Where do you expect to see a Maserati Ghibli S Q4? The upper east side of Manhattan? The French Riviera? Abu Dhabi? These days the natural habitat also includes the parking lot of a Connecticut Whole Food store, between Petco and Five Guys burgers. By building a four-door under $100,000 Ghibli with creature comforts, a Ferrari-supplied 404-horsepower twin-turbo V-6 instead of a V-8, six-piston Brembo brakes and a clever all-wheel drive system, Maserati is going mainstream (sales target: 50,000 a year) with the Porsche Panamera, Mercedes E-Class and 5-Series BMW clearly in the Ghibli's crosshairs.
My test Ghibli S Q4. Yes, that's a suburban Whole Foods in the background. (Photo: Jim Motavalli)
As part of the new strategy, Maserati was even willing to let me have a Ghibli (my first) for a weekend. The Nero Ribelle metallic black tester, with a $96,575 bottom line, was fully equipped with options that added nearly $20,000 to the cost. Adding up were such niceties as the Bowers & Wilkins audio system ($5,200), carbon fiber trim ($1,500) on the steering wheel, too ($1,400) and the sport package ($1,250). But the car starts at $77,900.
Frankly, the Q4 is not a finicky Sunday driver. It’s an upmarket commuter car, competent in all the ways those German competitors are. I was surprised how easy it was to live with, including on a long interstate job. The snarling tiger keeps its claws sheathed until you hit the “Sport” button and punch the accelerator. Then it squats down on its haunches and the turbo V-6 launches it like a Scud missile, with the quad-pipe exhaust taking on a whole new note of urgency. Zero to 60 comes up in 4.7 seconds.
"Few cars have stirred my soul as much as this Italian beauty," wrote....the usually more sober Consumer Reports. "U.S. sales are surging," says Car and Driver. "Maserati is currently enjoying a party frame of mind." Road & Track calls the Ghibli "a Ferrari-powered dark horse in the premium mid-size luxury market."
This Ghibli is stirred by an eight-speed ZF automatic that offers paddle shifters to take it through the gears manually. I’ve tested many of these systems, and this is the first one I actually liked. The shifters are huge, well-positioned and the response is instant for sporty driving.
Pottering around town, it works as a grocery getter, albeit one with a somewhat tight rear seat and plenty of positive feedback from bumps in the road. The trunk is cavernous, and the Chrysler-supplied navigation/infotainment quite competent. Five thousand clams is a lot for a sound system, but this 15-speaker entry will rattle your fillings when cranked. Here's a closer look:
Six footers fit in the back of the Ghibli with splayed knees; if more rear legroom is needed, the Quattroporte ($121,000 loaded) is the next step up in the food chain.
The 50,000 sales year seems more realistic after a visit to Maserati’s new dealership (since March) in upscale Westport, Connecticut, home of "Mad Men" and hedge funders. Sales Manager Tim Coughlin told me the Ghibli can go head-to-head with the luxury/performance leaders in the upscale bedroom towns. “Westport is a phenomenal location for us,” he said. “Our plan is to sell 30 to 40 cars per month; we’re already above 20 a month.” The Ghibli is 65 percent of sales so far, Coughlin said.
The dealership, which used to be a high-end clothing shop, fits into the neighborhood. It was busy on a Saturday, and customers had several rows of shiny new Maseratis to choose from.
To understand what a game changer this is, consider the history of Maserati. Carlo, Alfieri, Ernesto and Ettore Maserati had a colorful history with all things mechanical through the 1920s, which saw them designing the famous trident emblem and getting serious about racing. The first car to bear the Maserati name was a racer named the Tipo 26, named after the year it made its competition debut.
The 3500 GT is the first serious consumer Maserati, and it was exclusive enough that the Shah of Persia ordered an early one custom-made to his specifications. In 1963, the Quattroporte was introduced, but it too was an exotic catering to the upper reaches of the market.
For 1967, enter Giorgetto Giugiaro, considered by many the greatest auto designer who ever lived, and the V-8-powered Ghibli, considered a huge success — with 1,295 built (in both coupe and convertible versions) through 1972. So the new car is that car’s namesake, but the strategy — not to mention the car itself — are completely different, and in line with Fiat Chrysler boss Sergio Marchionne’s strategy to re-establish Italian cars in the American marketplace.
Maserati starts out with a glorious name that conjures racing successes (including legendary battles with its now-corporate partner Ferrari), and ultra-expensive but gorgeous high-performance road cars. Volume was never in the game plan, until now. The challenge is seeing if the wild beast can be tamed and made into a reliable and affordable supercar for our leafier suburbs. Here's some Ghibli video: