Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Test Drive: 2014 Maserati Ghibli S Q4

Maserati has always held a place among the upper echelon of performance brands. Since the Maserati brothers started the brand, it has produced some seriously winning sports cars and participated in world championship races throughout the last century. Although ownership has changed hands numerous times, the current company shares space with Ferrari and Alfa Romeo under the umbrella of the Fiat group. This arrangement has led to the resurrection of several of the brands storied nameplates, including the Quattroporte and, most recently, the Ghibli.

This new Ghibli, unlike its predecessors, is a four-door sedan positioned below the Quattroporte and offers itself as a competitor to the likes of the BMW 5-Series as well as the Mercedes E-Class. Jumping into such a competitive space, the Ghibli needs to find its legs quickly in order to remain a viable competitor for its share of the market. Being a part of the Maserati brand certainly does not hurt and the close engineering ties to Ferrari, care of its Fiat overlords, carries a fair amount of cachet among those who are looking for that performance pedigree. But has that Ferrari magic genuinely managed to find its way into the likes of this newest entry in the luxury mid-size class or will the influence seep in from below from another of Fiat's recent acquisitions, Chrysler?

On the outside, the Ghibli is distinctly Maserati. Liberal use of heritage and trident cues along with that now highly recognizable manta ray front grille gives the Ghibli a look like no other competitor in this class. The only car that it shares any resemblance to is its big brother, the Quattroporte. For the sake of brand recognition, this is excellent as there can be absolutely no doubt that this car is anything but a Maserati. Those looking for exclusivity and who want to stand out in a crowd should get in line now to buy this car. For everyone else, there are things to like about the Ghibli, like its rakish profile and shapely haunches, as well as dislike, such as the too-small standard wheels.

Inside, it is a mixed bag as well. The first thing that catches my attention is the use of a matte finish wood trim instead of the usual glossy stuff. This more natural finish looks fantastic and blows away even the best glossed-to-death wood trim that most other brands use. Big kudos to Maserati for making this much more elegant selection. Unfortunately, the second thing I picked up on was the touchscreen infotainment system. To me, the plasticky surround and obtusely tiny knobs just looks ludicrously out of place in what is an otherwise classy interior. The system itself is Chrysler's brilliant UConnect interface (not called that for this application, of course) and is about as faultless of a system as one can get these days in terms of usability. However, spending some more time to craft the interior design in order to make it feel less tacked on would go a long way towards improving the quality feel of the cabin. The final element that garners my attention are the steering wheel controls, which are not intuitively laid out and feel cheap to the touch, looking more than just a bit out of place on the beefy steering wheel.

Grabbing a hold of the hefty key, which feels like it has been carved from a solid block of aluminum, I press the start button and the twin turbocharged V6 motor rips to life with an earsplitting crackle of exhaust. Immediately, it is clear that sensory overload is going to be a part of this car's raison d'etre. Fumbling a bit with the 8-speed automatic transmission's goofy electronic shifter, which is far less intuitive to use than it should be, I get the Ghibli onto the road.

Initial impressions are that the steering feels good, with excellent weighting and rather satisfying heft. However, this weight is there entirely to mask the fact that the steering does not provide as much direct feedback as I would personally like. Still, compared to other cars in this class, the Ghbli offers outstanding steering feel and is surprisingly easy to drive quickly. The chatty, if not quite engaging, steering mixed with an extremely neutral chassis results in a car that seems to respond instantly to my every whim. However, unlike some other cars in its class, the Ghibli never seems to manage to feel tossable, instead feeling like it is a bigger car than its exterior dimensions would suggest. This might have been due in some part to the sheer solidity of it as the structure is clearly trying to do its best impression of a solid block of granite, but it paradoxically manages to make the car a bit less enjoyable to drive.

Also creating a conundrum is the exhaust system. Yes, it sounds utterly fantastic when you lay into the throttle, offering an absolutely thrilling exhaust note and a noticeable pop and crackle with every shift. The problem arises when you stop pushing and settle into a cruise on the highway. Instead of a quiet cabin in which to enjoy the drive, I am assaulted by a constant drone that threatens to drain away any inner peace I might have been reserving for those idiots I encounter on the road. I try everything, playing with the various buttons on the console and digging into the car's in-car menus, fruitlessly seeking a way to hush the noise, but to no avail. While I realize that Maserati's are about offering a uniquely sports car experience, this approach might drive away many would-be owners who are looking as much for luxury as for performance.

Luckily, the motor that is making all of the exhaust noise feels absolutely faultless. Turbo-lag is basically nonexistent and power is available all over the rev range. The transmission tuning is smartly calibrated and paddle shifters are available for those who like to control their own gears. However, leaving it in sport mode and letting the car do the work was enough to make me plenty contented. The transmission behaves obediently and does not seem to suffer from the tendency to want to hunt around despite the presence of so many ratios to select from. In our test car, the power from the breathed-upon motor is funneled to a rather transparent all-wheel drive system that competently, if somewhat unremarkably, shuffles power from the rear to the front wheels when the added traction is needed. When there is no slippage, the car delivers a very purely rear-wheel drive dynamic, happily wagging its tail on demand.

In the end, however, the Ghibli is just too mixed a bag for me consider it a serious contender. Its demeanor is almost cartoonish and is such a caricature of a sports car in a sedan body that it feels rather surreal behind the wheel. There is much to like about it, but there are also simply too many things that make it feel unpolished and rough around the edges. Add in the fact that, despite its excellent usability, the UConnect clone for the infotainment just looks less impressive than those of the competition, and you already have some serious strikes against what has the potential to be a decent car. Throw in the exhaust drone, the unremarkable wheels, and top that off with a rather bloated price tag that makes this a hard pill to swallow.

Still, even now, I gaze upon the photos I shot for this piece and wonder if I am being too harsh in my judgement of the Ghibli. It is certainly not faultless, but what car is? 

Does it have some quirks? Absolutely. 
Is it a bad car? Absolutely not.

But if my own money were on the line and I had $75k to spend on a car, the Ghibli would probably end up getting cut long before I would have to get serious about a decision. That is not to say it is a bad car, but with all of its faults, even its uniqueness and the propensity to share engineering talent with Ferrari is not enough to pry away my hard-earned dollars. The competition is simply that good these days and without a bit more refinement, the Ghibli will remain a curious oddity that only a few dedicated sports car aficionados buy while the rest of us gazes upon them with cautious envy.