- Max Speed
Former Ferrari F1 driver Ivan Capelli - one of very few Italians to drive for the Scuderia - helped develop the new Maserati Ghibli. "To be honest," he says, "when I checked in for work on the car, I used to bring my dog. He was useful as an accelerometer."
The ears on the Capelli canine must have adopted some pretty amusing angles, because the Ghibli will hurl itself headlong into the Italian countryside with magnificent enthusiasm. Better still, even the crucial diesel version manages to blast the epic Tuscan hills with a satisfyingly baritone rumble when it does its thing. Maserati is well aware that the Ghibli, its first foray into the upper-medium segment, needs to make good on the company's reputation for a certain kind of aristocratic sportiness if it is to woo buyers away from the Audi/BMW/Merc/Jag establishment. Even with the promise of £600 per month leasing deals and competitive CO2 numbers, why would self-aware self-starters - whose only fear is of becoming boring, according to Maserati - bother otherwise?
So let's start with the way it looks - a personal thing, for sure, but also one of the critical factors. Maserati's exterior designer Giovanni Ribotta insists that the rather fanciful Birdcage inspiration they cite isn't purely down to the fact that both cars have four wheels and a trident badge. In a lighter colour, the front end in particular starts doing its thing, and the upswept kink on the rear wing is sweet. Trust us, you'll notice it the first time one passes you, and it's more coherent than the closely related but cumbersomely elongated Quattroporte. Some of the shutlines could be tighter, though.
The UK gets three versions: a 3.0-litre, 272bhp V6 turbodiesel, and single and twin-turbocharged 3.0-litre V6 petrols, with 325bhp and 404bhp respectively. At £48,830, the diesel clearly fancies its chances at the sharp end - it's less powerful but pricier than Audi's brilliant bi-turbo V6, for example - and this VM Motori-developed unit is only going to be around as long as it takes Maserati to develop a more potent twin-turbo one (due in a few years' time, apparently). Still, 443lb ft from 2,000rpm is useful enough, and the combination of 50:50 weight distribution, a mechanical limited-slip diff (the only car in its class to be so equipped) and a seriously able chassis add up to a package that has enough bite to justify the famous badge.
The hydraulic steering set-up is surprisingly meaty, the 8spd paddle-shift ZF 'box is as sublime as ever, and though the ride - double wishbones at the front, multi-link rear, passively damped with the option of a Skyhook adaptive set-up - can be fidgety on broken surfaces, it's good enough. Barely lighter than the full-size QP at 1,835kg, the Ghibli uses a mix of steel and aluminium in its construction, but ultimately it's more about gravitas than athleticism. I quite liked this sense of heft, but most of its key rivals are faster and feel keener. The diesel also suffers from a slight but still irritating driveline shunt.
The base petrol V6 is a sweeter car, and unsurprisingly taps much more readily into whatever constitutes the Maserati ideal these days. Naturally, it's much more rev-hungry, it sounds lovely and it moves with a generally greater sense of abandon. The 404bhp Ghibli S I tried was the all-wheel drive Q4 version - unavailable in the UK for unspecified engineering reasons - which ups the ante to a level that makes the really fast 500bhp-plus, M5/XFR-S/E63-rivalling version that Maserati says it's "thinking about" look unnecessary. It's a corker and will most likely be even more fun in rear-drive form when it lands here at the end of the year (it costs £63,415).
The Ghibli's credibility mission continues inside. There's frameless glass in the doors and wonderful ruched leather seats. There's the option of a magnificent 1,280W Bowers & Wilkins audio system, the satnav is clear and easy to use and the dual-zone climate control is potent. Maserati also plans to riff on Ferrari's Tailor-Made options scheme - hopefully less hysterically expensively - so you can do what you like inside. The leather and wood in the various cars I tried was all very high quality, and imbue the Ghibli with a distinct atmosphere. Less convincing are the multimedia's graphics - in terms of aesthetics and simple legibility - while the gear-selector is absolutely hopeless to use, with no decent demarcation between P, R and D. Rear cabin space is a bit tight, too.
It boils down to one simple question: should you? In isolation, the Ghibli is convincingly seductive and perfectly credible. We'll have to group-test it to see how well it copes using a more rational calculus. But as it stands, the diesel emits 158g/km CO2 and sits in the 26 per cent company car tax band, so it's there or thereabouts. But forget all that, and do me a favour when you get to the end of this paragraph: just say the last word out loud - Maserati.
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