In the lead-up to my seat time with Maserati’s latest on the big track at Willow Springs International Raceway and the nondescript streets surrounding it, the automaker held a press briefing via video conference. Here, company PR chief Kas Rigas explained the “duality” of the brand, citing the original Quattroporte as the prime example.
Launched in 1963, it was Maserati’s first road car after a long string of successful, purpose-built race cars, and it featured a motorsport-derived, all-aluminum DOHC V8 ensconced in a Pietro Frua-designed grand-touring sedan wrapper.
“It was the ultimate blend of luxury and performance,” Rigas explained. “And as the years went on, the racing technology that put Maserati on podiums time and time again continued to proliferate throughout our production vehicles.”
(Full disclosure: Maserati invited our contributor to drive their cars at a press event that presumably included free food and possibly swag. We assume COVID protocols were followed.).
It’s been a few years since Maserati was actively involved in a professional race series – last with Pirelli World Challenge campaigning the GranTurismo coupe in the GT3 and GT4 classes – and I think the order of the “luxury and performance” in Rigas’s phrasing is telling. Whereas Alfa Romeo, Stellantis’s other premium Italian marque, seems to prioritize performance over luxury as a general ideology, Maserati’s current philosophy comes from the opposite perspective.
The Masers certainly aren’t lacking for grunt, though. Like its Stateside corporate siblings, Maserati is taking a “Hellcat all the things” approach to its 2021 lineup, equipping its 3.8-liter, twin-turbocharged, 580-horsepower V8 to all its current models that are spec’d in Trofeo trim.
That’s been par for the course with the Quattroporte sedan and Levante sport-utility for a few years now, but it’s a brand new offering for the Ghibli, which also happens to be the smallest (and presumably sportiest) model in Maserati’s three-vehicle lineup. I wouldn’t fault you for assuming that the Ghibli is a 3-Series alternative for those premium-sedan buyers who’re looking to venture off of the beaten path, but the reality is that it’s closer in size to a 5-Series, and priced similarly pound-for-pound.
I spent the majority of my track time in the Ghibli Trofeo for seemingly obvious reasons. Our exercises began with a few straight-line blasts with launch control: Set the drive mode to Corsa, pull the left shift paddle twice, apply the requested left foot-braking pressure, and then sidestep the brake and the rear-drive Ghibli Trofeo will rocket to 60 mph from rest in four seconds flat. That puts it a step or two behind prime movers like the M5 and the Mercedes-AMG E63S, both of which send power to all four wheels, but it’s still properly quick.
After familiarizing ourselves with launch control and running down a slalom of cones a few times, we headed out on course for our lapping sessions. This is where that “luxury and performance” rather than “performance and luxury” philosophy is most evident. For instance, all Ghibli models are outfitted with a sunroof as standard, and even with the seat lowered as far as it would go, I discovered that when you’re 6’3” and wearing a helmet, headroom in the Ghibli is roughly on par with a Lamborghini Huracán EVO. There’s simply no seating position that’s conducive to performance driving but also allowed my head to clear the significant downward bump in the headliner, so I just hunched over and made sure that I had unencumbered access to all of the controls.
It starts to paint a picture of a car that has track-tuned components but is ultimately not really intended for that kind of driving. The new Zegna Pelletessuta upholstery is lovely to look at, but the bolstering of Ghibli’s sport seats leave a lot to be desired when you’re combatting the lateral forces of Turn 4 on Big Willow or using the six-piston Brembos to slow things down from 140 mph at the end of the front straight.
There are other important nuances that reinforce the “luxury first” notion as well. While the eight-speed automatic gearbox shifts quickly and is reasonably well-programmed for aggressive driving in Sport mode (we weren’t allowed to use Corsa mode on-track), locking the transmission into manual mode and using the paddle shifters was my general preference because it allowed me to be reasonably certain that the car wasn’t going to suddenly upshift or downshift when I didn’t want it to.
The problem is that the Ghibli’s exhaust is so quiet, it can be tough to hear it over the ambient noise with a helmet on, even with the windows up. That led to bumping off of the rev limiter a few times, and more occasions that required me to glance down at the tachometer when I really wanted to be focused on the tarmac ahead. And even with the dampers set to their most aggressive setting, the Ghibli’s suspension had to really work to keep up with the pace.
By contrast, the Levante’s air suspension seemed to provide better body control, and the system’s sportiest setting drops the big sport-utility low enough in to make it feel more like a high-riding car than an SUV. And since it comes standard with all-wheel drive, the Levante is faster off the line (3.8 seconds to 60) and feels more predictable getting on the power out of a slow corner.
I came away conflicted by the fact that I actually preferred the Levante in this context. Numbers can contextualize performance, but at the end of the day, the vehicle that inspires greater confidence is the one I’d rather spend time in. Yes, it’s huge and the center of gravity is high, but neither of these vehicles was built to set lap records, so it really comes down to the experience itself.
The street drive allowed me to soak in more of what’s new for Maserati in 2021 and get a better sense of what these machines are like out in the real world. All three vehicles received a minor visual refresh this year, but the big news is the cabin. Yes, there’s still switchgear from the FCA parts bin here and there, but the component sharing actually works in Maserati’s favor in this particular instance. 2021 debuts Maserati’s new Maserati Intelligent Assistant Infotainment System, which is ostensibly a re-worked version of the Uconnect 5 system found in the new Dodge Durango and Chrysler Pacifica.
It’s a big step up from the Uconnect 4-derived infotainment in last year’s Maserati lineup, boasting a bonded glass 10.1-inch widescreen display, more memory and processing power, and headline features like wireless Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. The new system alone modernizes the Maserati interiors substantially, and among the current lineup, the big Quattroporte that I took out onto the streets of Rosamond seems to get the greatest benefit from it.
Even today, the Quattroporte feels like the most honest interpretation of Maserati’s design ethos, but the 3.0-liter, twin-turbo V6 that’s equipped in GranLusso trim is a little bit underwhelming. If the appeal of the Trofeo lineup is its emotional impact, the low-key muscle car bark of that Ferrari-derived V8 under the hood is a big part of the equation, and losing that tips the scales further in favor of luxury as a primary driver. Even with the new tech and revised aesthetics, Maseratis still need a visceral component that can’t be ignored.
In their briefing, Maserati noted that the upcoming MC20 coupe will mark their return to motorsport and the super sportscar segment as well. Karl DeBoer, Brand Manager for Maserati North America noted that internal research shows that 82 percent of the purchases made in this portion of the market are ostensibly impulse buys.
As Maserati readies the path forward with the MC20 and its all-new Nettuno V6, which will carry over to other models in various iterations, they’ve also designed the MC20 chassis with provisions for an EV powertrain that’s coming further down the line. There’s a brave new electrified world unfolding in front of us, and as it develops, internal combustion engines are becoming a less integral part of a vehicle’s personality by-design. Given that, Maserati would be wise to keep an eye on what continues to drive those impulses – and hold on to it for as long as they possibly can.
[Images © 2021 Bradley Iger/TTAC]