A HAVEN of exotica lies in waiting just a couple of hours' drive up the road from Dublin.
You may recall last summer I ran a series of 'dream drives', where I got behind the wheel of Bentleys, Ferraris and Maseratis courtesy of the Charles Hurst group on Belfast's Boucher Road.
Well the other day it was just about Maseratis. I picked out three for varying lengths of drive around Belfast and the Ards Peninsula on a glorious day for driving - for anything really.
However, this was as much about Maserati as the individual models. They are livening things up, you see. Going from 6,000 sales just a few years back to 75,000 by 2018 means they have to make a bit of noise and let people know what they are about: what they have and what is coming.
They sold 36,500 globally last year. Yes, the numbers are small but this is rather exclusive territory - and they've got plans to increase them.
Next year they expect a new level of buying with the arrival of their Levante crossover/SUV (built on Maserati's own platform) to compete with the Range Rover Sport, Porsche Cayenne etc. This is an absolute 'must' area to have a crossover now. Nearly everyone has one.
Then there will be an Alfieri Coupe and Convertible to rival the Jaguar F-TYPE and Porsche 911, with the Gran Turismo replaced by 2018. And they will have a plug-in hybrid in the range by 2017.
I agree that Maserati is an exotic name and the cars, in the main, bear that out.
However, it is easy to overlook the fact that some of their cars are in the same pricing ballpark as more familiar stalwarts down here.
I'm thinking in particular of the Ghibli diesel. Its price range is, roughly, €50,000 to €100,000 - I see it as a real alternative to the likes of the BMW 5-series.
Then you have your Quattroporte (€100,000 - €200,000) which is a Mercedes S-Class rival, for example. From what I could gather there seems to be a real method to what they are about. They more or less (not always) leave the €150,000-plus market to Ferrari
For now they have improved the Ghibli and Quattraporte engines and added Siri voice control to improved audio systems as well as a host of other bits and pieces of improvement.
So it was against that backdrop, as they say, that we sampled some of the current batch of cars. It is important to note, however, that the prices I'm giving here are approximations because of currency fluctuations, trim levels etc.
Anyway, we took the Quattroporte GTS initially. This is a large, extremely roomy, saloon with a 3,799cc V8 capable of sprinting to 100kmh in 4.7 seconds (23.9mpg).
You're looking at €190,000/€195,000 roughly and €2,350 road tax here. Bluntly, we weren't madly impressed at all. While it was nicely appointed and had lots of creature comforts, it felt heavy, not nearly as taut as you'd want in a big sporting car like this and the steering was quite heavy. Loads of room and the feel of luxury but, ultimately, disappointing. There is also a Quattroporte diesel starting around the €119,000-€125,000 mark.
Then we got into the Ghibli diesel. Now that was much more like it. This, as I said, is a 5-series rival. It impressed us greatly. Lovely interior (much nicer than the 5-series), loads of leather, good spec levels and a first-class V6 diesel (2,987cc). I liked the chassis, the drive and the way it fed power all through the revs. Really impressed. This is the sort of car that would make you think: Would I prefer this or a 5-series in my driveway so I could say I was driving something different? Claimed fuel consumption approaches the 48mpg mark, which is as good as most on the market. One thing against it is the €570 road tax (158g/km). Mind you it is a V6.
The other thing against it - and the Quattroporte - were the paddle gearshifts on the steering column. They're disproportionately large but I could live with that except they partially obscure and make it difficult to easily reach the stalk cluster for lights etc. Just an observation and an indication that even the best don't always get it right.
Then for fun we drove, albeit too briefly, the Gran Cabrio - from somewhere around the €175,000 to €185,000 mark.
It was late afternoon and the traffic was building but with the hood down and the sun beaming on us we got a taste, a small one mind you, of the sound and speed of what this V8 could do.
Top speed nearly 180mph, under five seconds to 100kmh from a standing start, under 20mpg - you see where this is going?
Yes, it's super luxury stuff and a glimpse at another way of life. But it was also wonderful to get a real feel for three cars bearing famous names and bringing a bit of brio and difference to the market.
Interest from the Republic is on the increase as our economy picks up and people look for something out of the ordinary.
So you can expect to hear a good deal more about this famous marque as it sets its sights on winning new customers.