Trident missile

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The distinctive TOY 123 registration makes it tempting to dismiss the riotously overblown style of the Maserati Shamal as a plaything suitable only for use as an adult Tonka toy. However, when the British concessionaire asks for it to be insured for at least the basic £63,450 asking price, frivolous inclinations disappear and you seek genuine merit. We are glad to report that we found it, the six-speed Shamal emerging as a truly fine motor car… without the hysterics we had half expected.

It is a long time since Motor Sport mentioned Maserati in anything other than a historic context, but the V8 Shamal has antecedents that go back many years. The chunky body rests on the same 94.5 in wheelbase as the older Spyder convertible, which in turn traces back to elements of the original Maserati Biturbo V6 models that debuted in December 1981. Since then Maserati’s flamboyant majority stakeholder (at 51 per cent), Alejandro de Tomaso, has worked so many twists to the Biturbo tale that even partner Fiat has a job imagining what further permutations the Modena marque can possibly wring from the twin-turbo V6 format.

The Biturbo started life as a two-litre, with some 220 bhp in three-valve-per-cylinder trim. Today, it has four-valve heads and capacities of 2.5 and 2.8 litres, which yield between 245-250 bhp. There was also the potent, 24v Biturbo Racing… which generated 282 bhp from the original short stroke (82x63mrn) 1996cc V6. To save us the headache of tracking down yet more V6 Biturbos, Britain’s current concessionaire arranged the loan of a V8 Shamal.

This two-door two-plus-two was first shown in December 1989 and is notable not just for its all-square (80x80mm) alloy, 3217 cc V8, but for the incorporation of a superbly synchronised Getrag six-speed gearbox. As with the V6s, the motor is constructed around aluminium cylinder heads and a 90deg block, but the heads carry double overhead camshafts on each bank, rather than the sohc design of the older three-valve V6s. The underbonnet layout of the north-south V8 is dominated by the red rocker covers and crackle black finish of the intercooler tubes. No maximum boost figure is declared, but the 7:1 compression, amiable road manners and production of 101 bhp per litre tell us that Maserati has been relatively modest in its demands of the twin IHI turbo installation.

Nevertheless claimed (and subjectively observed) performance is suavely impressive. Alfieri Maserati SpA claims a 168 mph maximum and the ability to sprint from rest to 62 mph in 5.3s. Fuel consumption of cheaper unleaded — even the mystique of Maserati extends to complying with the catalytic converter movement these days — varies wildly, according to circumstances. The factory says that 28 mpg can be achieved at 56 mph, but other reports admit that you will return under 13 in more demanding use, particularly in city traffic.

The independently suspended rear-drive layout is supported by trailing arms, coil springs and electro-hydraulic adjustable Koni shock absorbers. The latter, which also feature on the well-located MacPherson strut front end, are endowed with four-way adjustment, actuated via a switch in the cockpit. We ran most frequently on the penultimate hardness setting, and approved of the excellent ride/ handling compromise.

Naturally the Shamal has disc braking all round, but the handbrake operates on an independent drum. Rack and pinion steering is similarly taken for granted, and the welcome evidence of carefully graduated power assistance, which provides excellent feedback without faithfully relaying every road shock, greets your palms immediately.

Fearsome wheel and tyre dimensions are to be expected below those wildly flared arches, and so it proves. Enticingly crafted Ruote OZ 8J (front) and 9J (rear) rim widths share a 16 in diameter. The factory specifies ZR-rated 225/45 and 245/45 Michelin MXX covers, which are usually most effective. I was not to know that some oik would have ground away the edges before we took delivery…

Much the same applied to the brakes, which were not at their best and (unusually, in this class of car) lacked ABS.

We enjoyed our sunny day with the Maserati far more than we had originally anticipated when easing away from the well-stocked premises of Meridien Modena, in the New Forest town of Lyndhurst. For a start, the Shamal is very well managed in the engine bay by Weber Marelli IAW. The clutch takes up drive exceptionally smoothly, and the stretched girth (a plump total of 72.8 in) proved easy to manoeuvre past the Porsche and Rolls-Royce classics that also inhabited that forecourt.

The cabin looks like that of a £60,000 car. If there is an area that isn’t wrapped in luxurious leather, it’s only because it’s already capped by opulent wood. The result is an amalgam of luxury limousine and true grand tourer in a manageable package. Effective air conditioning was a plus point, but we did not avail ourselves of the “£4-5000” Kenwood sound system that took up some of the already modest boot. This sounded convincing in a brief trial blast, but we lacked classical music CDs to evaluate its worth fully.

Besides, in any Italian car worth its salt, the music should come from the engine bay. (Maserati has avoided the temptation to reproduce shrill arias, but the V8 doesn’t exactly grumble in the American tradition.)

A most impressive trait is the supply of power from 1000 rpm to the 6200 rpm warning band. It really does not matter too much which of the six gears you are in (why are all six-speed production cars so ironically flexible?); the Shamal has power to spare. The official torque peak is 318 lb/ft at just 2800 rpm, but the boost gauge speaks of the advantages of relatively compact turbochargers serving four-cylinder banks of 1.6 litres apiece. Response is ultra-rapid, even during cruel deployment of top gear from 1000 rpm (around 25 mph). At 100 mph in top, the V8 thrums along at 4000 rpm and the bluff body cuts through the air so lazily that you know this is barely cruising pace by Maserati standards.

Working through the pleasurable gearbox (it has the highest quality six-speed change we have experienced in a road car), Maserati allows the engine to exercise its lungs. This is especially true beyond 5000 rpm, but the general tone remains that of a tourer with sheathed teeth.

Cornering behaviour on dry roads is composed and rapid, but you are acutely aware of the pulling power at the rear wheels. The steering is notably accurate in plotting a course, or even correcting it under duress, but does exhibit a mildly disconcerting tendency to wander over road cambers, particularly when one considers the otherwise excellent chassis manners and compliant ride.

We did not drive the car in damp conditions. It is unlikely that Maserati has found an instant cure for the powersliding waywardness exhibited by all the other powerful, rear-drive, turbocharged cars we have encountered in recent years (yes, even the Lotus Esprit, fun though it is in downpours), so preliminary caution is advised.

The answer, of course, can be found in a sensitive right foot, the finest and cheapest traction device yet discovered by man.

On this short acquaintance, we liked the Maserati Shamal far more than expected. We did not expect to find such a superbly detailed and developed car behind the emotive trident badge. Its appearance is a matter for personal taste, but there is no doubt that this is a very serious contender for the cash of the buyer who wants the fragrant smell of supercar performance within a practical outline. It also offers reasonable accommodation for human beings and their trappings.

Highly recommended.

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