"I've been trying all day to make the car understeer," says Maserati's racer Alex Fiorio, grinning like only a former WRC driver can. "It is impossible."
He was referring to the company's new Ghibli - a smaller four-door than the huge Quattroporte - during a swanky launch in Tuscany. It was the four-wheel drive version that he'd been putting through its paces on the tight, twisting roads around the region, on a route he'd designed to test not only the stunning new cars, but the journalists who would be tackling them. The incredible selection of serpentine tarmac through some of Italy's most picturesque areas was interspersed with long, high-speed sprints that quickly made way for ever curlier and more challenging roads, including former stages of the famous San Remo rally.
A Maserati engineer later told us Fiorio had also been punting the two-wheel drive version and had suggested he'd fit wipers to the driver and passengers' windows because he'd spend so much time sideways. He's an enthusiast, and his passion for the brand and for driving is infectious. Granted, he may have found it impossible to get understeer out of the Ghibli, but motoring writers (generally) aren't blessed with his level of skill.
New Zealand won't be seeing the Q4, four-pawed version of the Ghibli, purely because development costs for right-hand drive versions are prohibitive, especially considering the small number of right-hook markets. Japan could have changed that: the Maserati is an elegant, and fast, badge of honour among the Rising Sun's well-heeled, but it is possible to register either left- or right-drive versions without the hoop-jumping needed in markets like ours.
The rear-drive option is a more natural Maserati underneath it all, at least in a traditional sense. But Ghibli represents more to the brand than just another luxury sports tourer to sit below the well-regarded Quattroporte - it's part of an assault on the big German brands that it hopes will swell sales by tens of thousands.
This, in global terms, doesn't really sound like a huge ask, but the Maserati gameplan involves jumping from around 6000 cars a year to 50,000-plus.
Ghibli has a lot of potential, and although a great deal of this is tied to the car's pricing, which is yet to be announced, the addition of a diesel to the line-up could help it gain significant traction in the oilburner-loving markets in Europe. New Zealand and Australia, responsible for only about 160 cars annually, expect to lift their game by around 1200 cars.
There was a real danger that the introduction of a Maserati without a "normal" ticket price could potentially cheapen the brand, effectively ruining an illustrious history built around beautifully built sportscars that faithfully portrayed the all-important Italian ingredient - passion.
The company's newish lineage as part of the Fiat Chrysler alliance, combined with the resurrection of the Ghibli nameplate that was originally tied to a two-door, had some of the Maserati faithful concerned about the company's direction. Fortunately, after a week driving both the new Quattroporte (see a full test of the new V6 in Driven over the next couple of weeks) and a full sampling of the Ghibli range, we can put aside any fears.
It may be a new direction from the company, it may have diesel and four-wheel drive options and an engine that has a handful of common components from the Chrysler parts
bin, and it might not cost as much as a GranTurismo but the Ghibli is, without doubt, a pukka Maserati.
The upcoming SUV is also causing conniptions among Masertragics; but the impressive Ghibli can put those Trident enthusiasts' minds at ease, at least until the Levante is released.
Driving a Quattroporte to the launch near the picturesque city of Siena, having been harassed by anything with a bit of go, it was a pleasant change to glance in the mirror and see the Maserati Trident approaching at fairly serious velocity. A guessing game quickly kicked off about exactly what was closing at warp speed. It didn't have the lengthy bonnet of the GranTurismo or the GranCabrio, it certainly wasn't the 5.26m Quattroporte and really had to be a Ghibli.
We were nearly right it was a Ghibli, but a pre-production prototype and we gave chase along autostrade, occasionally all having to do a quick jump on the brake to avoid the attention of the country's revenue-gathering camera system.
The car looks striking from behind this one was powered by the lesser of the pair of twin-turbo V6s, making 245kW and 500Nm and the sound was unbelievable. It made the wait to actually get bums on seats in the full production versions and experience it for ourselves quite difficult indeed.
From every angle, the Ghibli oozes the elegance and bling that has long made Maserati a desirable brand. It's nearly 300mm shorter than the Quattroporte, but there's no mistaking the family face, with the trademark trident, lights peering out from underneath the bulged bonnet and the chrome-trimmed cutouts on the front guards. The two may share a platform, but the Ghibli feels less executive and more enthusiast, even just in looks.
Slipping inside was a different experience after the Quattroporte's massive internal volume and dash that stretches out flat across the cockpit. The Ghibli's interior is more intimate, with two arches on the dash, a larger one for the driver with the typical chromed gauges front and centre, the big logo on a leather-wrapped wheel and a lot of options for mixing leather trim colours or replacing wooden accents with carbon fibre.
Maserati's aim for the Ghibli is underlined by these customisation options although there's usually plenty to choose from, the ability to seriously personalise a car will make
it more appealing to younger buyers. Its core buyer ordinarily is an entrepreneurial type with an exceptional level of self belief and self worth and a strong sense of individuality. The Ghibli is obviously aimed at the same type, but hopes to convert them to the brand a little earlier.
A 22cm colour touchscreen divides the dash in two, and is the main port of call to adjust everything from climate control, media and infotainment, the heated/vented front seats and the all-important navigation, without which we'd still be stuck somewhere near Bologna, scratching our heads and asking disbelieving locals for directions to places we couldn't pronounce. From the luxuriously leather-bound wheelhouse, the fun begins.
There is no manual version available, but the cars are fitted with a well-programmed ZF eight-speed automatic that proves extremely tractable under day-to-day driving conditions.
Naturally, there is a sport button option.
It is possible not to push it, but once you've heard the change in exhaust note from muted yet powerful six-pot to screaming animal that needs to rev, resistance is futile.
The button changes shift points as well, slips in a bit of timing advance and makes the car feel, well, far more Maserati.
I hit sport mere seconds after hitting the starter button, then the sport suspension setting (which is far more satisfying for the driver than rear seat passengers, who tend to take more impact as a result) and then the `M' button, which forces the ZF into manual mode and allows changes through well-sculpted aluminium fixed paddles.
Using these to row up and down through the gears around the test roads made the car feel more balanced even without traction aids engaged. Rather than fitting all electronic aids and then working on getting the car to handle well, Maserati first gets the car balanced at 50/50 weight distribution, sets up the suspension geometry and gets handling sorted. Then the aids are fitted, making them safer for average drivers and still
allowing tail-out fun for those who like to live a little.
Turn-in on the tighter roads was brilliant, with the fixed paddles proving reasonably useable while swinging the steering wheel, although Maserati's longer ''Trofeo'' paddles could be a better choice. Through long and fast corners it sat, rock steady, even under heavy acceleration, with the rigidity that has come from using all those high-tensile materials.
We sampled the larger V6 engine, which makes 305kW, although it was fitted to the
admittedly very good Q4 version. It is likely that this engine will be available here, in rear-drive only, although final specifications for the vehicles that will be sold at this end
of the world is yet to be confirmed.
The diesel was interesting, although it lacked some of the things that scream Maserati that howling engine note that cackles and bangs when you're pushing it being the most glaring issue. It packs plenty of torque, but the revvy petrol engines seem to be more genuine, and the noise-maker system to make the diesel sound better just didn't cut the mustard.
But that V6, wide open and banging through gears like a Fiorio-in-training through some of the most spectacular scenery imaginable, enjoying the balance that only true sportscar makers can achieve and feeling the 1800-odd kilogram mass lighten as the car's behaviour became more familiar, it's not surprising that those who drive Maseratis are so damn passionate about them.
There are two big questions remaining. Will the Ghibli sell in the volumes that Maserati needs to meet those admittedly bold sales predictions? And will there be an ''MC'' version with that lovely V8 in the future?