I’ve been driving cars and testing cars and thinking about cars for about 30 years. I have a good idea about what I like and don’t like.
I don’t generally like flashy cars. That doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate the McLaren P1s of the world. It doesn’t mean I don’t like to drive Lamborghinis — in fact, I find Lambos to be an absolute pleasure to drive. I’ve had a good time in orange cars. An exterior of deranged, angular cut works for me.
What I do like are cars that combine a high level of luxury and a reasonable level of performance. (Of course that’s for real-world driving; the track is another story, and a place where I can do without the luxe.)
That’s why I so thoroughly enjoyed the Ferrari FF that I drove over the winter. Unsurprisingly, I also enjoyed one of Ferrari’s corporate stablemates, the Maserati Ghibli, which I sampled a few weeks back.
Maserati and Ferrari make some of the sexiest cars, but the brands perform distinct functions. Ferrari is pure aspiration. Little boys dream of someday owning a Ferrari. Then they grow up and become successful enough to fulfil those dreams. Aspiration achieved, right?
Wrong. Ferrari makes only road cars because, long ago, founder Enzo Ferrari wanted to fund his racing efforts. Everything at Ferrari flows from the track. If you aren’t racing a Ferrari, you’re merely an owner, and although Ferrari has the utmost respect for that relationship (you are referred to as a “client,” as someone whom Ferrari, in a sense, works for — what drives Ferrari’s business is that you will always be compelled to aspire to more, yet you will never be able to grab that bright red ring. Because you are not a racer. You are a driver, a dreamer.
This is why Ferrari builds just 7,000 cars a year. In the future, it may build more. But for now, it’s Maserati’s job to carry some corporate weight for Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, which owns both legendary Italian brands.
The Maserati narrative in the US is impressive. Over a decade ago, the brand returned, selling a luxury sedan, the Quattroporte. The car was exciting not because it was a luxury sedan but because it wasn’t like all the other luxury sedans that were around at the time, which were mainly German.
The Mas was thoroughly Italian, an object of beauty rather than a feat of engineering. German cars are perfectly OK, but they simply don’t fire the soul. That isn’t their purpose. Their purpose is to execute, with a certain Teutonic remorselessness. Their purpose is not to caress, inflame, or seduce.
Maserati expanded the lineup and, in 2013, unveiled a third generation carrying the Ghibli name (Gen I was from the ’60s, while Gen II appeared in the ’90s.). The point of the car was to offer buyers a smaller, sportier, less expensive sedan, pointedly not a downsized Quattroporte, but rather a sport sedan with panache and spirit but not the long hood and Medieval rumble of a Very Large V8 engine.
The burden was to grow Maserati sales in the hyper-competitive US luxury market. It remains to be seen whether the Ghibli will satisfy its overseers at FCA. (It’s going to get some help from a forthcoming crossover SUV). But that’s not why we’re here. We’re here to tell you about what it feels like to drive a car that feels right.
Some people feel right in pickup trucks. Some feel right in SUVs. Some in a plush, easy-driving sedan. Some people feel right in a New York City cab. Some in a Prius. Some people don’t actually feel right in a car. They might need a motorcycle. Or a train. Or a rowboat. Or a skateboard. Or a pair of hiking boots.
I feel right in luxurious Italian cars.
They just flip a switch, or activate a precise synaptic connection that rules my cranial pleasure center. It certainly doesn’t bother me to slip into a Porsche 911 and have that almost automatic ability to drive a good road. I certainly don’t mind a stonking American V8 stuffed under the hood of a Corvette. Peppy little hybrids are good. Yawning family sedans are good. The Cadillac Escalade is good. Bentleys are good. BMWs are good. Acuras are good. Audis are good.
To paraphrase Warren Beatty in my favourite movie, “Shampoo” — I love them all. Up to a point, of course. Cars do disappoint, for reasons large and small.
In any case, when I slip into a Ferrari or Maserati with the engine up front (versus behind me, the configuration of Ferrari’s astonishing 458, a wild machine that I adore but don’t entire fit with), I exhale a cleansing breath and savour the experience of being welcomed home.
This encourages me to forgive many offenses. The Ghibli really doesn’t have a great infotainment setup, on a par with, say, Audi, which in our tests of numerous cars has basically been the best you can get. Who cares. If you’re worried about the aesthetics of you infotainment system when driving a Ghibli, you’re driving a car you’re not suited for. You are a victim of vile distractions and the pulsing demands of the 21st century. The suave virtues of Italian motoring are not your bag.
There are bits and pieces of the Ghibli that look as if they we’re entirely thought through. The transmission is tricky to get the hang of — Maserati says it’s going to change it — and you don’t have some now commonplace high-tech features, such as adaptive cruise control. On the plus side, the trunk is almost absurdly capacious, for a car of this type.
Truth be told, the Ghibli didn’t quite do it for me like the Ferrari FF did. That’s a car that still populates my dreams, and serves as a reliable checkpoint for sense memories: smell, sound, texture, shape, colour. But the Ghibli is close second. And given that the FF is $US300,000, and the Ghibli is $US85,000 (as tested, in the S Q4 all-wheel-drive configuration), the residual hallucinations are far more affordable, if less vivid and urgent.
Plus, the Ghibli is a feast. I spent a few days driving a black inside, black outside version around Manhattan and the rolling thoroughfares of New Jersey. It didn’t so much like Manhattan, land of crumbling asphalt, marauding Town Cars, and lumbering buses.
But then again I’m not sure which car, besides a classic Checker Cab, really ever has liked Manhattan. On the other hand, give the Ghibli some open highway or undulations of landscape, not to mention narrow asphalt adjacent to a river or creek, better yet a canyon road, and you will visit automotive Elysium. Put the car in sport mode and use the exquisite, enormous forged-aluminium paddle shifters behind the steering wheel, which are hands down the best in the business (on Ferraris, too). Relish the way that the S Q4’s all-wheel-drive system adroitly senses the point when rear-wheel-drive default isn’t cutting it and sends traction to the front.
Make that twin-turbo, 3.o-litre V6 unleash its 410 horsepower like an ancient Roman landowner peeling off his woolen shift to strap on armour, raise a howl, and show that affluence and dignity can be superseded by animal urges.
In short, allow your car, which can encase and soothe in stop-and-go, whose stitched leather upholstery can conjoin with premium denim, suit pant, silk stocking, or taut bare hamstring, to let you feel alive.
Let’s go ahead and sugarcoat it, and then ladle on some honey, then drizzle syrup, and add whipped cream: the Ghibli is sexy. Sexxxyyy!!
At my age, I want a sexy car. I have no time for un-sexy cars. It’s just that I don’t want sloppy sexy. I want the sexy that whispers before it roars. “The cool before the warm, the calm after the storm,” as Paul Weller once memorably put it, a musical sentiment that I have come to appreciate.
It’s all just so Italian and what we demand of Italian cars, and really what we demand if Italians themselves. Trust me on this one.
We have in store for us a deeply unsexy future, as far as the automobile goes. I’m not offering a judgment here, just confessing to the acceptance of logical prophesy: Sexy is entwined with fast, which implies a certain sanguine recklessness, which endorses danger, and several thousands pounds of sexy, sanguine, reckless danger is not something society can permit for much longer. Not on public roadways anyhow.
The Google Car isn’t even remotely sexy. But of course that’s not the point of the Google Car.
In the traditional auto industry, the arms race afoot among manufacturers to progressively go over the top of the other with ever more exotic supercar and hypercar and now even megacar designs isn’t sexy. It represents what an art historian might label a mannerist episode, when we crave exaggeration over excellence, distortion over elegance.
Not sexy. I mean, what is this if not a weird thing from a bleak place, a rude automotive beast wrapped in distracting supervillain CGI? The idea is to scare you.
So sexy, in a sense, is a form of resistance — a pushback against the cartoon cars. The Ghibli makes you want to touch it, to do what we all want to do with sexy cars: run a fingertip from headlamp to taillight, to drop a hand to the shifter and leave it there, soaking up to cooling energy of the metal, to push the start button and prepare for the power to be poured on like a succulent poem filled with vigour and intent, but never trying too hard.
This, after all, is a car named after a wind, and in human history, we have done a nice job of naming winds: Sirocco, Mistral, Ghibli. I first read about this ghibli in Michael Ondaatje’s novel “The English Patient,” where it’s described as a “hot, dry” wind from Tunis that “rolls and rolls and produces a nervous condition.”
A “nervous condition.” That’s what they used to call being seized by the sexy, my friends.
My drives in the Ghibli were what I’ve been insinuating they were, that which happens beyond the first date. You can have this if you want it. You should have it, especially if you want it.
You will not want to let it go. When it feels just right, why would you?