Maserati’s best-looking model

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DO YOU know how fast you were going, ma’am?” “Um…,” I answered. “I had you at 50 miles (80km) per hour. The speed limit in that tunnel is 35,” he said.

The silver-haired cop asked for my licence and registration, then walked back toward his cruiser. This was not going well.

It didn’t help that at 8am, First Avenue near the 42nd Street underpass was unusually empty. (Read: he can devote his full attention to this infraction.) Nor that I was behind the wheel of a snarling Maserati.

I sat mute. I have a clean driving record, thank goodness, and anyway I’m not big on hysterics. Just a heartbeat later, though, and Officer O’Malley returned. He was smiling.

“Would you look at that? The battery on my radar gun just died. Today must be your lucky day,” he said. There was a pause. “Do you mind if I look at the car?”

Not at all, officer. [Insert unnaturally big smile here. Keep smile on face for duration of interaction.]

He leaned far into the open window and took it all in: the tawny leather seats, the chocolate matte wood trim, the tiny white-numbered clock on the dash. The contrast stitching was a big hit.

Things got even better after he said he could never afford it “on this type of salary”. That’s when I told him the 2015 models start under US$70,000 (RM229,348). His face brightened.

“Really?!” he asked. “I might be able to get that when I retire.”

Yep. Talk about a relief.

That sort of exchange happens when you drive the 2015 Ghibli S Q4, the US$76,900 sport variant of the newest model from Maserati and the one chosen by Neiman Marcus as THE car to sell in its prestigious annual Christmas catalogue.

From the garage attendant who offered his services as an off-hours detailer, to the hotelier who wanted to borrow it “for a quick run around the block”, everyone wants a piece of the Ghibli. And for good reason. With its curved snout, chiselled side body and filleted, flashy face, the most affordable car Maserati makes is also its best-looking.

And while it’s nowhere near as fast as a Ferrari California or even as ferocious as a Jaguar F-Type, the Ghibli fills its own little sweet spot quite nicely: It’s a relatively affordable model from a luxury brand with the practicality of a four-door sedan (yes, really) and the cache of a coupe. If you’re looking for something a little unexpected, and you want to spend less than US$100,000, this could be the car for you.

Maserati first launched the Ghibli in 1967 as an 8-cylinder, dart-like grand tourer best suited to showing off along scenic byways and secondary rural routes. It ran until the Khamsin replaced it in 1972. A second car bearing the same name, this one a V6, ran from 1992 to 1997. Neither were bestsellers, though they each looked fun in their own, vintage-cool way.

Today’s Ghibli has a 3-litre V6 engine paired with an eight-speed automatic transmission and optional all-wheel-drive. (Buyers in Europe can choose a diesel option as well.) Base models get 345 horsepower with 369 pound-feet of torque, but the turbocharged S Q4 that I paced through New York last week gets 404 horsepower and 406 pound-feet of torque — numbers that fall somewhere in the middle of competitors like the US$60,000 Audi A6, US$92,000 E Class AMG Mercedes, US$67,200 BMW 550i xDrive, and US$70,875 Jaguar XF Supercharged.

Fuel economy is 15 miles per gallon (mpg) in the city, 25 on the highway, for a combined 18mpg that is also predictably in the middle of the set.

Maserati made liberal use of the trident logo in this car, which shows up in places like the spokes of the wheels, the brushed-steel pedals and footrests, and the front-seat headrests. Interior leather comes with contrasting stitching on request. - Photos by Bloomberg

Ghibli’s new incarnation offers five operating modes (auto normal, auto sport, manual normal, manual sport, and ICE (Increased Control & Efficiency), all meant to span the chasm between urban and highway driving. But the options are superfluous, since you’ll only use the one that makes the most noise (manual sport).

Duh. This car isn’t the fastest thing ever (that E Class AMG, for instance, hits 60mph in 3.7 seconds compared to Ghibli’s 4.8), nor the most powerful (the XF Supercharged has 470 horsepower and 424 pound-feet of torque), but it runs well, and it sounds good. Top speed is 175mph.

Drive the Ghibli for a day or two, and you’ll notice its pleasing engine notes, the reassuringly thick steering wheel, attentive Brembo brakes (you can have them painted if you pay extra), sharp steering and a certain punchy power when you press the gas pedal. Again, it’s not the most memorable model of its class — I’d give that distinction to the E Class — but it’s a solid option. Consider Ghibli like a first-string tight end at a middling university. It’s no Heisman pick, but it’s fun to watch, and you might develop some affection over the course of the season because it performs reliably with hints of true talent every now and then.

I haven’t really been “into” Maseratis lately, and I don’t know many young urban professionals who are. Yes, the Quattroporte has a certain virility as an executive (the nice of saying “very large”) sedan, and no one would decline a sunny-day ride in the cute GranTurismo convertible. But the brand has struggled in past years to appeal to anyone past middle-aged, upper-middle-class males. Most of them are fanboys anyway, rather than the coveted conquest or cross-brand buyers. There wasn’t much growth there. Or dynamism.

The traditional Maserati aesthetic — shark gills along the side and a toothy grill grin — is polarising. Friends and acquaintances who heard I had one last week tended to ask, tentatively, “how it looks”. The worst feedback was a blatant “Ew.” And that was from an Italian.

But I’m happy to report this new offering is the cleanest, most charming of the group. It has the flair of the Quattroporte but is a foot shorter and in general looks refreshingly tidy. Its nose is curved in a slight crouch, while the rounded rear is similarly tucked, and the sidelines undulate subtly as they near the trunk. New this year are front and rear mudguards that merge into a single central face framed in LED headlights; the signature gills along Ghibli’s temples remain. So does the radiator, whose concave scoops evoke the historical GranTurismo and A6 GCS Berlinetta models. It’s always great when an automaker successfully draws on its design heritage with its modern models.

One afternoon parking outside Bang Bang’s new shop down on Broome Street I made a note to mention how short the car felt, how easy it was to park. Then I checked the numbers against its competitors — it’s actually among the longer of its class. I consider that dichotomy a triumph of engineering.

In sum: Frameless door windows finish off its clean persona. It’s not too much to describe the overall look as sleek.

Inside the car keyless entry and start, dual-zone climate control, power sunroof and heated front seats all come standard.  Maserati deliveries hit 15,400 units last year, up 148% over 2012,  with Ghibli now accounting for more than 60% of total Maserati sales.

So true believers may still balk. But there are plenty of converts where it counts.

“Thanks for your patience, ma’am,” the cop said as he handed back my licence. “That car looks good wrapped around you. You have a good day, now.” — Bloomberg

The 2015 Ghibli S Q4, the US$76,900 sport variant of the newest model from Maserati and the one chosen by Neiman Marcus as the car of the year for its prestigious annual Christmas catalogue.

This article first appeared in The Edge Financial Daily, on October 27, 2014.