Mas-er-ati. Say it slowly and one of the most beautiful and evocative names in the automotive world sounds even more special. What is it about Italian words? They're enough to make the average Brit go weak at the knees.
Maserati has ambitious new plans to sell 50,000 cars a year – and the Ghibli will do much to kick its sales figures up towards that number. But it's what happens next year, when it's joined by the Levante SUV, that such a figure will be more realistic. This approach might wither a great nameplate, say the sceptics – but it hasn't done Porsche any harm with the Macan.
As the Italian maker celebrates its centenary year, we saddled up to see if the Ghibli can still shine brightly on the damp, dark roads of wintery Britain. Does going "down market" – that is, selling a more affordable saloon model – take away from the specialness of sitting behind the wheel?
Special place to stay
Not from where we're sitting. Charging over the spine of Britain for a short break, family on board, there's none of the mundanity typical of a British motorway slog behind the wheel of the Ghibli. Except for the compulsory crying child in the back, and the stubborn British cloud cover which refuses to lift.
On the inside, the Ghibli doesn't feel like the cheapest Maserati you can buy. Far from it. For years, high-end Italian cars have been better than any other at making everything you touch and sit on feel special – and the Ghibli feels just that.
So we cruise along in the motorway morass, ensconced in seats with leather so soft, so supple that they'd be nice to sleep in; just to really drink in their loveliness. The steering wheel is little different, and the Trident badge in its centre gives a chest-puffing sense of superiority that no Jaguar or Mercedes can come close to rivalling. Not only does it all look expensive, but it smells great too, a true tell-tale of expensive leather hide – far higher quality than anything you'd find in German car.
Italian tech trials
Unlike so many Italian cars of yore, the good experience doesn't stop when you get to the user experience side of things: the Ghibli runs a Maserati-skinned version of Chrysler's u-Connect, which we were previously impressed by in the Jeep Grand Cherokee. It might not have the speed and sophistication of Volkswagen's leading touchscreen system and the on-screen graphics are a little crude, but it's very ease to use.
The primary menu functions remain constant at the base of the screen, making the system easy to navigate because you're not constantly jumping around via a home page or main menu. The heated seat functions flash up for several seconds on start-up, too – which is handy because it means you don't have to wait for the screen to boot and then trawl through menus to warm that cold leather on frosty winter mornings. Most importantly, all the buttons are big and easy to hit, and the Ghibli retains hard controls for all the heat and ventilation functions.
Still, it would have been nice if the skinning of the system had extended to ditching the cartoonish graphics of Garmin's satnav system. The green, blue and pink and the cartoon car look rather out of the place in a 70-grand slice of Italian automotive jewellery.
Without a paddle
On the subject of jewellery and interfaces, we couldn't help feeling that our test car did without one feature that should be standard in every Maserati: gearshift paddles.
Maserati's gearshift paddles are long, elegant wands that are wonderful to use, if you opt for them. As a £245 option in the Ghibli (yes we know they should be standard) our advice is to make sure you tick the optional box.
Whatever engine version you choose, the Ghibli comes only with an automatic gearbox – but it's a good one. The ZF's 8-speed box we know well from various BMW, Jag and Land Rover products. Problem is that, when you get into the mood with a Maserati, you start to want to interact with it rather more on your own terms and – good gearbox though this is – it doesn't automatically sense your wanting to behave like a child and drive through a tunnel with the windows down while holding it in second gear to hear the exhaust note.
The one no one will buy
Those paying close attention will have guessed that our test Ghibli was not the diesel model that many buyers will choose, but the higher power petrol S-spec car.
This model is fitted with a 410bhp, twin-turbo V6 engine. In a previous era, this model might have been a V8, but with fuel consumption, emissions and efficiency concerns high on the agenda for even cars like this, it's a V6 that does the job of driving the rear wheels. And boy does it light them up.
Most people sad about the impending death of the V8 are crying over the loss of the great noises they make. Go read our BMW M3 review if you need more nerdy low down on that. But suffice to say, V6 engines simply don't sound as good. Or we didn't think they did until we drove this Maserati.
Instead, we found the Ghibli S to have the best sounding V6 we can ever remember driving. A grand statement? Perhaps – but then it's made by Ferrari for Maserati, so it shouldn't come as a massive shock. It screams as you imagine an Italian supercar might (impressively so, given it's turbo-charged), and makes delicious crackles when you back-off the accelerator.
Those four exhausts at the back make every tunnel a mandatory windows down affair. Well, they do if you only have the car for a couple of days like us. You might tire of getting cold if you own one. Or maybe not.
Spin me up baby
The 0-60 in five seconds dead sees the Ghibli slip into serious speedy territory. It always feels game for its 410-horsepower, with the V6T engine showing no signs of turbo lag and an addictive desire to race to the redline.
With 410bhp on tap driving through just the rear wheels shod with summer tires needs to be treated with respect. During our review term it's been all rain, snow and generally not above the -2C mark, so we spent most of our time managing the power, rather than exploiting it. Our bet is that in the drier summer months it's a bit of a hoot and a bit of a hooligan should you want it to be, yet grippy and quick when you don't.
On 20-inch wheels the ride, as you might expect, is a little firm. The Ghibli doesn't cosset and smooth out every bump but that's to be expected given its sports billing. But the ride never falls to pieces thanks to skyhook adaptive dampers, which can firm up the ride in sport mode and keep potholes restrained to loud thuds rather than crashes and bangs as the wheels skip into them.
Best 'til last
We've harped on about interior elegance and drive experience, saving the best until last: the Ghibli's exterior design. It's easy to get blinded by a lust-worthy badge on high-end cars and forgive (or simply be blind to) basic design failings. However, the Ghibli is unquestionably one of the prettiest saloons on the market today.
Its shorter wheelbase than its Quattroporte big brother gives it better proportions. That long, low nose with concave grille opening and interconnected lamps gives exactly the right level of menacing aggression, without resorting to the austere vulgarity of some German cars. You will never mistake the Ghibli in your rear view mirror for anything other than a Maserati.
Only around the rear boot area and the lights does the design start to go amiss, but it's easy to forgive this as your eye falls on another beautifully executed details or sophisticated surfaces.
It all adds up to one very special feeling car, one that – whether you're taking a glance back over your shoulder as you park it up, approaching it with (heaviest we've ever held) key fob in hand, or sinking into the embracing hug of those leather cover chairs – just feels special.
The Ghibli broadens Maserati's market, pitting itself against some very capable competition and opening the Italian brand up to new buyers. The high-end Mercedes CLS, Audi A7 and BMW 6-Series Gran Coupe cars of this world are all great, at this price point each offering refined 6-cylinder engines, lashings of leather and the pick of each firms' latest technologies. The Ghibli lacks some of that very latest, cleverly integrated technology – but that doesn't mean it's old fashioned. Most necessities are present and correct in terms of connectivity and driver assistance.
However, somehow the Ghibli never feels like a true competitor to the aforementioned German cars, and in a good way. The Germans at this level are the pinnacle of a what are ultimately mundane models – a 6-Series Gran Coupe is rather more closely related to lowly 5-Series than BMW would like you to realise, whereas the Ghibli feels like a smaller version of a much more expensive car. In effect it is, sharing underpinnings with the larger Quattroporte. Because of that and the way it looks, feels to the touch and drives, the Ghibli has a theatre and a sense of specialness that puts it in a league of its own.
Objectively, some cars you could buy at this level tick more boxes. But the Ghibli is good enough in most areas, and more special in many others, that it'd be easy to make a case for picking it out if you want to be different and treat yourself to something special. As Maserati enters its second century, its future looks brighter than ever then. Just remember to spec in those paddle shifters.