It isn’t hard to admire the idea of a Maserati Ghibli Trofeo. Take one handsome Italian four-door saloon, add a V8 with tangible Ferrari heritage, send the best part of 600hp to the rear wheels and make it look menacing as hell. If the traditional super-saloon is too much of the same old thing, then the Trofeo certainly ranks as an intriguing alternative.
Meeting the car in person does nothing to dent the appeal, either. This may now be a design homing in on 10 years old, and the Trofeo upgrades are fairly subtle - dubious coloured vents notwithstanding - yet the Ghibli has the fast four-door aesthetic absolutely nailed. Even the layman knows they’re looking at something special, and the keen will notice the darkened lenses, bespoke wheels and suggestive ride height that confer just the right level of intent onto a conventional saloon silhouette. It looks brilliant, and Maserati’s decision to kit out a black Ghibli with scarlet red leather is inspired. Navy blue with tan would feel a bit too mellow for a Maserati with 200mph potential. Accordingly, you’re under the Ghibli’s spell before even reaching for the door handle.
Plainly, the engine is as central to the Trofeo’s appeal as vodka is to a martini. There really isn’t much else without it; the Ghibli was launched to a fairly muted reception in 2014, don’t forget, even with the most potent V6, back when the BMW M5 had a dual-clutch 'box and the Mercedes-AMG E63 was rear-drive. It seems a while ago in human years, leave alone the crazy fast pace of the car world. The Ghibli, really, is a distant also-ran in the class, yet the installation of a 3.8-litre twin-turbo V8 from the Ferrari stable - a cross-plane cranked, wet-sumped, slightly shorter stroked version of the F154 3.9 used in everything from Portofino to Pista - understandably and immediately promotes it to very, very interesting. It’s a Lancia Thema 8.32 for the 2020s, only rear-wheel drive. And with more power than a Porsche 911 Sport Classic. Which makes it an easy car to like.
Even in a two-tonne saloon, the gorgeous V8 doesn’t disappoint. If perhaps more muted than its mid-engined installations, the breeding is in no doubt (and the prancing horse puns aren’t done yet); the Ghibli has great throttle response and a willingness to rev around to 7,000rpm that eludes a lot of similar engines. The more traditional crank lends a bit of old-school eight-pot burble where there might be supercar shriek with a flat plane. It’s nice to know its potency has been achieved with great conventional combustion methods, too, rather than the mild hybrid solution that almost always feels like cheating, so effective is the technology at filling in any performance gaps.
This might be a fairly new engine for Maserati, but it first emerged in a Ferrari way back in 2014. All of which means the Ghibli emphatically ticks all the boxes on Italian stallion powertrain bingo: a great cold start gurgle you’ll leave the door open for, a howling top end, and irresistibly lovely downshift yelps that make manual control mandatory. Of course, memorable engines like this don’t have long left, and this 3.8-litre twin-turbo is the perfect reminder of how central they are to our perception of a whole car.
So central, in fact, that it’s best to think of the Trofeo as Maserati’s muscle car, with its charm inevitably wrapped up in a snarling V8. Unfortunately, the muscle car vibe extends further than is really ideal, because the rest of the Ghibli package is simply not good as its incredible engine. Always a tough ask, sure, but everything else isn’t really at the races by comparison - and the BMW M5 is not a car to battle with anything less than an automotive A game. Not so much representing the traditional super-saloon as the sector’s awe-inspiring archetype, the big BMW presents a formidable adversary for any rival.
Now more than ever, in fact. With the M3 upgraded to what is effectively a junior M5, the real thing has been subtly elevated even further; arriving at somewhere akin to an M 7 Series in terms of opulence. There are screens for rear seat passengers superior to the Ghibli’s main infotainment unit, much nicer leather everywhere, switchgear from another planet, glossier veneers… not forgetting more space, a better driving position, that sort of thing. The Maserati is undoubtedly charming - it has analogue dials like chronographs that read to 230mph and 8,000rpm - but the BMW is leagues ahead in terms of ambience. And for similar money, don’t forget.
Sadly for the Ghibli, the gap is even greater on the road. It delivers decent traction in the dry, and the appeal of a long wheelbase, rear-wheel drive and 580hp isn’t hard to explain, but the Trofeo lacks cohesion as a driver’s car. It delivers neither the connection and confidence of a Giulia Quadrifoglio-style sport saloon in Corsa mode, nor the comfort and panache of a true luxury flagship away from it. With the Quattroporte sitting above this car in the Trofeo range, the hope was that the Ghibli could deliver a more focused, sharper experience; not a Ferrari saloon, obviously, but a drive that does justice to such an energetic V8 and creates a model distinct from the QP.
The reality, however, seems too often aloof, with the steering not sufficiently keyed in and damping not really up to the job regardless of mode. If Maserati had decreed that the Ghibli should become a big, bad cruiser in its own right - or, alternatively, a grown-up Giulia with agility to spare - the car might have been brilliant. Unfortunately, the reality falls into a no man’s between the two - sometimes too alert for its own good, sometimes too lazy - that never really rises to meet the expectations set by the mighty petrol unit.
And that’s just in isolation. It’s no fun criticising a car with so much on-paper potential, but the BMW is in a different league altogether when it comes to ride and handling. It’s both more refined and subdued at a cruise as well as more engaging on a twisty road; the gearbox is sharper in both automatic and manual modes; there’s more traction with the additional driven wheels, yet more entertainment as well because the M5 better communicates what the car beneath you is actually doing. There isn’t a configuration possible in the Ghibli that can match the M5 in any mode for all those facets - steering precision, damping sophistication, traction and so on - that really matter when it comes to enjoying big, powerful cars. Although to be fair, there's precious little, if anything, in the segment that could match a G30 M5 Competition for chassis quality. It remains astoundingly capable.
Granted, its own monster 625hp engine isn’t as emotive as the Trofeo’s, its tune rather more synthesised and its appetite for revs not quite as voracious. Yet as twin-turbo V8s go, it remains a doozy, scarily potent even in this company and well matched to what is clearly a much more modern automatic transmission. No matter its deficiencies in character, the engine compounds the chassis’ advantages, rocketing the M5 away as the Ghibli flounders. And to think the next iteration of this engine gets a hybrid boost in the region of 125hp - what on earth will it feel like then?
Despite an obvious gulf in raw ability, the Maserati remains likeable. It would have to do something far more egregious than fall short of the sector’s standard bearer for that not to be the case. It’s something different, it’s extremely fast and it’ll always be at least six times cooler than an M5. That will count for a lot - the majority of those keen on a Trofeo won’t care a jot for objective assessment, and will probably already have one. They’ll probably love it to bits, too.
Indeed, if the Maserati significantly undercut the BMW - with an M3-rivalling price for M5 levels of power - then a recommendation would be forthcoming far more easily. But this car has a six-figure asking price, and no matter how good the engine, it can’t justify that sort of billing. Never has a £110k BMW M5 been made to look such good value than when measured against a similarly priced Ghibli. The very appeal of a Maserati, some will say, is in being the left-field, romantic, slightly eccentric choice, one that transcends ordinary classification - and there's some truth to that. But while we’re all for differentiation in our super-saloons - and the world is undoubtedly a better place for having more V8 Maseratis in it - there is a limitation to the character over competence equation.
Of course, if you do want a truly great Italian saloon, the Alfa Romeo Giulia Quadrifoglio clears the bar easily. For what it's worth, this test confirms that the outgoing M5 remains properly awesome in the sector above, and is worth grabbing while you still can - and the wait for a truly inspirational Maserati saloon continues. Let's hope some of the MC20’s manifest genius (and very clever engine tech) makes it to a new Trofeo, and one of the world's most charismatic automotive brands finally gets the level playing field its best intentions deserve.
SPECIFICATION | 2021 MASERATI GHIBLI TROFEO
Engine: 3,799cc, twin turbocharged V8Transmission: 8-speed automatic, rear-wheel drivePower (hp): 580@6,750rpmTorque (lb ft): 538@2,250-5,250rpm0-62mph: 4.3secTop speed: 202mphWeight: 1,969kgMPG: 22.8CO2: 280g/kmPrice: £110,905
SPECIFICATION | 2022 BMW M5 COMPETITION
Engine: 4,395cc, V8, twin-turbochargedTransmission: 8-speed automatic, all-wheel drivePower (hp): 625@6,000rpmTorque (lb ft): 553@1,800-5,800rpm0-62mph: 3.3 secondsTop speed: 190mphWeight: 1,950kgMPG: 26.1CO2: 246g/kmPrice: £107,520
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