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Can Italy's interloper challenge the premium executive saloon old guard?

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An easy route to rousing at least temporary interest in a new car is to describe it as the most important in the history of its maker.

Problem is, if you’re writing a cheque said car can’t cash, soon you’ll find yourself with customers who are not only bored but also disappointed.

The revered original two-door Ghibli made its debut in 1966

There are no such concerns here. The Ghibli is to Maserati what the DB7 was to Aston Martin or the Lotus Elise to Lotus. This car has to take the company from a Stygian mire of minority interest to mainstream respectability.

The quest will be aided by the new Maserati Maserati Quattroporte and further boosted by the Maserati Levante SUV, but for now the Ghibli has to make the difference. And a difference it is making. In 2012 Maserati sold 6000 cars – a tally set against a best-ever year of 9000 cars in 2008. In 2013, that number was 22,500 cars and rose again to 36,448 in 2014. Those figures plateaued in 2015, due to a delay with the long-anticipated Levante SUV, with Maserati confident of hitting their 50,000 target for 2016.

Those who snorted into their coffee at Maserati’s stated intent to shift 75,000 units by 2018 might be feeling they underestimated the desire of customers to own a car with a trident on its nose.

Costing upwards of £49k and available with diesel power, the Ghibli has been attracting attention like no Maserati in history, although this is not the first time the name has appeared in the marque's line-up. In fact, three distinct Ghiblis have been created since 1966.

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The first remains the most revered, and was designed to compete with the Lamborghini Miura and Ferrari 365 GTB/4 Daytona. Powered first by a 4.7 and then a 4.9-litre V8, it remains one of Maserati’s greatest ever road cars.

The second Ghibli was based on the unloved Biturbo platform. Built from 1992, it came with 2.0 and 2.6-litre V6 turbos. The smaller engine made more power (306bhp vs 284bhp) and transformed the car, but it wasn’t sold here.

Three models of the new Ghibli are available. The standard model is a twin-turbo 345bhp 3.0-litre V6 petrol variant. A more potent Ghibli S features a hotter twin-turbo V6, which produces 404bhp. Alternatively, for those seeking more efficient motoring, a 271bhp turbocharged 3.0-litre diesel is offered in the Ghibli Diesel.

So does the new Maserati Ghibli deserve the attention it's receiving? Let's find out.



Maserati Ghibli bi-xenon headlights

The Ghibli certainly looks the part. Maserati would like you to think of it as a four-door coupé in much the same mould as the Mercedes-Benz CLS and Audi A7, because that way it can command both a more glamorous image and a higher price tag.

In fact, it just looks that way, but even so, the Ghibli should prove more than adept at stealing sales from more conventional cars as a low-slung slice of Italian exotica marauding amid a sea of sit-up-and-beg saloons.

The Ghibli's layout certainly meets our idea of a modern luxury saloon

It sits on an abbreviated version of the Maserati Quattroporte’s platform, shorter in the wheelbase by a substantial 173mm and by 290mm overall. For the two petrol models, power comes from either 345bhp or 404bhp versions of the same Ferrari-built 3.0-litre twin-turbo V6.

But in Europe and the UK all attention falls on the diesel, not just because it’ll be the runaway best-seller of the bunch but because, well, it’s a diesel. Is a diesel Maserati not akin to a paint-by-numbers Picasso? We shall see.

In the meantime, take a moment to ponder the pedigree of this ‘new’ diesel engine. Said to be developed by Maserati under the watchful eye of Ferrari engine man Paulo Martinelli, it is nevertheless based on the same 3.0-litre V6 used by the Jeep Grand Cherokee, even though it is built by VM Motori.

And while no one at Maserati is making the connection, we cannot help but notice that not only is its 2987cc capacity identical to that of Mercedes’ current 3.0-litre V6 diesel, but its bore and stroke are also the same.

That’s the Mercedes owned by Daimler that also used to own Chrysler which still owns Jeep, both of which are now owned by Fiat, which also owns Maserati. Engineering multiculturalism at its finest. Ironically, it runs through the eight-speed ZF automatic gearbox used by almost all major players in this class except Mercedes.

The Ghibli sits on a cut-down version of the Quattroporte’s platform, consisting of a steel monocoque with additional subframes, that at the front being cast in aluminium. Weight distribution is claimed to be 51 percent front/49 percent rear for the Diesel, for example, although our testing revealed a rather more nose-heavy 54/46 front/rear stance.

The suspension has the same layout as the Quattroporte, with double wishbones at the front and a multi-link rear end. However, it has its own spring and damper rates and wider tracks. The standard suspension is entirely passive, although Maserati’s Skyhook adaptive dampers can be fitted.

In normal driving the system prioritises comfort, but either at a press of a button or when the car detects that it’s required, the dampers firm up to mitigate both longitudinal and lateral load transfers.

If you don’t want to pay the full £2000 for Skyhook, a passive sport suspension is available, but given the firmness of the standard set-up, we’d definitely want to try it before ticking the box.


Maserati Ghibli dashboard

We’re used to Maserati interiors that look gorgeous, but it’s breaking new ground for the marque to find one that, after over a century of trying, actually works reasonably well, too.

Don’t be too diverted by the fine-grain leather seen here unless you’re happy to part with almost £2500 extra for it. Even without it, basic cabin design is sound. The driving position is normal, affected only a little by slightly offset pedals, and while we’d like a little more reach adjustment on the steering wheel, that’s a small gripe rather than a major complaint. The wheel itself is perfectly proportioned, with a thick but firm rim – which is how it should be.

The steering column is well placed but the pedal offset could prove uncomfortable for some

Analogue dials live alongside a digital display with only a certain degree of success, and whether you regard the large 8.4in central touchscreen as a result or a disappointment depends on the direction from which you’re approaching. It’s much poorer than the MMI, iDrive or Comand systems used by Audi, BMW or Mercedes – but compared to anything hitherto used in any other Italian car, it’s close to miraculous.

Forget Maserati’s claim to class-leading front legroom, because it has no value unless you’re 6ft 8in tall. Concentrate instead on the fairly generous head and legroom for four adults – something not a given from Maserati.

Just don’t mistake this for a five-seater; there are three seatbelts in the back, but the middle perch is better at providing amusement value for other occupants than somewhere sensible for anyone to sit for anything other than short hops.

The Maserati's media system won’t let you pair a Bluetooth phone while moving, which is sensible, if frustrating. The pairing process is fairly quick and easy, and the system reconnects to a known device without a prompt. Call quality is fine, but connection isn’t as stable as it might be, occasionally requiring you to end a call on the handset when the Bluetooth connection has stalled.

Standard equipment includes dual-zone climate control and rain-sensing wipers, and two audio systems are available including a 15-speaker Bowers & Wilkins set-up. The standard system seemed strong, though, with decent usability, DAB, SD card for audio input and USB and aux-in connectivity. No track information when streaming via Bluetooth, though, which is annoying.


Maserati Ghibli front quarter

The Ghibli offers three engines and two drivelines, the range beginning with a rear-drive 3.0-litre petrol twin-turbo V6 developing 345bhp.

Above that sits the Ghibli S with the same 404bhp twin-turbo version of the V6 recently debuted in the Maserati Maserati Quattroporte, this engine available either with rear or four-wheel drive, although the latter, disappointingly, will not be available in the UK.

Repeated hard stops can quickly lead to brake fade

The most unusual offering, in a Maserati context, is a 271bhp 3.0 V6 turbodiesel that’s an essential weapon if the Modenese marque is to boost its sales from well under 10,000 units to 50,000.

All Ghiblis come with an eight-speed paddle-shift ZF transmission, multi-link rear suspension and double wishbones up front, Maserati’s electronically controlled Skyhook dampers, a limited-slip differential, Brembo brakes and hydraulically assisted steering. And all benefit from 50 percent front, 50 percent rear weight distribution, a model-for-model kerb weight 50kg lighter than a Quattroporte and a 0.31 drag coefficient.

We know the V6 in the larger Quattroporte performs in a spirited, smooth and characterful fashion. In the Ghibli, it should prove a sensible and rewarding option.

‘Adequate’ is not a word you want to hear in any description of a Maserati, but there seems none better to describe the performance of the diesel Ghibli in both subjective and objective terms.

Its acceleration would be entirely unremarkable for the class were it to wear a BMW or Mercedes badge. Indeed, it’s slower to 100mph than both the CLS 350 CDI and a BMW 530d, let alone the 535d which is its closer rival, and it’s no quicker than an Audi A7 3.0 TDI. Is 0-60mph in 6.5sec and a 0-100mph time of 17.2sec acceptable for a Maserati? We’d say yes, just, but a Volkswagen Golf GTI is about as quick to both targets.

The motor is sufficiently civilised as long as you don’t make the mistake of pressing the Sport button, which imbues it with a gruff and gravelly voice but no additional performance. Salvation lies in the gearbox, which is as excellent in the Ghibli as it is in any other application. Better, in fact, because should you choose to shift manually using the selector rather than the paddles, it makes you push to change down and pull to change up, which is exactly as it should be.

Sadly, the Ghibli is no better at losing speed than it is at gaining it. At a socking 2040kg on our scales, our diesel test car was more than 200kg heavier than Maserati’s figures suggest, causing brake fade on the test track and, on the road, merely the sense of a car with sufficient braking potential for the performance but no more. The car also took a long time to stop in the wet.

However, given the traction issues discussed in the following handling section, this is more likely the fault of the chassis and tyres than the brakes.


Maserati Ghibli cornering

This is a car that feels like it was developed on largely dry and smooth European roads, for in such unchallenging conditions the Ghibli handles well. The steering is not exactly flooded with feel, but it does feel natural and consistent, and it’s accurate and linear in its responses.

Meantime, even on standard passive suspension, the Ghibli’s body movements are controlled fluently. Grip is such that you’re never going to accidentally overwhelm it with the torque of the available engines.

The lack of damping finesse and directional stability is evident when you push

The handling feels taut, sporting and directly in line with what you might hope for and expect in a Maserati saloon. Fun and poised, then, and in this idealistic arena the Ghibli puts clear air between itself and the class average.

But the Ghibli is far less sure of itself in less optimal environments. In the wet it feels too stiffly suspended at the back, and you’ll never notice that more than when accelerating left or right away from a damp junction.

There’s no great harm done, but the Ghibli doesn’t quite do its sibling Ferraris much credit on the track. But neither does it need to. We’d happily take the car as it is, rather than have Modena add sporting purpose at the expense of on-road ride compliance and everyday habitability.

However, that leaves the Ghibli a way off the limit handling standards set by the best sports saloons. It corners flat, it’s grippy and communicative and it’s quite well balanced.

But Maserati’s standard passive dampers aren’t really up to the job of keeping the car’s two-tonne mass fully in check during fast direction changes, and there’s a troubling change of pace in the steering rack, just around a quarter turn of lock, that makes the car hard to place, and hard to correct smoothly, mid-corner.

The car’s wheel and tyre sizes penalise it on wet-weather grip and limit controllability. Even so, its ESC and ABS systems could and should be more sensitively tuned.

Despite a standard limited-slip differential, traction is surprisingly limited. On the move, grip levels degrade from excellent to unimpressive, and if you throw in some typical British B-road gremlins – tightening radii, surface and camber changes – the Ghibli can suddenly feel large, heavy and a little ponderous.

The ride is problematic. We don’t think customers will expect a Maserati to ride like a Mercedes, but even with this taken this into account, the Ghibli is still too intolerant of high-frequency bumps and, especially, our ubiquitous potholes, which jolt the structure sufficiently to suggest there’s too much unsprung mass hanging off each corner of the car.

Overall, the Ghibli is not as refined as we’d hoped. The diesel motor is too audible when under load and, at least on 20in rims, there is far too much road noise on coarse surfaces.


Maserati Ghibli

The Ghibli is competitively priced, Maserati smartly choosing not to place any particular value on its exotic name while trying to break into a party peopled by terrifyingly well accomplished Germans.

That said, it doesn’t take long in the company of the options list for the numbers to start adding up. One test car felt fully but not lavishly equipped, but only thanks to the addition of almost £15,000 worth of additional goodies.

It's probably worth thinking about the adaptive dampers, or avoiding the 20-inch wheels

Given its weight, you can’t expect even a diesel Maserati to be truly frugal. The saintly might see 40mpg once in a while, as we did on our touring route, but something a little better than 30mpg should be seen as a realistic target in regular running in and out of town. At least its CO2 emissions are competitive with most six-cylinder diesel mid-size execs. 

Both V6 versions should prove capable of averaging over 20mpg; the standard V6 is claimed to average 29mpg and the V6S is reputed to return 27mpg, which should be acceptable to most buyers.

The residual values should prove more than acceptable to most too, with the Ghibli retaining much more value after four years than the equivalent BMW or Mercedes.



3.5 star Maserati Ghibli

We never expected the Ghibli to be flawless, and nor will many of its customers. Most who want a car thought through to the last detail will buy a German premium saloon and live with the conservatism of that decision.

We appreciate fully the power of looking out of your window and seeing a beautiful Maserati on the drive. From the way it looks to the sense of occasion it imparts, this car is special.

The suspension needs to be sorted out if it's to compete with E-class Mercedes

But more than any other Maserati, the Ghibli must work as a device for doing a job, in a segment where the standard is through the roof.

And here, the Ghibli is second best in too many areas. The car’s ride, refinement and ease of use are all notable for their mediocrity – and the diesel lags behind its rivals in terms of performance, too.

The result is not a poor car. It still charms and it’s the most rounded Maserati ever created. But the sense it leaves is not of how good it is, but of how much better it could and should have been.

Rivals like the BMW 5 Series, Jaguar XF and Mercedes-Benz CLS or even the new Mercedes-Benz E-Class Coupé remain the more preferable options – for now.


Matt Saunders

Matt Saunders Autocar
Title: Road test editor

As Autocar’s chief car tester and reviewer, it’s Matt’s job to ensure the quality, objectivity, relevance and rigour of the entirety of Autocar’s reviews output, as well contributing a great many detailed road tests, group tests and drive reviews himself.

Matt has been an Autocar staffer since the autumn of 2003, and has been lucky enough to work alongside some of the magazine’s best-known writers and contributors over that time. He served as staff writer, features editor, assistant editor and digital editor, before joining the road test desk in 2011.

Since then he’s driven, measured, lap-timed, figured, and reported on cars as varied as the Bugatti Veyron, Rolls-Royce PhantomTesla RoadsterAriel Hipercar, Tata Nano, McLaren SennaRenault Twizy and Toyota Mirai. Among his wider personal highlights of the job have been covering Sebastien Loeb’s record-breaking run at Pikes Peak in 2013; doing 190mph on derestricted German autobahn in a Brabus Rocket; and driving McLaren’s legendary ‘XP5’ F1 prototype. His own car is a trusty Mazda CX-5.

Maserati Ghibli First drives