The Ghibli is Maserati's attempt to move from a low volume boutique manufacturer to one that shifts far bigger numbers. Think of this car as a rival to the likes of the BMW 5 Series and the Mercedes E-Class. With up to 410PS on tap and also Maserati's first ever production diesel engine, this is indeed a brave new world for the Italian marque.
The Ghibl is not just a pivotal car for Maserati. It's a case of putting all the corporate eggs in this one rather handsome basket. It's that important. The Italian manufacturer wants to sell 50,000 cars per year by 2015. At the time of this Ghibli's launch, it was selling around 6,000 units per annum and believes this is the car that will make up the vast bulk of those incremental sales. That's one heck of a responsibility to shoulder. Is this sleekly styled saloon really up to it? Many of you will probably remember the Ghibli sportscar of the early 1990s. It was fast, fun and more than slightly flawed, but was instrumental in repairing Maserati's reputation after some of the awful product decisions of the 1980s. Those with longer memories might even recall the brutal and beautiful Giugiaro-designed original of the 1960s. This is a badge with provenance. When going into battle with the likes of the BMW 5 Series and the Jaguar XF, Maserati needs all the help it can lay its hands on.
The big news first. You can now buy a Maserati diesel. Yes, I know that sounds about as likely as a Ferrari pick-up truck but get over the initial shock and you'll realise that if trying to compete in the executive market in Europe, a brand would be utterly scotched without a good diesel. The 3.0-litre V6 turbodiesel is good for 270PS and sounds agreeably angry and has no shortage of torque. The eight-speed ZF 'box is a proven and excellent unit, with rapid fire changes and a small element of dramatic shunt engineered in when shifting gear. Press the sound modifier button and the noise deteriorates from purposeful to something more akin to a diesel Sherpa. Ride quality and body control aren't quite on a par with Lexus or Jaguar, the Ghibli responding to a firm hand at the tiller - as you might expect from this marque. If you don't fancy the rear-wheel drive diesel model, Maserati has other tempters on its books that fuel more conventionally from the green pump. Unfortunately we're not going to be offered the all-wheel drive Q4 versions as the right-hand drive conversion would never have proven cost effective, but when you have the choice of the 330bhp Ghibli or the 410PS Ghibli S, you're hardly being short-changed. Both get Ferrari-built V6 turbo 3.0-litre petrol engines, the Ghibli S reaching 62mph in 5 seconds flat, with a quoted top speed of 177 mph. The 330PS Ghibli cranks out 500Nm of torque, and hits 62mph from standstill in just 5.6 seconds. Like the turbodiesel, both are fitted with a ZF eight-speed auto 'box.
The design team has worked under the auspices of Gio Ribotta, Maserati's exterior design manager, who points to styling cues from the brand's legendary Tipo 61 'Birdcage' model, although to be honest, they're lost on me. Think of the Ghibli as a truncated Quattroporte and you're not too far off the mark. It looks anything but a hall of mirrors aping of the elegant QP though and it has its own muscularity that distances itself from the executive car mainstream. It shares much the same drivetrain and suspension with its bigger brother and weight has been cut by building the doors and internal cross members from aluminium, with the dashboard structure constructed in magnesium. It shares the same drivelines and suspension, steel monocoque and production line as Maserati's larger model, but the Ghibli is a foot shorter, with very different coachwork. The suspension is as you'd expect with front double wishbones and a multilink rear, this time using electronically adjustable dampers all round. Drop inside and the interior feels and looks reassuringly expensive and well screwed together. Rear legroom and headroom isn't at all bad and there's even a big 500-litre boot. In case you were wondering, yes, you do get that iconic Maserati dash-mounted analogue clock. The information systems never feel quite as slick or as technologically dense as German and Japanese rivals, so if you want the latest in toy tech, you might find the Maserati wanting. If you prefer to make a dramatic entrance, however, there's really nothing to touch it.
The Ghibli has been positioned as a rival to the established executive car elite but does it really square up competitively against them or is there a premium to pay for that badge? Prices open at around the £50,000 mark for the 271bhp 3.0 V6 diesel version, so if you have your eye on a BMW 518d, this one's going to be a little way out of your league. In fact, it's almost five grand over and above the price of a comparably powerful performance-spec 260PS BMW 530d M Sport Auto. Allow a budget of just under £55,000 for the 330PS petrol-engined Ghibli and with a few well chosen extras, you won't be too far off the mark. Another £10,000 will get you the 410PS Ghibli S. Standard equipment on all models includes 18-inch alloy wheels, bi-xenon headlights with LED daytime running lights, plus lovely quad exhaust tips. The interior meanwhile, features electrically powered and heated leather seats, wood trim and a punchy eight-speaker stereo system. There's also a mechanical limited slip differential and climate control with no fewer than 13 vents.
Nobody buys a Maserati and expects it to offer tiny running costs but the diesel version of the Ghibli makes some very respectable numbers. Helped by its standard stop/start system, this variant manages a combined cycle fuel economy figure of 47.9mpg - which is better than something like the less powerful Mercedes-Benz CLS 350 CDI. True, this Italian saloon can't go quite as far as matching an executive class leader like BMW's 530d, the Bavarian model managing a 49.6mpg showing, but this Ghibli's certainly in the same ballpark. Emissions are rated at 158g/km, which isn't at all bad for a big car that will accelerate to 62mph in just 6.3 seconds. Naturally, the petrol-powered models are a good deal thirstier, the 330PS Ghibli consuming fuel at a combined cycle rate of 29.4mpg and emitting 223g/km of carbon dioxide. The flagship Ghibli S meanwhile, gets 26.9 miles from a gallon of 98RON and emits 246g/km. Residual values will be the big ticket item but such is the economy and cachet of the diesel model in particular that it looks as if it might well perform very well indeed.
Maserati has bet the family jewels on the Ghibli and can't afford for it to fail. It's a move which stakes the heritage and exclusivity of the trident badge and it puts their product right into the face of some of the most talented cars on the market. Can it square up? On a purely objective basis, you might wonder. Obvious rivals have, after all, been at it for too long, have too much in the way of development budget and have refined their wares to a finely honed edge. That said, the Ghibli isn't that far off their pace and is a formidable effort from Maserati. What's more, there's a bigger sense of occasion about this car that counts for a lot when buyers are forking out this sort of money. Prestige matters a whole lot and it's why BMW, Audi and Mercedes have been so successful. It'll be fascinating to see whether a true blue-blood badge can do to these German marques what they have done to the blue-collar brands. The Ghibli's not perfect of course. Its ride quality needs work and the infotainment systems feel a generation or two behind its key rivals. That said, it's a car that's impossible to dislike and has a charisma and appeal all of its own. Will it take Maserati where the company wants to go? We'll have to wait and see for that but if you were presented with the choice between a BMW 5 Series and a Maserati Ghibli, would you really be able to resist the lure of the Italian car? I know I couldn't.