Monday 28 March 2011

Driven #26:- Maserati Quattroporte

The Italians are fortunate with their language, it can transform phrases as mundane as “four doors” into words as charismatic as “Quattroporte”. And in the context of the name of Maserati’s big, posh saloon car offering, it'd a word that has a strange and unshakeable power over me.

For as long as I've been able to pronounce it, I have loved the Quattroporte. Every iteration, from the first, Citroën-related model in the ‘70s, through the Marcello Gandini-penned fourth generation (my favourite, for reasons unknown), to today’s very much more curvaceous car. It's been an ambition to get my hands on one, any, of these, and then on a beautiful sunny Tuesday this week, the keys finally landed on my desk.

There are angles from where the fifth-gen Quattroporte's styling doesn’t work at all. If you look at it from above and almost straight on, none of the body language translates properly and the whole thing looks fat and heavy. Elephantine. Cruel people on Internet forums have opined that, when viewed from unflattering angles, wrongly it sometimes looks like a Vauxhall Cresta, or even a late Buick Regal. It even has ventiports in the front wings.

If the first time you saw a Quattroporte in the flesh was from that one tragic angle, then I plead with you to look again. The Pininfarina styling team are a frighteningly clever bunch of chaps; to say they know how to do incredible things with metal is to sell them short. Witness the delicate understatement of the Peugeot 406 coupé, a minor Pininfarina classic, and the total pigs ear Peugeot made of the replacement 407 when they had a stab at doing it in house. 

The 407 coupé was lumpy, unbalanced and with none of the beautiful detailing of its predecessor. It managed to be considerably less pleasing to look at than the saloon car it was based on. Pininfarina must have reclined smugly and tutted knowingly to each other. That’s what happens when you think you know best.

True, some of their creations are an acquired taste; take the Ferrari 612 Scaglietti, for instance. Here is a Modenese fancy of quite ridiculous length and girth, with peculiar scallops along the flanks that make no sense whatsoever. But inevitably, spend some time in the company of a 612 and you realise that Pininfarina were right all along. The proportions are actually impeccably balanced and some of the features that initially seemed alien were, in fact, absolutely right for the shape. When you take time to drink it all in, it looks amazing.

With that in mind, look again at the Quattroporte. Witness its low nose, its interpretation of the ‘60s grille from the 3500GT hinting at a lost era of elegance and understatement. The castellations that run along those tiny, pinched shoulders from front to back, and the gentle kick towards the rear wheelarches, suggesting well-mannered potency below the surface. The rear light clusters are underwhelming, particularly after such distinctive touches as the boomerang lamps that flank the rump of a 3200GT, but nevertheless the car still looks every inch the refined, muscular Italian athlete, even from directly astern.

Ironically, when you look at it from the elevated angle that ruins it, you can see exactly what Pininfarina wanted to achieve. Look at those vestigial shoulders by the rear glass. Now imagine how the car would have looked if the designers didn’t have to leave space for doors. The sides of the roof and upper doors could have curved inwards towards the tail in classic coupé style. In fact, given the restrictions they were working to, I'd say that Pininfarina managed blend saloon car sensibilities with the drama of a coupé sensationally well.

The Italians understand the value of detail — those little touches that cost so little but mean so much — better than any other nationality in the world. You can see it on their suits, their shoes, their food and, especially, their cars. When your passenger takes a seat in the front, they sit behind a tiny chromium Quattroporte emblem on a background of polished mahogany, and it sets the tone perfectly for the rest of the interior experience. Some cars have touches of wood trim, plonked haphazardly down because “wood means luxurious, right?” Here, though, wood is used to denote proper, genuine craftsmanship — the type you might find on a Riva speedboat. With plastic and metal, any little flaws and inaccuracies can be easily concealed. With lacquered wood, it’s impossible to lie. Every detail is there to be observed, joints must be accurate, there can be no filler, no gaps.

That delectable timberwork is combined with kitten-soft leather to create an impression of far more than mere motorised conveyance. This interior has been put together to have meaning, to show love. It wears the intent of its builder on its sleeve. It is to a car what a Riva Aquarama is to a boat.

Of course, there are plastics, grudgingly necessary in order that the Maserati function as car as well as art. And, you know what? They’re really nice, too. They draw no attention to themselves through colour or texture; every time a piece of plastic is used instead of wood or leather you can almost hear the company apologising. Equally surprising — though I didn’t delve into the very depths of the infotainment system — the dashboard layout seems basically sound, as if the Italians were paying attention to ergonomics. Say it ain’t so?

The Quattroporte was born with a view to increasing Maserati’s production quantities substantially, to the point that it would actually make some notable impact on the sales of the German opposition; we’re talking top-line BMW 7ers, S-Classes and A8s. And this meant that Italian foibles like weird control layouts and odd driving postures couldn’t be allowed to spoil the party. The thing is, though, this car can’t be fairly compared with the big German dreadnaughts, because it really isn’t that kind of car.

What it is is an undercover Ferrari.

From the first turn of the ignition key you know that the Maserati is something hard to quantify. It takes a good three or four seconds of churning, for a start, and then, far from the usual discrete rumble of a German car at idle, the 4.2-litre, normally aspirated V8 has a high, almost race-car style tickover. Stab the accelerator without load to receive a satisfying Blap! Blap! Revs are a Maserati speciality.

The car has an automated manual gearbox with steering-column paddles marked up and down. To select a direction of travel, a tiny T-Bar lever on the centre console is either pushed forwards for D-drive or lifted and pulled backwards for R-reverse. Selecting either mode elicits a brief mechanical commotion, during which power is wasted as noise and heat before finding its way to the wheels. As is often the case with such gearboxes, very low speed manoeuvring is not a QP strong point; a beginner like me is liable to park in a series of short lunges. If I hadn’t driven things like BMW M5s with SMG gearboxes before, I might have thought the Quattroporte was broken. Which it could easily have been.

In truth the QP hates cities and being driven slowly. It crashes over potholes and drain covers with jolts that even the absurdly comfortable cabin can’t disguise. So, get out of that godforsaken town as quick as you can and drive the damn car properly.

It hardly feels necessary for me to expand on how sublime this car is when driven on deserving roads. Maserati created a Skyhook suspension system for it; a silly name, but apt to describe the otherworldly sensation that is putting a Quattroporte through a series of corners. This is a big car — sixteen feet long — that corners like a springbok with not a hint of roll and limitless grip. You can stand on the brakes into a corner and the car will just do absolutely what you want it to do, as if it were telepathic. Of course, I can only test the car to my own limits as a driver, but I get the feeling that it could satisfy the whims of somebody far more talented than I.

Of course, almost reassuringly, there were problems. In this particular car, the gearbox seemed to have a mind of its own. When I chose to pull away, not aggressively, in manual mode, it served me first, then second, then a surprising and noisy neutral, and then, when I complained to the management, fourth. I assume there’s a gremlin in the works somewhere, and left it in auto for the remainder of my drive. Even now, though, there was still weirdness. Left to change gear itself, each cog-swap was a strange, slightly laboured affair that saw the car nodding its head in the same way that a Smart ForTwo does, though it didn't seem to be detrimental to performance; this is still a very quick car, even with “only” 400hp, far less than the "ordinary" German opposition.

The Quattroporte is supplied with two, identical keys, and both were with me today. They are amorphous yet upmarket looking devices, presented in a lacquered blue finish that highlights the gilt trident emblem. One of the two fobs, though, had all its lacquer peeling off in swathes, leaving rough white plastic exposed. I wondered to myself, is this a metaphor for Maserati ownership?

During my drive there was still further drama. A succession of dashboard warnings occurred to tell me that the suspension system, stability control and ABS were all inoperative and that I should “drive slowly to dealership”. No doubt this was just a fault code that needed clearing, but I wondered if the car might be inherently fragile, unlike those Germans.

It also, forcibly, demonstrated how reliant the car is on those electronic nannies. Without Skyhook and stability working, you’re on your own and the car turns into a floaty, pitchy, flighty oversteery bastard. It’s actually a lot of fun, right up to the point that it kills you to death.

The Quattroporte is very different to, say, an S63 AMG. This is, in essence, a stretched Ferrari with four seats and a big boot. It was always going to be highly strung animal in a chic suit, whereas in creating the S63 took all the disciplines at which the S-Class excels, notably smoothness, subtlety and relaxation and completely abandoned them in the pursuit of speed and excitement. I was never convinced by that approach.

The Quattroporte was intended to keep the Maserati spirit alive and kicking into a new era, and do so while combining utter elegance with extraordinary driveability. Ok, the ride’s a bit knobbly and the gearchange a bit severe, but it’s a highly-strung, temperamental stallion, not a carthorse.

I'm only too aware of its numerous failings, and I am willing to forgive it absolutely anything. It has an organic, almost human appeal that the competition just can't match. It feels like it lives and breathes, and the noise, the glorious noise, that crackle on the overrun, the hair-prickling howl that sounds like it would grace a grand prix starting grid. You don’t own a Maserati; you have a relationship with it. Some are more obedient than others but all will provide amazing highs to go with the inevitable lows. In this market, Audi, BMW and Mercedes are the establishment, Jaguar is a leftfield (and better) choice, and Maserati is downright reckless. After the initial purchase you enter a world of ongoing maintenance, or, more accurately, love and devotion.

Me, I’m blinded by lust and desire and have no concern whatsoever about the sour realities that life with a QP would undoubtedly bring. Our affair continues; I only hope I never become wealthy enough to afford one.


  1. I have to ask... how do you manage to get such wonderful cars to review? I get the benzes part, but I can't think of anybody with a heart trading a quattroporte for a benz (any benz).

    Anyway, great review, great car, I agree 100% with the last paragraph.

  2. Cheers Longrooffan and Fede, my mind was totally blown that anybody should want to turn a Maserati in for a Mercedes, too. I believe he bought a CL, though, which is possibly even more self-indulgent than the QP.

    I know which I'd rather have...