But if Sergio Marchionne has his way, Italian cars will be as mainstream as pizza, ready for delivery to even middle-class buyers with a taste for something spicier than the typical Toyota or Ford.
The grand vision of Marchionne, the chief executive of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, loomed large during a winter excursion in the Maserati Ghibli S Q4 in the affluent mountain enclave of Aspen, Colorado.
From its shark-like snout – adorned with Maserati’s Neptune trident logo – to its Ferrari-built V6 engine, the Ghibli is helping lead an Italian reconnaissance mission in North America. Designed as a sexier, sportier alternative to the usual German luxury players, the Ghibli is the most affordable Maserati in decades: $69,800 for the standard Ghibli with rear-wheel drive and 345 horsepower, or $77,900 for the all-wheel-drive S Q4 and its 404hp, twin-turbo 3-litre gasoline V6.
Once viewed as a car company patronised by masochistic rock stars or men on the make, Maserati suddenly finds itself with a mainstream luxury hit. The Ghibli is outselling such established players as the Audi A7, Mercedes CLS and Jaguar XF in the US. Bootstrapped by the Ghibli, Maserati sales exploded to roughly 14,600 cars in the US in 2014, a 137% jump over 2013.
Christian Gobber, Maserati’s new North American chief executive, recalls joining the company in 2003 when Maserati was selling just 3,500 cars around the globe. It now sells 10 times that number. With the Ghibli and flagship Quattroporte sedans, a Levante SUV coming in spring 2016, and the stunning Alfieri coupe after that, Maserati is on track to top 70,000 sales worldwide by 2018. That figure would have seemed a pipe dream just a few years ago, and Gobbler says it is largely due to the public’s unquenched desire for luxury cars with real style, emotion, history and character.
People who buy the same luxury brands over and over are thinking with one side of their brain only.
“Do you listen to your heart, or is it all just rational?” Gobber posits. “People who buy the same luxury brands over and over are thinking with one side of their brain only.”
Ambitions are also running high for Fiat and Alfa Romeo, the more affordable brands in the Fiat Chrysler portfolio. Fiat had not sold a new car in the US since Duran Duran topped charts in 1983. Alfa Romeo ditched its US fans in 1995. Both brands left good and bad memories of stylish, charismatic cars that were beset with poor reliability and shaky dealership service.
After a slow start to its American comeback in 2011, Fiat found solid footing for its teensy 500 hatchback. The larger 500L crossover proved a dud with many critics. But the 500X crossover, a mechanical cousin to the charming new Jeep Renegade and built in the same southern Italian factory, goes on sale in the US soon.
The biggest long shot may be Alfa Romeo, despite the gorgeous come-on of the mid-engine 4C sports car. Yet Marchionne insists an all-new lineup is bound for North America, and that Alfa Romeo will be selling 400,000 cars worldwide by 2018.
For now, the biggest Campari splash is coming from Maserati. Its latest ambassador, the Ghibli, cut a properly stylish figure in Aspen, a once-quaint cow town now overrun with such retailers as Prada and Louis Vuitton. Some critics have groused that the Ghibli could look sexier, and that may be true, but the Maserati still drew more approving stares than incumbent luxury sedans would.
Driving the Ghibli showed both the promise and potential pitfalls for a relatively unproven brand that must still work to find its long-term identity, and loyal customers who will buy another Maserati after the novelty fades.
For this relatively affordable Maserati, perhaps some interior cost-cutting was inevitable, but it is still noticeable. Front sport seats could be more supportive, with a richer grade of leather. The central touch screen is obviously a Chrysler hand-me-down, but at least it works better than infotainment systems in most Italian cars. The biggest faux pas is the chunky, indifferently moulded shift lever – a key touch point in any sport sedan – that would look right at home in a Buick SUV.
But the Ghibli’s personality and performance make the flaws easier to forgive. The Maserati feels faster and more engaging than rivals from Audi, Mercedes or BMW. The closest on-road competitor is another underdog: The brilliant Cadillac CTS V-Sport, priced around $60,000 and sporting its own twin-turbo V6 with 420hp.
Pointed up into the Rockies, its Ferrari-built V6 growling suggestively, the Ghibli shows off that lusty handling. Despite the engine’s humble origins, a literal chip off a Chrysler block, the V6 is a different animal by the time Maserati and Ferrari are done fiddling with it in Modena, Italy: The engine comes alive above 4,500rpm, shooting the Ghibli S Q4 to 60mph in 4.7 seconds and on to a 175mph top speed. Tearing up the summit of McLure Pass, the Ghibli’s oversize metal paddle shifters conjure punchy, immediate gear changes from the eight-speed automatic transmission.
The ingenious all-wheel-drive system, shared with the flagship Quattroporte sedan, gives buyers in critical northeastern states another reason to test-drive a Maserati. Its old-school sport sedan mindset shows in the fact that the Ghibli sends 100% of its power to the rear wheels in most situations. The new school comes when rear tires slip, and up to 50% of torque shoots to the front in as little as 150 milliseconds. An entertaining driver’s readout shows, in real time, which wheels are getting the power.
Back at the ranch – or the Viceroy Snowmass Hotel and Resort – Gobber acknowledges that reliability remains the elephant in the room for Italian cars. In Maserati’s exotic past, Gobber says that an owner “may have had four or five other cars, so [mechanical] hiccups were easier to forgive.” But models like the Ghibli or upcoming Levante might be a family’s daily driver, meaning less forgiveness and more expectations for flawless operation.
Yet the Ghibli offers real hope that Maserati – and its Mediterranean counterparts – can impart a measure of la dolce vita to showrooms that are frankly filled with too many boring, predictable, cookie-cutter automobiles. If Italian automobiles can be reasonably reliable and affordable, enough adventurous types are out there to rekindle the love affair. Gobber does not argue the point.
“I believe Americans will get the Italian cars they’ve been craving,” he says.
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