When the average North American consumer draws up his or her shopping list for a sporty European sedan, there are certain brands that always make that list. Maserati is not one of those brands, but that's changing faster than an eight-speed transmission – the Italian car maker, marking its 100th birthday, is on the verge of recording its most successful year ever.
The Maserati brothers formed the garage bearing their name in Bologna on Dec. 1, 1913, and began race-preparing cars for manufacturer clients 13 days later. Early success followed as the company offered engineering talent and sheer driving prowess; the brothers wrenched cars and then steered them to victory in the most prestigious races of the day.
After 13 years in the business as garagistas, the name "Maserati" first appeared on a car in 1926. The brothers became constructors in their own right with the release of the Maserati Tipo 26, a monoposto that was raced to victory by middle brother Alfieri at the Targa Florio that same year.
In recognition of the brand hitting the century mark, Maserati has launched a microsite – maserati100.com – to showcase its achievements. On the site, visitors are encouraged to vote for their favourite model, but the results may be a foregone conclusion. Despite some stellar efforts in the past such as the Bora, the 3500GT and the Tipo 61 Birdcage, one Maserati – the 250F – represents the pinnacle of their racing success.
At Maserati headquarters, they refer to the three prongs of the trident in the company logo as representing the best Grand Prix car of all time (the 250F), the best driver in history (Juan Manuel Fangio) and the best race, the 1957 German Grand Prix at the Nürburgring, which was won by Fangio in a 250F, securing his fifth and final World Drivers' Championship.
Growing up, my first recollection of a Maserati was the forlorn Biturbo (1981-1994), a small car that brought more customers to the brand, but one that reviewers scorned for not being true to a rich racing heritage.
Like many exclusive car makers that were around in the mid- to late-1970s, Maserati faced challenges. Ownership changes and the backlash caused by the oil crises forced bizarre, makeshift decisions; meanwhile, prevailing thoughts on car design from that era have, generally, not aged that well.
But 100 years of uninterrupted history is no mean feat. For Maserati, it must be all the more rewarding as it is on the cusp of an all-time high. There are good reasons behind this phenomenon: In 1993, when Fiat Group acquired Maserati, the brand finally had the proper resources and the necessary technical support in place to thrive.
Since then, the small fleet of Maserati vehicles – four different models with a fifth, an SUV, on the horizon – has grown exponentially in terms of desirability. Unlike the Biturbo, the modern Maserati offerings remain true to the brand; across the board, they are stylish offerings that deliver no small amount of performance.
This is the thought that springs to mind as I prepare to leave Palm Springs, Calif., from behind the wheel of the 2014 Maserati Ghibli S Q4 on a sleepy Thursday afternoon.
As a final salute to the town, I pull away from the traffic light and hold first gear a bit longer than absolutely necessary. The wail of the 3.0-litre twin-turbocharged V-6 reverberates between the buildings and the snap, crackle, pop as I take second gear provides the exclamation point on the entire, five-second affair.
The Ghibli is the most recent Maserati, a mid-sized sedan that is designed to compete head-on with the likes of the Audi A6/A7, BMW 5-Series and Mercedes E-Class.
The version in my sweaty palms is equipped with all-wheel-drive and the more powerful of two V-6 engines built by corporate cousins Ferrari. This model boasts 404 horsepower, 406 lb-ft of torque and an eight-speed automatic transmission that can be triggered by generously sized paddle shifters. Sadly, this Maserati does not go 185 – top speed is pegged at 177 mph (285 km/h).
Based on the numbers alone, it's clear that the Ghibli is a compelling proposition and a serious competitor to the more established European sport sedans. It may even be the best of the bunch in some respects – but this is a tough call failing a direct, back-to-back comparison.
For sure, the estimated 0-100 km/h time of 4.8 seconds places the Maserati right in the mix. Without question, the all-wheel drive system – previously evaluated on the 2014 Maserati Quattroporte S Q4 – is surprisingly adept at shuffling power to where it's needed most. The chassis and suspension system are good; the ride is supple yet sporty, the steering is light but remains connected. (A two-mode damper setting buttons the Ghibli down for more spirited pursuits; the sport mode button brings sharper response from the engine and transmission.) The eight-speed automatic is supplied by ZF, the same company that provides transmissions to BMW and others, so let's call this category a wash.
All the elements are there for a great sport sedan, so a purchase decision will likely come down to two factors: price and the prospective customer's desire for individual expression. The Maserati Ghibli S ($80,700) and S Q4, the first models to be offered here, are likely not the most cost-conscious decision. But for those drivers who want their exclusivity with a chaser of personality, the Ghibli is a compelling choice.
Last year, 6,159 Maseratis were driven off dealer lots around the world; this year, that figure will be in excess of 23,000, a huge increase for a niche brand in this day and age. In China and other emerging markets, the idea of driving a stylish Italian sedan such as the Ghibli or the Quattroporte is proving powerful. In other key markets such as North America, the addition of all-wheel drive to both vehicle lines has pushed Maserati onto more shopping lists than ever before.
Fresh from what will be a record-setting year, Maserati will soon embark upon a series of centenary celebrations. The agenda includes honoured marque status at the Amelia Island Concours d'Elegance in March, the same designation at the Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance in August and an official gathering of 250 cars at Maserati's hometown in Modena in September.
Life's been good to Maserati so far – let's see how the next century unfolds.
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