Don’t you want to own a Maserati, just so you can say you own a Maserati? Or rather, you’d say, a ‘Mazzair-arteee’, a delicious word that melts in your mouth, a word rich with meaning. ‘Yes, I drive a sublime piece of Italian engineering, from the company that powered Nuvolari, Fangio, Villoresi and Moss; the company that built the Merak, the Bora and the Mistral; the company born in Bologna one hundred years ago; noble, proud and strong!’ All this, conveyed in those four, wonderful syllables.
Which is why the new Maserati Ghibli is so enticing: until now, Maseratis have been rare and exotic, small volume, big-ticket cars, like Ferraris with the dial turned down – appealing and aspirational, yes, but also remote and unrealistic. Now Maserati wants to be in your office car park; it wants to be familiar, sell 50,000 cars a year by 2015 (up from worldwide sales of 15,400 in 2013). It hopes to sell 1500 examples of the new Ghibli in the UK alone.
Which is why it’s built a diesel – its first ever. Yes, it might bring the whole ‘thoroughbred racecar’ appeal down to earth with a bump, but the Ghibli was never going to be a volume seller with a high-revving V8. Instead there’s a 3.0-litre V6 petrol, a more powerful V6 S, and a diesel, which Maserati expects to account for 70% of UK sales.
So, you can now buy a four-door, rear-wheel-drive Maserati with a 3.0-litre V6 turbodiesel, that produces 271bhp and peak torque of 442lb ft, all for £49,000 – floating it into dangerous BMW waters. Which is why we thought we’d get the latest 5-series diesel along for playtime.
Maserati Ghibli vs BMW 5-series: the twin test
Is it the latest 5-series? Yes, this is the revised F10 5-series, (for those of you who love BMW codenames), facelifted last year with minor changes around the headlights, lower air intake and front grille. It’s true to say, after the Bangle revolution of the early 2000s, that BMW has become very conservative again, and beside the Maserati the 5-series looks dull. While the Ghibli has that aggressive fish-mouth and muscular flanks, the BMW looks mundane, the workhorse of a mid-ranking photocopier salesman. Sorry if that sounds harsh, but look at them and tell me I’m wrong.
The Five we see here is the 530d M 4 Sport saloon, which means a 254bhp 3.0-litre straight-six turbodiesel, priced at £43,870 including the M Sport package. What does that mean? Well, how long have you got? Ordering a BMW these days is more complicated than the Brumer-Stark algebraic number conjecture (look it up – it’s less complicated than ordering a BMW). The package should include M Sport suspension, but our car also has the £2770 Adaptive Drive option, which supercedes that with adaptive dampers. It also comes with bodystyling and bits of trim, along with dozens of other, complex options – including 19-inch wheels. Altogether this is a £60,365 car.
Maserati knows how to charge for options too – our Ghibli includes a £1700 carbon trim interior; 20-inch rims (£1960); a Premium Pack with keyless entry and powered steering column (a staggering £2400); and pearlescent tri-coat paint (£1776). Final price? £63,568. These cars are head-to-head rivals.
Inside the Maserati Ghibli
Climb into the Maserati, and you know straight away this is no BMW – the dashboard is rather flamboyant, swooping around a big central touchscreen. I’m not a massive fan of this optional steering wheel – it features a bead of carbon around the rim, which niggles – but I do like looking at the big trident badge.
Sadly, any brand magic you might be absorbing from the trident quickly dissolves when you start the diesel, which has an industrial sounding tickover. The auto gearshift is annoying too, because it won’t quickly snick into place. Things get better on the move: the engine turns growly, and acceleration is brisk, despite the brevity of the mid-rev surge (the redline is a measly, diesely 4500rpm). The gearbox remains a disappointment though, and I stick to semi-manual with the metallic paddles, to avoid the shift ‘gulping’ in full auto mode.
The Ghibli definitely feels like a sporty sports saloon. The ride is a little fidgety at speed, but the steering is linear and direct, and with the traction control off, it’ll oversteer at the drop of a hat – a big, lazy slide that has me grinning from ear to ear.
The BMW 5-series: too sober? Or just right?
Climb out of the Ghibli and straight into the BMW, and your first impression is of a boring brown dashboard with gazillions of buttons. Unlike the Maserati there is no touchscreen, and instead there’s the infamous iDrive controller with eight sub-menus (including ‘Office’?); then there’s the adaptive ride controller, with six settings – Eco Pro, Comfort Plus, Comfort, Sport, Sport Plus and DSC Deactivated. I’m surprised it doesn’t offer Mint Choc Chip and Raspberry Ripple. It’s all just too, too complicated.
Ah, but that German engineering! There’s no avoiding the cliché, especially after the Maserati – everything is precisely weighted, from the gearshift, which is like a fighter plane’s joystick, to the indicator stalk, to the lovely, smooth-rimmed steering wheel.
This engine is so much more refined too, and quieter than the Maserati, even as it revs to the giddy heights of 5500rpm. It feels quicker than the Ghibli, and sure enough the official 0-62 time of 5.8 seconds is better than Ghibli’s claimed 6.3 seconds, but side-by-side there’s nothing between them – we tried some ‘Associated Co-Acceleration Tests’ (no, not racing, no no), and pulling away from a roundabout up a quiet dual carriageway, they’re absolutely neck-and-neck through the gears. The BMW’s higher-revving engine just makes it seem a bit urgent compared with the short-shifting Ghibli.
One thing’s for certain though: the BMW’s chassis is less playful than the Maserati’s. The ride is plusher, and the body control is taut (in Sport mode), but the 530d doesn’t urge you on like the Maserati does, and you have to chuck the BMW into a corner to unsettle it in the dry, where the Ghibli showboats at all sorts of angles.
But come on, rear drive and sporty these cars may be, but it’s not about oversteer; nor is it about mpg and CO2, much. It’s about raw appeal – which car do you want on your driveway?
There’s no doubt, the BMW feels a more comfortable, refined car, and if you ask which one I’d like to drive for the next 100,000 miles, I’m afraid I’d have to say the 530d. I’m disappointed in myself, for making such a predictable choice.
But there are plenty of people who might have owned a string of BMWs over the last ten years, who are desperate for something different, something more exciting. That’s where the Ghibli scores brilliantly – it looks great, it runs the BMW close dynamically, and it has that badge. Imagine parking a Maserati on your drive? Or rather, a Mazzair-arteee. Go on, say it again, I know you want to.
>> This story first appeared in the June 2014 issue of CAR magazine. If you like what you see, check out our free digital preview and best subscription rates here