Testing the Merak and a brief drive in the exclusive Khamsin
Even with the World economic turmoil in full spate there remain those who “have” even if there become more of those who “have not”. Those who “have” continue to spend and, as ever, their indulgences include fast, exotic cars, particularly and ironically the “haves” of the oil-producing Middle Eastern countries. Such extravagances ensure continued, if slightly reduced, prosperity for the better-established manufacturers of thoroughbred cars. However, even some of the very rich are retracting their horns in the face of energy conservation propaganda and inordinately restrictive speed limits in Europe. Possibly more by good luck than shrewd anticipation of this fact, all three major Italian exotic car manufacturers, Ferrari, Lamborghini and Maserati, introduced scaled down versions of their petrol-gulping GT cars at the opportune moment. In last October’s issue of Motor Sport we tested the Ferrari 308 GT 2+2, we are awaiting the opportunity to try the Lamborghini Urraco, and recently we have been trying Maserati’s strikingly beautiful, mid-engined, 140-m.p.h. Merak, an “economy” version of the fabulous 170-m.p.h. Bora.
But large-engined exotic cars have not yet had their day, as we were to find out during our week’s “ownership” of the Merak. Thanks to the generosity of Ray Binns and Bill Nichol, Managing Director and Sales Manager respectively of Kesteven Cars Ltd., Waddington, Lincolnshire, we were able to try the £13,000 front-engined Khamsin, Maserati’s replacement for the exclusive Ghibli. There are only four full Maserati dealers in the country (several others handle Meraks only)—two in London, one in Scotland, and Kesteven Cars Ltd., which, at the time, was the only British dealership to have a demonstration model Khamsin. Hardly surprising when you learn that there were then only five Khamsins in the country and of those we had two at our disposal, for Simon Tinkler, from the Maserati side of Citroën Cars Ltd., Slough, joined us in Lincolnshire with the only automatic Khamsin then imported. As well as allowing us to try the Khamsin on the road, arrangements had been made for us to let loose the Modena projectiles on one of those disused wartime airfields which abound in Lincolnshire. Along with the Khamsins we had “our” Merak and a brand-new Bora, which allowed us to re-acquaint ourselves with the Merak’s big brother, following our test in the April 1974 issue of MOTOR SPORT. This really was one of those rare days when readers’ envy of motoring journalists was justified!
In essence the Maserati Merak is a Bora which has had its 4.7-litre, four-overhead-camshaft, 310 b.h.p. DIN V8 engine replaced by a 3-litre, four-overhead-camshaft, 190 b.h.p. DIN V6 engine. Apart from reducing performance, the change also reduced our expenses (or would have done had not the cost of petrol risen astronomically in the meantime), the Merak averaging around 18 m.p.g. compared with the 10-12 m.p.g. from the similarly-driven Bora of a year ago.
Designed by Giorgio Giugiaro of Ital Design, the Merak’s nose section and the forward part of the centre section are practically identical to Giugiaro’s original Bora design. However, the adoption of the shorter engine has allowed Maserati to utilise the surrendered space for a couple of reasonably practical, occasional rear seats, the Bora being a strict two-seater. This has meant completely restyling the rear of the car, in place of the one-piece, rear-hinged greenhouse covering a carpeted area above the amidships engine of the Bora, the Merak has a flat back and conventional front-hinged bonnet panel over its mid-engine. Two struts, one each side, run from the rear of the roof above the vertical (and heated) rear window ahead of the engine, to the tail, relieving an otherwise pick-up-like appearance and strengthening the structure.
The Merak is another happy example of the engineering liaisons between Citroën and Maserati. This Italian-built car uses the engine which was engineered by Maserati for its French parent’s SM and also, like the Bora, borrows part of the SM’s complex hydraulic system. Instead of the 2,640-c.c. capacity of the standard SM, the Merak’s engine is bored out to 2,965 c.c., the capacity used in American market SMs. Thus this all-alloy engine becomes even more noticeably oversquare, the bore being 91.6 mm. against a stroke of 75 mm. Instead of the fuel injection equipment fitted to the current SMs, the Merak prefers three twin-choke, down draught, Weber 42DCNF carburetters. Although power output is some 12 b.h.p. more than the injected SM, we wouldn’t have thought 190 b.h.p. DIN at 6,000 r.p.m. to be a very impressive figure for a sophisticated four-overhead-camshaft engine. It must be running well within any engineering limitations. Maximum torque is 188 lb. ft. DIN at 4,000 r.p.m., rather less than the Bora’s 340 lb. ft. DIN at 4,200 r.p.m.! A Citroen SM 5-speed gearbox/final drive assembly drives the rear wheels in place of the Bora’s ZF unit. The engine is well obscured in its bay by the large Fiamm air-cleaner and the narrow “emergency only”, round-section spare tyre mounted on a steel wheel. This sits above the pump for the optional air conditioning and the twin-sphered regulator for the Citroen-type hydraulic power-braking system, and lifts out easily without the need to undo any retaining clips. The Bora employs a full-size spare wheel. We were pleased to see that the battery lies in the Merak’s engine compartment, instead of taking up most of the front passenger’s leg-room as it does in the Bora!
At the pointed end of the Merak, the nose slopes away steeply in front of the raked windscreen, but feels less awkwardly invisible than that of the Lotus Elite tested last month, possibly because the top of the facia is less obtrusive. A very deep, unexpectedly roomy and tidily carpeted boot fills the entire nose section behind the front-mounted radiator and oil-cooler, creating a genuine GT car out of what could have been merely a “toothbrush and pyjamas” mid-engined sports car. A handle under the facia releases the boot lid, seconded by a safety catch positioned alongside the Maserati trident in the centre of the grille. Two half-bumpers across the grille distinguish the Merak from the bumperless Bora, should you see a trident badge bearing down in your mirror.
Retractable, but not exceptionally powerful, single headlamps are operated by an auxiliary hydraulic system activated by the same engine driven pump as the brakes. Their operation is quick, but unnecessarily complex, so headlamp flashing in daylight is impractical unless the lamps are left raised. Firstly they must be raised by lifting a lever in the right-hand lower facia rail and switched on with the long stalk on the right of the column. There is a separate sidelamp switch (though the main headlamp control also switches them on) on the facia to the left of the column. We didn’t make the mistake we suspect we made to flatten the battery of the road-test Bora, by accidentally kicking the over-vulnerable right-hand light stalk when leaving the car while parked at night with sidelamps lit, so unknowingly switching on the retracted and hidden headlamps, but the same possibility was there. Should the auxiliary hydraulic system fail, the lights can be raised by hand.
The well-stocked facia is identical to that described in the Bora last year (left-hand-drive Boras and Meraks use a version of the SM facia) and likewise casts unwelcome reflections in the sloping screen at night. But more disturbing are the images of the headlights of oncoming vehicles reflected in the rear window and seen through the mirror as vehicles overtaking at high speed from behind. We were almost provoked by this into taking evasive action more than once.
Leather upholstery, standard in the Bora, is a £245 extra in the Merak, but the cloth seats of the test car and particularly the driving position we were able to adopt, proved more comfortable than we remember the Bora to have been. Presumably the front seats are of a proprietary Italian brand for they appeared identical in shape, if not in quality of upholstery, to those of the Ferrari 308. The nonadjustable, built-in headrests are far too low to be of any use. Pedal reach on the Bora is taken care of by hydraulic adjustment of pedal positions, while the one-piece driver’s seat remains at a fixed distance (the bulkhead lies directly behind) but with hydraulic height adjustment. Pedals are fixed on the Merak, the seat can be moved fore and aft and the back-rest is separately adjustable. A wide range of rake and reach adjustment of the steering wheel is provided.
Adults would not want to travel very far in the rear seats of the Merak, which have vertical back-rests and headroom restricted by the curve-over of the body sides. Leg-room depends on the elasticity of the driver and front-seat passenger. Children would be happy enough in them, but they’re strictly “pub to pub” seats for grown-ups and not a patch on the rear seats of the 308.
We never did quite master the settings of the air-conditioning/heater unit, which several times misted up the screen at inopportune moments and gave vent to very dry, irritating air, sometimes mixed with fumes channelled up the centre console from the engine compartment and emitted through a loose gear-lever gaiter. Electric windows are a standard fitting, there’s a “peep-peep” horn for town and Fiamm air horns for the open road, pedals are well positioned and complete with a rest for the left foot—where it needs to rest, for the clutch is extremely heavy. A woman driver would need Russian athlete ancestry to master this Maserati! We soon became used to the pedal pressure, but the refusal of the pedal to return unaided was annoying.
Detail criticisms soon disappear with the thrill, if not always sheer enjoyment, of driving this eye-catching, exotic machine and prompting all the right noises from the four tail-pipes. But the real enjoyment should come from outstanding roadholding and handling which ought to enable you to run rings round anything else on the road. By all accounts from those who have experienced other Meraks that is generally true of Maserati’s junior car, but the road-test car did not always reach those expectations. Its breakaway limit was too low, too abrupt and practically irreversible once the 185/70VR 15-in, front and 205/70 15-in. rear Michelin XWX tyre had broken away—always the rears first. Rarely do we have dramas on the road, but the Merak frightened us when the tail broke away without warning at moderate speed on the exit from a dry roundabout: on this occasion we managed to catch it, though the effect of a full 19-gallon load in the twin tanks had disturbed the Merak’s polar moment of inertia and the car fishtailed itself down the road before we regained full stability. Experimentally we deliberately provoked the Merak into breaking away on the Lincolnshire airfield and found that it was impossible to prevent it spinning like a top. On the other hand, the Bora, which ought to be the wildest beast of the two, remained fully-controllable when the tail started to drift.
In fairness to this 10,000-mile-old Merak, owned and maintained by Citroën-Maserati in Slough, it was not in prime trim. Indeed, when checked by Kesteven Cars’ very competent mechanics, the hydraulic steering damper proved to be loose and the front wheels out of track. Once these faults were rectified the car felt much improved, but still decidedly “nervous”, particularly on damp roads. We thought that its dampers were possibly a little on the soft side and there was more roll than we would have expected. Tyre pressures appear to be very critical and we wish we had had the time to experiment with them.
The foregoing does not mean to say that the Merak cannot be driven quickly; once we had found its little vices and limitations we were able to drive it very rapidly indeed, but not with the same relaxed confidence we feel in Dinos, the latest Porsches or the Lotus Elite which we had unwillingly surrendered at Hethel a few days previously. The test car was most at home on long, sweeping main-road bends, though winding country B-roads were another forte, sequences of fast bends ensuring that the car’s attitude changed quickly enough to prevent roll oversteer taking charge. But along right, twisty roads, this was very much a “point-and-squirt” machine, Particularly on bumpy surfaces.
Like the heavier Bora, the Merak is easily deflected by bumps, grooves and small undulations in the road surface. There is always a mild amount of kick-back felt through the comfortable, thick-rimmed, 14-in. steering wheel (reduced somewhat by tightening the steering damper), which could be thought to reflect good feel of what the front wheels are doing, though we can think of a great many cheaper cars which provide better feel without enforcing such wheel reactions. A reasonable steering rack ratio offers three turns lock-to-lock. The same dislike of bumps by the front wheels tends to make the Merak wander under heavy braking, which too is not conducive to relaxed high-speed driving through twisty terrain. Hard braking from high speed occasionally caused the front cross member to bulldoze tarmac bumps.
The actual stopping power of the brakes is tremendous, as it ought to be with such a sophisticated, pressure-,hydraulic arrangement. Girling ventilated front discs are of 280 mm. diameter, while the inboard Citroen solid rear discs are of 300 mm. diameter. We have reasonably sensitive feet when necessary and are reasonably accustomed to the Citroen system and its need for a very light touch on the central pedal, but we would prefer the progression of a conventional braking system on this fast, sporting car. However well accustomed one is to these brakes, the normal reaction in an emergency situation (if a pedestrian jumps out, for instance) at low speed in town is to hit the pedal hard, an action which is guaranteed to lock the Merak’s front wheels on greasy surfaces. Clouds of smoke poured through the engine compartment louvres from the almost burning rear brakes after continually slowing down from over 120 m.p.h. on the airfield, yet braking was practically unaffected. Braking stability on smooth surfaces is excellent.
In its preference for smooth roads, the aliveness of the steering wheel, the tautness of the suspension., the excellent brakes and the squat stance on the road, the Merak feels akin to a sports racing car—even if its behaviour on the limit is not what one would wish for on the circuit—and indeed its suspension follows modern racing practice: independent wishbone with coil spring/damper units all round and anti-roll bars front and rear. Nylon straps on the rear units look a rather Heath Robinsonish way of halting droop when the Merak tail tries to take to the air over brows, as it is wont to do. A series of switchback brows taken at very high speed causes that front cross-member to graunch, though the even lower alloy sump stays out of harm’s way. Ground clearance generally is pretty abysmal, if you live at the end of a three-ply lane the Merak is not for you.
Contrary to its appearance the Merak is docile and flexible, capable of pottering along at 25 m.p.h. in fifth gear, showing no sign of plug fluffing in heavy traffic in which the twin electric fans keep the V6 cool and capable of being driven very gently and smoothly if the need arises. Performance is deceptively quick, if nowhere near the Bora class: timed on the airfield against the speedometer rather than our fifth wheel we achieved to 30 m.p.h. in 2.7 sec., 0-40 m.p.h. in 3.9 sec., 0-50 m.p.h. in 5.6 sec., 0-60 in 7.2 sec., 0-70 m.p.h. in 9.8 sec., 0-80 m.p.h. in 12.2 sec, 0-90 m.p.h. in 16.0 sec., 0-100 m.p.h. in 20.2 sec., 0-110 m.p.h. in 24.3 sec. and 0-120 m.p.h. in 33.4 sec. The 9½ in. single-plate clutch bit instantly under these hard standing starts, but long black lines, equalised by the limited slip differential, showed that traction isn’t quite so good as the Bora’s. Put in perspective, the Merak’s standing start acceleration becomes more impressive: the 190 b.h.p. has to power 27½ cwt. of dry weight, not to mention all the necessary fluids and two people. In the gears we would have welcomed more torque, particularly to help performance in fourth and fifth. After the nicely spaced ratios of the Elite gearbox and its slick gear change the Merak’s Citroen ratios felt too wide apart, particularly between third and fourth and fourth and fifth, and the gear change rather agricultural, if positive. Mid- or rear engine car gear-linkages are always a problem, but that is no excuse for the excessively strong spring against which the lever has to be pushed into the first and second gear plane.
Cruising at the legal limits in this country the Merak feels utterly wasted. There is so much performance in hand, stability (on good surfaces) is excellent, wind noise almost nonexistent and engine noise subdued to a distant rumble. What a shame that the effect has to be spoiled by transmission whine.
Of other points to note: the right-hand handbrake, working separate pads on the rear brakes, is a nuisance when climbing in or out, but easier to apply than the awkward left-hand lever of the Bora; the electric windows could be speedier; oil pressure fluctuated wildly when cornering hard on the airfield and our Surrey test track, though the cause may have been a faulty sensor rather than surge; and the twin wipers need longer blades or a single arm like that of the Elite. The lip on the rear marks the tail extremity to help reversing, as does the open-plan rear, but the thick centre pillars behind the doors dictate careful positioning of the car at road junctions. To house the Merak you would need a garage at least 5.8 ft. wide, 14.2 ft. long and 3.7 ft. high and room to manoeuvre with a 34.4 ft. turning circle.
Despite its beautiful construction and looks we were unable to grow wildly attached to the Merak, unlike its bigger brother the Bora. If this particular car’s behaviour had matched up to its exciting static presence we would probably have adored it, but there were too many fundamental criticisms to overlook. We liked it in many ways, but £7,821 (plus £300 for the air-conditioning) should buy something closer to perfection. As an image-maker it is perfection.
If we were somewhat disappointed with the Merak, our brief experience with the new Khamsin on road and airfield gave the Maserati marque an uplift in our eyes. This opulently elegant 2 plus 2 for the very rich looks, handles and goes magnificently, in the very best traditions of Italian craftsmanship. It was easy to see why Ray Binns was so delighted to be appointed a Maserati dealer!
Maserati must be running close to exhausting the names of winds for their range, but they managed to dig up another one for the Khamsin, which certainly goes like the wind, good for 174 m.p.h. and pulling over 150 m.p.h. easily on the airfield runway before the loosened header tank cap deposited antifreeze all over the screen.
Responsible for such performance is a 4,930 c.c. version of the Maserati 90 degree V8, all-alloy, four-overhead camshaft engine. Rated at a colossal 320 b.h.p., this beautiful, dry-sumped unit sits at the front of the car, taking its drive through quite the nicest and quietest ZF 5-speed gearbox we have experienced to the limited slip differential. This is mounted, along with the coil spring (a pair of coil spring/damper units each side) suspension and outboard ventilated disc brakes, upon a separate sub-frame.
The powerful engine is used to drive the standard air-conditioning equipment and Citroen pressure-hydraulic pump which is used more comprehensively on this model than on the Bora or Merak. Steering, brakes, clutch, retractable headlights and seat adjustment all benefit from this system.
We rather wished we were doing a full length road test on the Khamsin instead of the Merak (and we hope to do so soon), for everything about this £13,000 motor car felt so right. Its handling is marvellously balanced, and its road holding excellent, showing that a mid-engined arrangement isn’t always the answer. The brilliant, hydraulically assisted steering takes some getting used to for it is fitted with a servo-return arrangement which is automatically self-centring; let go of the wheel on the move or at rest and the wheels move to the straight-ahead position. At about two turns lock-to-lock it is very direct, sensitive and responsive.
The Khamsin’s power-braking is little short of sensational, free of any of the wander and darting around which beset the Merak and Bora. Several stops from 150 m.p.h. had little effect on the efficiency of the brakes.
After the Merak’s the power-assisted clutch of the Khamsin felt feather-like, but whilst it functioned beautifully in normal use it baffled our attempts to attack standing start times. We could only assume that banging home the clutch with several thousand revs. hung on the tachometer caught out the hydraulic action, a slight lag on engagement allowing the clutch to slip, the massive thrust from the engine not allowing it to regain grip. It is not a problem which a Khamsin owner is likely to suffer. In any case, having tried the automatic version on the same occasion, we would think many British customers will be plumping for this. The ZF automatic gearbox is well-matched to the broad torque band of this engine and performance remains shattering, though our not fully run-in example could not be extended.
The hide-upholstered cockpit is superbly comfortable and much better finished than the Merak’s, but the back seats are vestigial. Luggage space is uncovered under the large glass window and the complete tail panel is glass, a wonderful help when reversing.
As we said, we are looking forward to doing a rather more extensive test of the Khamsin in a future issue. It has to be one of the best and most sensible exotic cars to come out of Italy for a long time.—CR.