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First Drive: 2018 Maserati Ghibli

Driving.ca logo Driving.ca 5 days ago David Booth
2018 Maserati Ghibli© Maserati 2018 Maserati Ghibli

MONACO – It’s relatively easy to resurrect a car brand, doubly so if a) the brand in question has a long and storied past, and b) said long and storied past also happens to be, say, pockmarked with the manifold troubles that have always been a part of the automotive industry’s fringes. The first promises immediate brand recognition, absolutely essential to curry favour with a shallow and attention span-challenged clientele; the second sets expectations to promise-little-deliver-much low.

Maserati certainly fits that bill. Storied past? Absolutely, everything from the famed to 6C 34 to the “Birdcage” seared into automotive lore. Checkered past? Absolutely. All that you need to mention is that previous owners Alejandro de Tomaso as proof of a turbulent history. In other words, the rejuvenation of Maserati’s offers the comeback story’s perfect combination of immediate awareness and low expectations.

Which Maserati — now owned by Fiat Chrysler — thankfully exceeded. The remake of the Ghibli into sporting sedan was very well received. The introduction of the Levante capitalized on rapid sport utility takeover of the luxury market. Even the Quattroporte, long but a bit player in the uber luxury segment, is seen as a legitimate, if niched, alternative to the BMWs and Mercedes of the world. Maserati, for the first time in its 103-year history, has been accepted as a real automaker.

With that acceptance, however, comes greater expectations. Call it the automotive equivalent of the sophomore slump, but the hardest task in automotive engineering is the mid-model refresh of a proven product. And while the concept of Maserati as mainstream automaker is still fresh, the Ghibli, introduced in 2014 as a 2015 model, is starting to get long in the tooth. Time for an update.

And a fairly fine job they’ve done. Along with the almost expected increase in horsepower — up to 350 (plus five) for the base Ghibli; 430 hp (plus 26) in the SQ4 — comes a host of, let’s call them maturing, upgrades that help continue the evolution of Maserati from niche segment alternative to mainstream luxury contender.

2018 Maserati Ghibli

First and foremost is the addition of a new suite of safety devices. As much as the fabulously well-to-do who shop at this price point — the 2018 Ghibli starts at $85,050 and stretches past 100 large — might buy the Maser because it is more exotic than a mere Bimmer or Merc, they’ll only re-up if it also meets their expectations for basic transport. So, as much as it seems incongruous to mention Maserati in the same sentence as self-driving, Maserati’s head of product planning, Roberto Corradi, is most proud that the new Ghibli has now reached Level II autonomy. In addition to the now normal suite of lane departure warnings and forward collision warning, the 2018 model adds adaptive cruise control with highway assist, active blind spot assist and even active lane keeping.

Indeed, in true Italian fashion, there almost seems a passion, if you will, to Maserati’s safety nannies, the Ghibli’s lane keeping program — which automatically steers the car back into the lane when it sense that it’s drifting out of its lane — particularly enthusiastic in its reaction to errant driving. Of all the lane keeping programs I’ve tested, the Ghibli’s puts up the most resistance to lane changing without signaling; Maserati may be late for the party, but they certainly are committed.

One aspect of the Ghibli’s redesign we won’t be (at least initially) getting is Magneti Marelli’s adaptive LED headlights. Like many such systems, the computerized multi-beam headlamps can produce an almost infinite number of lighting patterns, ideal for lighting up the dark without blinding oncoming traffic. Unfortunately, regulations in North America outlaw such multiplicity — essentially the U.S. Department of Transportation’s rules insist that lights have but two alternatives (High and Low) — so we get ordinary LED headlamps without all the alternative lighting patterns. In a bit of refreshing news, Corradi sees movement in the DOT’s regs, hoping that such adaptive headlamps will be compliant in about 18 months. They will be a big boon to safety.

But one doesn’t buy Maseratis for safety gear or even light shows, the attraction of any Italian exotic its sound and the fury.

Of which there’s plenty in the Ghibli. As noted, he SQ4 — the most popular, all-wheel-drive version of the Ghibli — pumps out 430 horsepower for 2018, a creditable number for mere V6. And despite being twice turbocharged — usually the death knell of an exciting exhaust note — the 3.0-litre does the full Pavarotti every time you mat the throttle. I have no idea what Italian exhaust engineers know that others don’t, but where other V6 engines sound flatulent — stand up and take a bow, Porsche — the Maserati scintillates, music matching might as it accelerates to 100 kilometres an hour in less than five seconds. It also tops out at 286 kilometres an hour — two km/h more than the previous model, Maserati takes pains to note — but that’s largely academic even here in tax-free (but not constable-free) Monaco.

a silver and black car© Provided by Driving.ca

More impressive perhaps is the Ghibli’s implementation of electric power steering. Like so many manufacturers, Maserati is incorporating electronically assisted power steering (EPS) as a fuel conserving technology. Unlike other marques, however, Maserati’s rendition doesn’t turn the Ghibli into a numb-steering Camry. Indeed, for the first time in my evaluations, I found a computerized steering system superior to the traditional hydraulic boosted variety. Weighting is ideal, the response impressively direct and, even the feedback, though a little diminished from the purely mechanical system, more than adequate. Combined with extremely well calibrated suspension, the Ghibli attacks the serpentine roads — we tested the Maser on some of the same roads that made up the famed Monte Carlo rally — like few other sports sedans. Indeed, if the Ghibli isn’t quite as spry as a BMW M3, it is certainly far ahead of that company’s 335. A perfect 50/50 front-to-rear weight distribution — which BMW also brags about — doesn’t hurt things, either.

And that road holding doesn’t come at the expense of comfort. Indeed, after all the complements paid to engine and steering, the Ghibli’s best feature is Maserati’s adjustable Skyhook suspension. Available on the new GranSport trim — which also differs from the GranLusso version with unique front and rear fascias and interior trim — it proves firm yet compliant; coddling yet sporty. On French roads as pockmarked as Canada’s, the adjustability was much appreciated.

Inside, the Ghibli is again typically Italian, all warm colours and soft leather. Indeed, on the GranLusso model — which starts at $100,300 as does the GranSport trim — one even gets a little Ermenegildo Zegna silk built into the door panels, the roof lining and, this would seem problematic, the seats. Quite how said silk will resist the chocolate and coffee spills of everyday driving is anyone’s guess, but Corradi promises that a combination of carefully chosen grades of cloth and protective coating will ward off any staining.

Another highlight is Maserati Touch Control Plus, which is just Italian for FCA’s Uconnect system. Before you assume that’s a slight, know that Uconnect is one of the best telematics systems going with easily deciphered submenus and permanently displayed buttons — navigation, vehicle settings, audio, etc. — that precludes the need for a back button or always returning to the main menu when you get confused.

As for interior faults, the major limitation of the new Ghibli, like the old, is that rear seat room, like so many European sporty sedans, is a little tight. Though the Maserati appears physically larger than a 3 Series, its rear seats are no roomier. And, despite top quality materials throughout, some of the fit and finish is not quite up to the standards of segment leader Audi.

But Audi (or BMW and Mercedes-Benz) can’t offer the same feeling of exotica that is driving a Maserati. Nor can its direct competitors match its combination of sporty handling and superior comfort. Yes, one does pay a premium for that exclusivity, but the new Ghibli proves that Maserati is by no means a one-and-done flash in the pan.

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