Motoring: A great body, but sex appeal only goes so far
MASERATI. Mazzzeraaaattti. Let's say it again... Mazzzeraaaattti. Yeah! The brand is so synonymous with smouldering Italian sexuality, with unhinged speed, with head-swivelling performance and with being a bit, er, suspect that it is impossible to even say the word without a frisson of expectation running through you. When it comes to passion, Lotharios always have a streak of unreliability running through them. And over the decades, Maserati has certainly had that.
The iconic brand celebrates its centenary this year and has launched bold plans for world domination. Two signings have been added to its team sheet: the Ghibli and next year the Levante, a luxury SUV. These are the cars which the Italians hope the Chinese and the Americans will be queuing up to buy. Maserati plans to sell 50,000 cars by 2015, which sounds unlikely when you consider last year's global sales of just 6,200.
The Ghibli is a four-door, five-seat sports car with a top speed of just under 250kPh which Maserati hopes will barge aside top-end Audis, BMWs, Jags and Mercs. History and myth-making are so much a part of Maserati's appeal that it's worth noting this is the third Ghibli – there was a stunning two-door coupe in the Sixties and a pig-ugly saloon in the Nineties. (The Ghibli itself is a hot, dry wind in north Africa.)
This third Ghibli boasts Maserati's first diesel engine. That tells you something: after 100 years, it has finally decided to offer a powerplant that doesn't drink like George Best on a bender. Rather incredibly for such a large and heavy car, the 3-litre turbocharged V6 puts up a decent fight against emissions with just 158g of CO2 per km – not so much hot dry air as its namesake.
For diehards, there is also a twin-turbocharged 3-litre V6 petrol that is faster and more powerful but not as clean living.
Few cars make an entrance like a Maserati does. It almost comes with a dress code – in this case, acid-washed designer jeans and a reptile-skin Cavalli wasitcoat. A Towie tan and nails to match would be in order, too, to accessorise the blood-red leather interior. The car exudes presence, its gaping grill is ready to suck air in like a sprinter, the triple vents on each flank harking back to its Fangio days and racing pedigree. Passers-by gawp, other road users let you sweep ahead of them – this must be what Sophia Loren felt like as she marched across thronged piazzas. So: great looks, a lavish cabin and a fearsome engine roar. But there were a few things I wasn't prepared for. The drive isn't great. The automatic box – a much-praised eight-speed – was lumpy and unpredictable. I found it hard to engage drive and reverse. And the engine, though it makes mincemeat of the opposition if you drive as if you are fleeing the law, was worryingly shuddery at low speeds. The handling I found wearying if I did anything other than drive in a straight line.
A shame, really, as it's a great-looking car, though the allure of saying "I drive a Maserati" might fade faster than you think.