Soldier of misfortune

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Maserati’s survival into the 1990s is almost as much a marvel as were its racing cars of a bygone age. There remain flaws, but there is hope…

The bigger you are, the harder you fall, and the once-giant stature of Maserati is still in the throes of recovering from the most enormous of tumbles. Once a manufacturer of great racing, sports and road cars which captured the imagination of anyone with an ounce of motoring passion, it sadly lost its way in the web of politics within a changing automotive world. A golden era spanning two decades from the 1950s to the ’70s spawned the immortal 250F on the track, and the Ghibli and Bora road cars. These unforgettables were replaced by the likes of Merak, Biturbo and 422, and Maserati soon became a pale shadow of its former self, unable to stay in touch with its rivals over technical developments and increasingly improving production standards.

The long-awaited Biturbo was already dated when it reached the UK in the mid1980s, since when the company has faced an uphill struggle simply to survive, let alone keep up; yet the people at Maserati will have you know that there is light at the end of the tunnel – not that of an oncoming express train, but of the new Ouattroporte saloon on which the company pins high hopes of boosting further the recent sales turnaround. Its arrival in the UK is imminent.

In the meantime, we still have the modest selling Shamal (tested in November 1992) and the Ghibli, re-incarnated in name only. Both are evolutions of the original Biturbo theme, having two doors, a twin-turbo V-engine and a rear-wheel drive monocoque chassis with all-round independent suspension giving rise to rather eccentric handling characteristics, particularly on wet roads.

It might be cynical to suggest that the Ghibli’s visual differences from the Biturbo are Maserati’s desperate attempt to rid itself of the latter’s reputation, but the understated simplicity of the original has certainly been lost amid rippling muscles and ungainly detailing.

However, the Ghibli’s squatter stance rightly implies more purpose, courtesy of the latest fuel-injected 284 bhp 24-valve V6. It also implies a resolution of the antics that shot the Biturbo to notoriety. The wider track, beefier tyres (unequal front to rear) and refined rear suspension more than compensate for the Ghibli’s 284 horses, and the latest version comes with ABS to further reduce heart flutter.

An alloy 2790cc 90-degree V6, which is almost a work of art to look at, has gradually been subdued by concessions to environmentally-friendly emission legislations over the years and sadly no longer pops and bangs on the over-run, but still sounds glorious. Twin watercooled turbochargers with air-to-air intercoolers help to provide a useful 305Ib ft of torque at 3500rpm, but turbo lag can still leave you floundering momentarily if you’re in the wrong gear.

Progress is always smooth and effortless and you could plod around in a high gear if so desired. But few enthusiasts will wish to do this unless in heavy traffic, because though the gearbox is satisfyingly solid and precise to use, if not possessing the quickest shift, more than a tolerable level of drive-line shunt deters this. Primary controls are driver orientated, with purposeful weight and feel, though the power-assisted steering could do with a more generous dose of feedback.

The problem some may find is that even in this year of our Lord, 1995, Maserati cannot overcome its innate stubbornness on providing a decent driving position. Tired though ape similies may be when aimed at Italian cars, they are perfectly justifiable in the Ghibli. The seats themselves are very comfortable on short trips, but over longer journeys a lack of thigh support and slightly hunched driving position (despite a height-adjustable steering wheel) combined to make my back ache. Strangely, a rather tall friend had no problems feeling comfortable, but then he drives an Alfasud.

Elsewhere in the Ghibli’s two-plus-two cabin, no expense has been spared to lavish us with beautiful cow-hide, burr walnut and what appears to be a Salvador Dali-inspired clock. It’s an interior which hasn’t changed in more than a decade, and looks it, with an effect more luxury than sporting.

Instrumentation has a simple clarity, though the weird turbo boost gauge is superfluous. The column stalks and the handbrake, however, seem fragile, and the durability of some of the fittings is questionable, as is the overall interior build quality. Add to this an air-conditioning system that requires ages to take effect, and sadly the word ‘desirable’ isn’t the first to enter your head.

To dwell on this would be to miss the point of the Ghibli, though. High rear screen apart, visibility is pretty good, and the cosy cabin emphasises just how compact, if wide, this car really is. Thankfully, as mentioned, Maserati is one of the few remaining manufacturers which place driver enjoyment high on the list of priorities, and the improvement in chassis behaviour at last fulfils expectations.

It used to take an unusual kind of person to pilot a Maserati Biturbo really quickly — lobotomised, perhaps, or completely devoid of imagination. Any hint of damp conditions brought the tridented coupe to its knees; it felt continuously on the limit and your preoccupation was not how fast you could get it round corners, but for how long could you keep it in a straight line. This is no longer the case with the Ghibli — maybe to the disappointment of Biturbo die-hards, but good news for the rest of us.

Its squat and dive antics under acceleration and braking are less noticeable, it rolls less, and it grips far, far more than the Biturbo could ever dream of, while turn-in feels crisper too. All of which offers the driver far more confidence than dished out by its forebear. You can throw the Ghibli at bends without fear of lurches, or much worse.

Understeer, which is more pronounced in slow corners, is gently eradicated as the throttle is increased. Power tail-slides still come naturally, but you smile with pleasure during the event, rather than with relief afterwards. Mid-corner bumps can still throw the Ghibli off line, but it retains just enough composure. The uncertainty of how the chassis will react keeps you alert, and begs some respect.

Ess-bends are great fun if not taken particularly fast — the chassis just isn’t nimble enough, and quick directional changes reveal inherent ‘sloppiness’. The Ghibli is suited to more gentle, flowing terrain.

You may not feel elation equivalent to surviving (never mind winning) the Targa Florio, as was the case after a hard drive in the Biturbo, but you’ll still be warmed by a sense of achievement while wearing the grin of a Cheshire cat. The performance is addictive and the feel and efficiency of the brakes reassuring enough for you to exploit that power. You could go on driving the Ghibli all day — if you were comfortable.

There’s a price to pay for your fun: the 17.6 gallon tank was drained of its unleaded fuel at a rate of 14.3 mpg, though motorway cruising bumped up the Ghibli’s range to an acceptable level. In fact the Ghibli appears most at home enjoying effortless high-speed cruising, being capable of well over 150 mph. A centre console switch with four modes controls the ‘active’ suspension. Obviously, most difference was felt between modes One and Four but neither alters the handling much, more the amount of jiggle in the ride. At its harshest it is still far from unpleasant, and passengers remarked on the high level of comfort and the resultant deceptive pace of a Ghibli.

Verdict

The days when idiosyncracies were accepted as ‘character’ have long gone. The Ghibli is full of idiosyncracies. It also has great amounts of character, and the foibles are far fewer now than a decade ago. Modena’s coupe is a fast car with acceleration to match (60mph in 5.5sec). It handles well and provides bucketfulls of fun. It rides well and is not totally impractical. Maserati’s problem is that at over 44 grand, the Ghibli is gunning for the BMW M3, the Porsche 968 and perhaps the Audi S2, not to mention Mazda’s RX-7 – all of which are cheaper, faster, more frugal and built to last. None of them, however, with the possible exception of the 968, can match the Ghibli for sheer driving fun. Even the Porsche loses out in the exclusivity stakes, backed up by the personal and friendly approach of Maserati’s UK importer, Meridien Modena Concessionaires, and Chagford Street Garage of London when our test car encountered difficulties, courtesy of a local pot-hole. One hopes that the weaknesses addressed by the Quattroporte will filter through as improvements to the other models, but in the meantime one thing is for sure — the poor residual value of the Ghibli will undoubtedly make it a desirable secondhand purchase in years to come, despite its shortcomings.