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Jeremy on: the Maserati Quattroporte
Another day. Another squadron of messages from members of the Twitter army asking whether they should buy a BMW X3 or an Audi Q5. Or for my opinion on the Hyundai Veloster. Or if a secondhand Jaguar XK is a good buy. And the simple answer to all these questions is: I absolutely don’t have a clue.
Mainly, this is because it’s not 1932 any more. Back then, there were hundreds of different car manufacturers, all trying something new and interesting. Valves were being mounted sideways, axles were fitted to the roof. Gearboxes were upside down, and thick-cut marmalade was being used instead of petrol.
So the job of the car journalist was valuable. He - I was going to say “or she” at this point, but I don’t think it’s necessary - would puff on his pipe, listen to the engineer explaining why he’d mounted the propshaft to the steering column, and then write a long review of whether or not the solution had worked. These were the days before oversteer became the be-all and end-all of motoring journalism.
Today, the differences between an Audi Q5 and a BMW X3 are infinitesimal. Picking a favourite in terms of engineering is like picking your favourite from two sardines. Or two milk bottles. Or deciding which is your favourite ear.
The only way you can choose between them, or whether you’d like a Veloster, or if the Jag’s a good secondhand buy, is by imagining yourself behind the wheel thinking: “Does this car suit me?”
Think of it as a jacket. They are broadly the same. They all have lapels and they’re all held together with cotton and they’re all made from natural fibres, unless you’re reading this in Americaland. And yet the sort of jacket favoured by a German game-show host would not hang well from the shoulders of, say, Jeremy Paxman. It would make him look silly. You choose a jacket because you think you look good in it. And that’s where we are with cars these days.
Which brings me on to the Rolls-Royce Phantom Coupe. I drove one across southern France last week, and I thought it suited me very much. I especially liked the all-white interior. It was like sitting inside Elton John’s piano. And I loved the snazzy blue paint. And the effortless power. And the divine quietness. I thought it was a very excellent car indeed.
However, after a bit, I was prised from the driver’s seat by Richard Hammond, who is, how can I put this kindly, a little shorter than average. And, I’m sorry, but he looked absolutely ridiculous in it. Imagine a mouse driving a Hercules transport aeroplane. That ridiculous.
So is the Rolls a good car or a bad car? It’s an impossible question to answer, really. Because it depends on your genes. If they’re strong and civilised, yes, it’s great. If they’re a bit wonky and backward, then no, it’s not.
And that brings me on to the new Maserati Quattroporte. Last night, I was staying at a hotel in Saint-Tropez and when I came out this morning, the doorman, to my delight, asked which car I’d like bringing round to the front. I cleared my throat, preselected a volume that would carry all the way to Menton and said: “The Maserati, please.”
Now I know full well that to all of the special Russian ladies who were milling about, I may as well have said “The Humperlator”, because to anyone under the age of 90, the Maserati name means not much at all. But it does to me. Because I’ve seen Intouchables. It’s a French film about the relationship between a black kid from the ghettoes of France and his wealthy paraplegic employer. It’s superb. Watch it, because afterwards, two things will happen. You’ll be a better person, and you’ll want a Maserati Quattroporte.
I’m sorry, but Hammond looked absolutely ridiculous in the Rolls. Imagine a mouse driving a Hercules transport aeroplane
Sadly, the model featured in the film is no longer available. There’s a new version, and I can tell you one thing straight away. It won’t suit you at all if you live in Saint-Tropez. Because you’ll spend all day backing up and scraping its door mirrors. It’s massive.
There are some other issues as well. The previous model was styled by Pininfarina. The new one was done in-house, which means it looks like…um, I can’t remember what it looks like. In my mind, it has no distinctive feature at all. It’s just some car.
And there’s the same problem on the inside as well. There’s a vast amount of space. The back is as big as a football pitch. But, like a football pitch, there are no memorable features. What I can tell you is that much of the switchgear is from Chrysler, so it feels a bit cheap, and that the satnav doesn’t work. It, too, is from Chrysler, and I presume, being American, it is completely unfamiliar with the concept of “Europe”. So it spends all its time thinking it’s in the sea off the coast of New York.
The engine in my test car was a 404bhp twin-turbo V6, and the gearbox was an eight-speed ZF. Neither did anything particularly hair-raising. You can also have a twin-turbo V8, which Maserati say is the fastest four-door saloon money can buy. And it is. Apart from the new Bentley, which is 10mph faster.
I’m going to be very honest here. The new Quattroporte is not really a very good car. The steering is weird, there’s a cheapness to the primary ride, and the styling inside and out is way too forgettable. Merc, Audi, BMW and Jag can all sell you something better. The end.
Except it isn’t the end, for two reasons. There’s a little button down by the gearlever. It’s marked Sport, and, when you push it, the engine starts to wail and howl and snarl. It is the most intoxicating soundtrack I have ever heard from a car. It’s baleful and soulful and brilliant.
It reminds you that, while the car may be bland and filled with bits of Chrysler wallpaper, its DNA is northern Italy. Modena. Ferrari country.
Of course, you can get great sounds from an AMG Mercedes or an M5 BMW, but they are nothing like the sounds you get from the Quattroporte. And they just don’t have the Maserati’s quiet restraint. Big German cars are very in your face. They smell of new money. They’re brilliant, but a bit vulgar.
No footballer would ever buy a Quattroporte. No lottery winner. It is a big car for people who don’t want to make a big fuss. It is for tall poppies who don’t want to be noticed. I know a lot of people like that. People who are so wealthy they don’t even appear in the Sunday Times Rich List. They slide through life, and no one pays them any attention at all.
Now that the Phaeton has been dropped by Volkswagen, this is the car they should have. It’s not very good, but it will suit them perfectly.
This feature was originally published in the October 2013 issue of Top Gear magazine