I have been more than fortunate to have had an intimate relationship with no less than three steeds from the legendary Maserati factory in Modena, Italy.
The first, a 2005 Maserati Coupe Cambiocorsa, was a brutally quick car powered by a 400 hp, 4.2-liter V8 born in the forges of Ferrari’s even more legendary factory in Maranello. What gave the vehicle the Cambiocorsa or “race change“ designation in its nomenclature was that power flowed through an F1-style, 6-speed automatic transmission with paddle-shifters.
With interior appointments made from the finest materials available, including a much beloved quilted leather headliner, the car was joyous for spirited driving or slow cruising around town. It’s the car that burned into my psyche the ethereal perfection that a finely tuned Maserati embodies.
The second Maserati I became acquainted with was perhaps the most important car the company had ever produced, the 2014 Ghibli SQ4. The Ghibli was introduced that model year as a mass-produced vehicle by the boutique manufacturer as part of a bold approach by its new owners, Fiat-Chrysler Automobiles to expand Maserati and pit it against the three Teutons, Mercedes, Audi, and BMW.
The Ghibli was a graceful sedan with a twin-turbo V6 that could literally and instantly blur the scenery when the boost peaked.
The car was an unparalleled, though a slightly flawed, success. To be produced and sold at a lower price point than was typical for the company, the car suffered from a few concessions, but remained a superb performer with achingly beautiful aesthetics. Flaws notwithstanding, the car was able to intensify my love for all things Maserati.
I naturally jumped at the chance to drive the 2018 Ghibli S that Maserati had subjected to a comprehensive product improvement program. I wanted to know if the new car was able to maintain the attributes of power, performance, and luxury the brand is known for; while sporting new features, equipment, and appointments? Would it ameliorate the flaws of the original Ghibli? Would it cause cartoon hearts to orbit my head once again as previous Maseratis did? I would soon find out, and so will you.
Before we get into a discussion of the new car, let me be explicit about the positive and negative attributes of the 2014 Ghibli I had previously driven.
That SQ4 moniker denoted that the car was a Sport model with four-wheel drive. It featured the high output engine, which had some 59 ponies more than the standard model due to a highly aggressive tune rather than greater displacement or bigger turbos. The 404 hp was fed through an 8-speed automatic transmission with manual change capability.
The SQ4 also had active valve sport exhaust, whose sound a scientific study determined aroused female passions better than any other vehicle. I’m not kidding, there really were studies done! I found that the exhaust provided a rapturous mechanical cacophony that was highly addictive.
It also looked splendid in Rosso Folgore, a rich Burgundy metallic, with a two-tone black and Cuoio tan interior, and gorgeous Maserati Proteo 19-inch wheels clad with Pirelli P Zero shoes.
Superlatives spring to mind to this day when I think of that car’s rare balance of performance and luxury, but alas, my memory of the vehicle is tempered by some unacceptable facets of that car.
My biggest gripe was the transmission, more specifically the shifter lever located on the center console. With a plastic, unsubstantial feel that left you worried it might break while putting the car into gear, the shifter was also the most vague and difficult to use that I have come across in this age of Tiptronic style levers.
Going directly from Park to Drive aside, I never once in my entire time with the car got it into an intermediate position such as reverse or neutral on the first try. Try to slip it into reverse, and the stick would settle into neutral or drive, forcing you to shift back up, which always resulted in accidentally going back to Park. It really lacked any sort of intuitive operation that could have been easily afforded by firmer detents at each gear and was thus maddening to the point of expletives being uttered in place of superlatives every time.
How a company like Maserati could have screwed up something that your average Honda has a delightful version of, is still beyond me.
Another problem I had with 2014 SQ4 related to some of the interior appointments. Where the Coupe Cambiocorsa simply had the best of everything, including solid feeling, high-quality buttons, and controls, the designers of the Ghibli had obviously cut corners in this area to hit that ambitious price point.
While the leather and wood used throughout were beyond reproach, many of the buttons, specifically those that controlled functions of the climate control system and those on the steering wheel, were of the small, cheap, plastic kind that wiggled in the dashboard when you touched them. While this may seem like a niggling complaint, it was most unsettling for me to experience this in a car that when optioned approached the $90,000 mark.
You’d never find cheap, jiggly buttons in an E-Class Benz or a 5 Series Bimmer, and as such, it was a distinct disappointment.
Other small issues I had with it included the removable, flimsy, rubber strip that protects the auxiliary and USB outlets, which seemed likely to fall off if subjected to frequent use. Equally, the sunshade felt unsubstantial. The overhead lighting in the car also looked unfinished as the wiring inside the cover could be seen at a particular angle.
Furthermore, I found the dashboard to be rather dull, with too vast an area of unadorned leather on the right side. It needed something to break up the blandness. Lacking detail, it gave the interior design a somewhat “unfinished” feel, as if everyone involved ran out of ideas, shrugged and walked away. The 8.4-inch UConnect touch screen was also somewhat derivative, sharing the same virtual buttons and layout of the system in my Jeep Grand Cherokee Overland. This is not necessarily a bad thing, as the system works well, but you would think Maserati could, in a car that costs $40,000 more than the Jeep, give you a unique graphic interface. On occasion, the Maserati’s UConnect would pause briefly to think before finishing a task asked of it.
Shifter aside, none of these things were egregious failings, nor would they constitute a deal breaker, but clearly Maserati had some improvements to do in these areas as the car developed through its production run.
Nearly everything worked exceptionally well in the performance department on the SQ4, most notably that great drivetrain and exhaust system. The four-wheel-drive system was pretty much invisible, only giving a hint of its operation in inclement weather. Ninety percent of the time the system was actually providing 100-percent of torque to the rear wheels, only sending power up front when the car’s computers determined it was necessary. Equally non-interventionist were the various traction and stability control software systems, which only butted in when absolutely necessary at the limit. Like all great sports cars, those systems were defeatable at the touch of a button.
The one exception to the SQ4’s fantastic performance attributes was the steering. Electronic in place of hydraulic to skim production costs, the steering felt light, vague and disconnected from the road. In typical city driving it was pretty much okay, certainly no worse than that of comparable luxury cars, but when pushed, afforded the driver an absolute lack of confidence, especially when paired with the inherent understeer experienced at the limits. I can recall numerous times when I found myself wishing for more feedback through the wheel when stretching the car’s legs on Mulholland Drive’s esses and switchbacks.
So that brings us to the new car.
The S is a late addition to the Ghibli lineup that slots in between the base Ghibli and the SQ4. It lacks the four-wheel drive system of the SQ4, replacing it with a rear-wheel drive system, but rewards the driver with twenty more horsepower, up to 424, than the earlier car had. The S that I drove was equally as stunning as it’s predecessor in Blu Passione, a rich and deep looking midnight blue, over Sabbia, a light parchment, interior.
Very few changes to the exterior of the car have been implemented since 2014, basically amounting only to minor trim and LED headlights that have replaced the previous car’s xenons. It is inside the vehicle and in the mechanicals that all the improvements have come, and I’m okay with that, as the Ghibli has a magnificent exterior design that has aged well and didn’t require an overhaul yet to my eye.
Inside the car, the changes are legion and I’m delighted to say that every one of my issues has been addressed. The horrible shifter of the 2014 car has been completely reworked. It now features proper detents that provide for precise operation every time. Thank you, Maserati. The S I drove was also fitted with large and glorious paddle shifters made of magnesium, which give the driver a firm impression of quality and luxury.
The cheap buttons on the console and steering wheel have been replaced with high-quality ones with improved finish and better physical qualities. The jiggles are gone! The other trim problems I mentioned have been improved as well, including the sunroof shade, USB cover and overhead lighting. Of note is a new, luxurious Alcantara headliner that adorns the inside of the roof, replacing the older car’s pedestrian cloth one.
The dashboard has been reworked, and now features contrast stitching to break up that vast, dull stretch of unadorned leather I previously found fault with, giving the dash a much more finished appearance. The UConnect touchscreen system has also received considerable work, in both its physical and software design. The screen now bears the improved appearance of a tablet attached to the center stack, in lieu of the previous car’s integrated look. The user interface is also now unique to Maserati in appearance, and all the functions are smart and intuitive, and changes made are actuated at nearly real-time speed.
All of this attention has resulted in an interior befitting a Maserati, and firmly place it in the league of the Coupe Cambiocorsa’s which is, to say the least, a lovely place to spend some time.
Performance-wise, I can attest to the fact that the current S is every bit as fast and agile as SQ4, which makes it clear that the horsepower boost has allowed the rear-wheel drive system to accelerate the car as quickly as the four-wheel drive system did. Zero to 60 time of just 4.7 seconds attests to this, lagging behind the SQ4’s time by an imperceptible .1 of a second. Quarter mile times are similarly close, with both the S and SQ4 completing the task in 13.2 seconds at 105 mph.
I found the traction and stability control systems to work as seamlessly on the new car as they did on the old, though I’m aware of the fact that some of their parameters, as well as the engine mapping, have actually been modified since the first model year. The active exhaust on the S produces every bit as robust and hair-raising a soundscape as it’s predecessor.
The aspect of the S’s performance that has been changed and improved most notably is the steering. The electronic boost has been tuned down from previous levels, giving a more precise and less “floaty” feel. Road imperfections are luxuriously isolated from the occupants and are communicated through the wheel better than before, affording the driver more feedback and subsequently confidence in the vehicle when approaching handling limits. While Los Angeles weekday traffic on my test drive prohibited me from fully exploring the S’s handling, the spurts of speed I managed to enjoy showed me that the car has genuinely been dialed in during the past four years.
All in all, I am delighted with the improvements made to the Ghibli. The model’s strong suits have been retained, and most if not all of its shortcomings have been addressed. The Ghibli is now indeed a car suited to compete with the best, and driving a Maserati in a city like L.A. that is filled with Mercedes, BMWs, and Audis give you a satisfying feeling of exclusivity. Buon lavoro, Maserati!