By MATT BUBBERS
Special to The Globe and Mail
Thursday, November 23, 2017
MONACO -- Over the hundred-plus years it has been making cars, Maserati, like every good Italian auto maker, has had its brushes with bankruptcy and more than its fair share of mismanagement. Its successes have been spectacular; its failures have been embarrassing, but rarely has there been a dull moment - until now.
Today, the company is stronger than ever, but you probably haven't noticed. It's been doing well but flying under the radar.
Ferrari cranks out a new dream machine or superlimited edition every year; so, too, does Aston Martin, Lamborghini and McLaren.
But Maserati, despite three years of record sales, barely rates on the hype-o-metre.
We're in Monaco for the launch of the refreshed Ghibli, Maserati's smaller sedan, introduced in 2013.
It's been given a new bumper, some neat LED headlights and a little more horsepower, among other things. Not exactly the sort of news that makes you stop scrolling to retweet or like. Having just driven the 2018 Ghibli on the mountains above Monte Carlo, I can confirm it's a good car - excellent in some respects - but it leaves you wondering what's next. What comes after the refreshes and updates?
The company's flagship coupe, the GranTurismo, is now 10 years old with no sign of a replacement in sight. The brand's record sales have come primarily from the Levante SUV, an $89,750 rival to Porsche's Cayenne, which accounts for more than half of global sales. Ghibli sales are in slow decline, although frequent updates have kept it and the bigger Quattroporte sedan fresh. The gorgeous Alfieri coupe concept, shown in 2014 at the Geneva Motor Show to universal acclaim, has yet to materialize as a production car.
Giovanni Ribotta, the Italian chief exterior designer at Maserati since 2011, puts 100 years of history into perspective. "Okay, yes, ups and downs because of some economic reasons or struggle, but in the end, after more than 100 years, we are still here." That's not insignificant. Many other Italian auto makers have perished, or worse. Look at Lancia: The once-proud maker of brilliant, championship-winning rally cars is now hustling rebadged Chrysler minivans.
Ribotta can recount most of Maserati's 100-year history from memory, but here's the short version. The brothers Maserati - three of them, initially: Alfieri, Ettore and Ernesto - founded the company in 1914 in Bologna to build racing cars. Turns out they were pretty good at it. Their cars won the famous Targa Florio road race in Sicily and went on to win the Indianapolis 500 and a Formula One championship. Juan Manual Fangio's victory in a Maserati 250F at the 1957 German Grand Prix - in which he set nine lap records over the final 10 laps to come from behind and win - is the stuff of legend.
Maserati didn't build its first road car until 1947. Its success here was more sporadic. There were beautiful cars, such as the Giugiaro-designed 1967 Ghibli and Ribotta's favourite, the 1954 A6 GCS. But there were also a few ugly cars, such as Biturbo II.
Frequent changes of ownership didn't help. Ribotta says the years under Citroën control in the 1970s were the worst. "The employees showed up one day and the doors were locked." Citroën had gone bankrupt and left without a word.
Today, Maserati is part of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, under chief executive Sergio Marchionne. With a coupe, a convertible, two sedans and an SUV, Maserati's lineup is at its biggest on record. But record sales in 2016 fell short of the predicted 50,000 units.
Maserati needs some new metal and it's coming, just not as soon as planned.
Ribotta explained the Alfieri was originally scheduled for production in 2016, but Marchionne decided to focus investment elsewhere. New models for Alfa Romeo's relaunch in the United States were a priority.
"[The Alfieri] was too expensive for one model." It required changing the wheelbase and firewall position of the Alfa Giulia platform, on which it was to be based.
Maserati will take a lead on electrification, Marchionne said earlier this year in an earnings call. In Monaco, Enrico Billi, product planner at Maserati, said "Alfieri could be the pioneer for electrified Maserati."
"From a style point of view, we can do a jump forward," Ribotta said. "It will be interesting to see how we do our interpretation of electrification.
Marchionne spoke about the Levante [SUV] as something that we need to do as a hybrid in the next year."
Driving the updated Ghibli shows there's real engineering talent at Maserati. Over the same broken alpine pavement used as part of the Monte Carlo Rally's tour de corse, the Ghibli's composure was impressive.
Where a German sports sedan car would be pounding down the road, the Ghibli's Skyhook semi-active suspension made the car seem to float.
The car feels lighter on its feet than an 1,800-kilogram sedan should. And yet, for all the comfort, you don't sacrifice steering precision.
Maserati is moving to electric power-steering for 2018, which, among other things, allows the introduction of an advanced driverassistance package similar to Tesla's Autopilot or alternatives from Mercedes and BMW. While there's not much feedback through the wheel, the floatiness of the chassis disappears when turning into a corner.
Pushing faster, the Ghibli is nimble and accurate, but never loses that impressive composure. It's probably the most comfortable sport sedan on the market today.
The twin-turbo V-6 made by Ferrari sounds somewhat muted but makes a nice raspy purr. Minor updates have increased horsepower to 424 in the all-wheel-drive Q4S.
Pricing for the 2018 Ghibli is a tad lower than last year, starting at $85,050 (versus $86,600 for 2017) and rising to $100,300 for the new GranLusso or GranSport trims.
In Monaco, where one in three people is a millionaire, the streets were crammed with Rolls-Royces, Bentleys and Maybachs as well as all kinds of exotic supercars. The only Maserati I saw there was a Ghibli being used as a taxicab.
Maserati's cars have always flown a little under the radar. That was the point: a Ferrari with a little less flash, for a little less money. Today, its cars are priced further downmarket, to compete with Porsche, to grow the brand. But - as good as the updated Ghibli is - if Maserati is to survive and hit its ambitious sales targets, it will need more than refreshes.
"I'm feeling good for the future," Ribotta said. "I'm feeling that we can do a surprise as we've done in the past."
Several sources from Maserati said FCA's Marchionne will reveal a full plan for the future of the brand in the spring. The Alfieri is a sure thing, as are some new plug-in hybrid models and maybe an all-electric car to rival Porsche's Mission E.
Is Maserati finally on the cusp of greatness again? We've had our hopes dashed before. In 2014, the Alfieri concept made everyone remember Maserati was capable of making spectacular cars and then disappeared. But the stage is set once again. Alfa Romeo had its turn. It looks as if Maserati's days of flying under the radar are numbered.
The writer was a guest of the auto maker. Content was not subject to approval.
In Monaco, the streets are crammed with Rolls-Royces and Bentleys as well as all kinds of exotic supercars. The only Maserati the writer saw there was a Ghibli being used as a taxicab.
Where a German sports sedan car would be pounding down the road, the Ghibli's semi-active suspension makes the car seem to float - a testament to Maserati's engineering talent. Among the auto maker's few successful road cars in its history is the A6, bottom.
TOP TWO PHOTOS: LORENZO MARCINNO; BOTTOM PHOTO: MASERATI