With the 2018 Maserati Ghibli, the Italian Brand Looks to Resurrect the Nameplate—Again
Maserati brings more luxury, more drama, and the same great driving dynamics with the updated Ghibli. In a stacked segment, it’s going to need it.
The cut-rate 2013 Ghibli landed a solid jab to Maserati's historically wobbly reputation for quality. Even after being bounced around and variously reshuffled for the better part of the last half-century, the Trident badge still has the power to summon mystique; it was a shame, then, to have the spell of luxury so thoroughly broken by yawning panel gaps and parts-bin switchgear from the Fiat-Chrysler shed. If it didn't quite prove the emperor had no clothes, it at least nodded to a receipt from the local mall—the ultimate fashion sin of commonality for a car that relies very much on fashion.
The general consensus seems to be that this proved cynical on Maserati's part—as if the automaker had demanded to use extra door-lock buttons from the Chrysler 300 for the modern reintroduction of a nameplate that dates back to 1967 and the waning days of the brand's last brightest era. As anyone who works in an industry trending toward monolithic consolidation knows (and given we're currently living in a rehash of the more convergence-minded corporate thinking of the 1990s, I assume that includes most of us) the thumb of cost-cutting presses down from on high. I've been to Modena—I've had the local cheese and that silky balsamic vinegar, and I've ridden the motorcycles from down the road, in Bologna: these are people who care deeply about what they make. And, given the resources, Maserati can still produce a car that's not just good but unique: the Levante works exactly because it's weird as hell—a tall cross-hatchover, big-nosed and elegant, with a riotously provocative performance mode that feralizes the machine with a touch. No, any stink of built-to-a-price cynicism from the 2013 Ghibli sniffs back not to Maserati but to FCA.
Thankfully, the 2018 Ghibli feels neither cynical nor built to a price. As in the Levante, the interior in either aggressive Gran Sport or luxurious Gran Lusso trim is a pleasing backdrop of soft leather, plush carpet, and glowing wood veneer. The Zegna-sourced silk inserts in the seats and doors—standard in Gran Lusso trim—aren't a gimmick: the Italian luxury fashion house of Ermenegildo Zegna is known for its embrace of high-tech materials and manufacturing methods, and its Maserati silk is both durable and unique, adding a visual texture not to be found from any other brand—an "exclusive" feature in the true sense of the word. All proper luxury cars need an idiosyncratic story or three, and silk car seats make for a good anecdote.
The engine, as expected with Maserati, is a howling pleasure. The twin-turbo 3.0-liter V6 comes with 350 horsepower and 368 lb-ft of torque in the base, rear-wheel-drive Ghibli; upgrade to the more capable S or all-wheel SQ4 model and you're rewarded with 430 horses and 428 pound-feet. The fact that every engine is built at Ferrari's Maranello plant makes for another good tale, but the product is distinctly Maserati—punchier, brassier, a bebop solo to Ferrari's practiced aria. Power delivery is urgent; shifts through the 8-speed ZF are smooth.
The driving experience was always the earlier Ghibli's main selling point, despite being too stiff for long hauls. The new ride is more plush, even on the twisty and sometimes rutted roads above Monaco, where I tested the car. There's a crackle and fervency to the drive, from the steering input—Maserati finally dropped its long-held hydraulic set-up in favor of a pretty damn good electronic system that makes way for Level 2 semi-autonomous safety systems like lane-keep assist—to throttle response and braking, courtesy of standard Brembos. The all-wheel SQ4 Ghibli trades the base model's claimed 50-50 weight distribution (it shifts to 51/49) for the ability to push up to 100 percent of torque to the rear wheels, at a cost of a couple hundred pounds; when you realize that model clocks in around 4,500 lbs, its no surprise the car feels as firmly planted to the asphalt as it does.
The 2018 model has tweaked exterior touches, front and back, on the Gran Lusso and Gran Sport trims that I couldn't much differentiate, and trick new matrix headlights that use sensors and light-emitting diodes to shield oncoming traffic from glare while still keeping the road illuminated, of which Maserati was justifiably proud. The backseat is neither spacious nor cramped, and the infotainment system, with which I had little time to play, was fine: clear and bright and intuitive to use, although the GPS was mightily confused by the warren of roads in and around Monaco. (It should be noted that the same was true of the GPS in the Mercedes-Benz S-Class I drove in the area a couple years ago; Monaco, essentially a favela of billionaires living on top of millionaires living on top of lesser millionaires, might be the ultimate test for any nav system, pitting machine reasoning against human illogic, like Deep Blue taking on Garry Kasparov.)
But the main question for the Maserati Ghibli—which competes in an utterly stacked weight division that includes the Audi A7, BMW 6-Series, Mercedes-Benz CLS-Class, Jaguar XJ, Volvo S90, and Tesla Model S—is: what's the value proposition? Just because a car doesn't feel built to a price doesn't mean it justifies its price tag. So what about the Ghibli justifies a sticker a few grand north of $70K?
The answer, as always with Maserati, must come down to a passion for how Maserati, and only Maserati, envisions and builds a car. The Ghibli won't win on specs, or spaciousness, or even "luxury" if yours is a kitchen-sink definition of the word; the Ghibli doesn't have eight interior textures for the sake of eight textures, and it doesn't look like a carbon-fiber factory exploded inside the cabin. Those are good things by my count. Maserati is an old-world brand, and its definition of luxury remains reflexively old-world, which favors discreet and expensive elegance over low-cost or high-tech convenience—whereas in America, luxury has slowly morphed into some indefinite conflation of convenience and tech, and sometimes technology-as-convenience. I was reminded of this in the hotel where we stayed during the press drive. It was a time-warp; a high-ceilinged, over-perfumed vision of old Europe dripping in marble and gold leaf. The rooms contained no ironing boards because the rules of luxury service dictate that a guest should never press his own slacks, that being a job for the laundry service, which whisked away the clothes with a flourish and returned them less than 30 minutes later, still steaming.
Adherence to this philosophy of luxury is the reason Maserati is essentially befuddled as to why anyone would want a car to drive itself; it explains why every Maserati turns your head even if you don't completely agree with the exterior design, and why the brand is so insistent on the ability to customize the look of its cars even if the American consumer doesn't typically go in for that sort of thing. It's why the brand is so seemingly reluctant to embrace anything that isn't old-school European sports-car cool: attitude, sound, voluptuousness, speed. It also highlights the Ghibli's main differentiator: that special engine, one of a dying breed. No powerplant among the Ghibli's competitors comes close to its drama, its joy, the pure sonic sex of the thing. Hell, Volvo, maker of the world's most beautiful line-up of production cars, only offers a high-strung twin-charged four-cylinder—an engine completely unbefitting the spirit of a luxury vehicle, no matter how good it is—in every single vehicle it makes. The rest of the industry is in hot pursuit of that workmanlike utility and drab efficiency.
The 2013 Ghibli failed as a luxury car (though not as a product, with Maserati moving over 80,000 models to date) because it had a Maserati badge but pedestrian Fiat-Chrysler details. It revealed the magic trick of luxury, which if nothing else has to look the part. The 2018 Maserati Ghibli fixes that problem, delivering what you want from a Maserati—passion, drama, a full-throated screamer of an engine—and one of the most rewarding driving experiences in the segment. And, like any proper luxury car, it now comes with a few great stories to tell.