for sports-sedan fans: The kind who spill crocodile tears over robotized performance and digital overkill, but who won't put their money where their mouth is.
In the movie "Hoosiers," Gene Hackman's Coach Norman Dale chastised a gym full of high-school "fans" who began catcalling a perceived lack of star power. "This is your team," Dale said, pointing at his spirited underdogs.
For people who believe in luxury sport sedans with genuine heart, that play the right way, this is your car.
If American enthusiasts don't buy in, they deserve the cars they get.
2014 Maserati Ghibli
|Base Price:||$65,000/$75,000 (Ghibli/Ghibli S Q4, est.)|
|Engine:||3.0-liter, twin-turbocharged DOHC 24-valve V-6|
|Horsepower:||345 @5,000 rpm/404 @5,500 rpm (Ghibli/Ghibli S Q4)|
|Torque:||369 lb-ft @1,750-4,500 rpm/406 lb-ft @ 1,750-5,000 rpm (Ghibli/Ghibli S Q4)|
|Drive:||Rear or All-wheel|
|L x W x H:||195.7 x 76.6 x 57.5 in|
|Curb weight:||4,045 lb|