First Drive: 2014 Maserati Quattroporte S Q4

Balocco, Italy – An Italian cat with a nove lives, Maserati has skirted the Grim Reaper more than a few times in its almost 100-year history.

Of course, this storied Modena-based automaker has had its share of mercurial highs. One of the earliest Maseratis won the 1926 Targa Florio. There were back-to-back Indianapolis 500 wins in 1939 and 1940. Juan-Manuel Fangio took the 1957 World Championship in the famed 250F. The Tipo 61 Birdcage was an engineering and aesthetic marvel.

All this tempered by numerous owners and bankruptcies. And we won’t mention the 1989 Chrysler TC by Maserati, which was nothing more than a chintzy K-Car convertible. Ooops… just did. Maserati’s salvation came in 1993 when it was taken under Fiat’s corporate wing. Ferrari took full control of Maserati in 1999.

None of these historical tidbits were rattling around the old cranium while riding shotgun in the all-new 2014 Quattroporte S Q4 with Maserati driving instructor and rally ace Walter Balestrero at the wheel. Blasting around the wonderful road course at the Balocco Proving Grounds, with the snow-capped Alps as a backdrop, he caught some serious air off a blind crest coming off a sharp lefthander. We landed in a dip, immediately rising up to another quick left followed by a series of sweepers. Challenging stuff for any car, let alone a full-sized luxury sedan.

He danced. The Maser danced. My Italian lunch danced.

And the point of this exercise? To show the assembled journalists that, despite this Quattroporte’s new class-competitive girth, AWD and twin-turbo 3.0L V6, it hasn’t lost the core passione that makes a Maserati a Maserati.

But let’s backtrack a bit.

Maserati is planning a revolution. In 2015 they hope to move 50,000 units. That’s up from last year’s 6,200 total worldwide sales.

Huh?

Three vehicles give this admittedly optimistic forecast some credence – the upcoming Ghibli mid-size sedan, the upcoming Jeep-based Levante SUV, and this all-new sixth-generation Quattroporte sedan in V6 all-wheel-drive guise that arrives in Canada early July with a $108,500 list.

A few months ago Maserati launched the $148,150 523-hp 3.8L turbo-V8 Quattroporte GTS. That car is rear-drive only.

This all-wheel-drive S Q4 variant is expected to account for 60 to 65 percent of Quattroporte sales and move the car from boutique oddity to mainstream contender – stealing more than just a few sales from the Mercedes-Benz S-Class, BMW 7 Series and Audi A8.

Maserati has a tough juggling act here. The outgoing Pininfarina-penned Quattroporte was one of the most beautiful four-door creations ever to turn a wheel, and its spectacular Ferrari-sourced 4.7L V8, sports car dynamics and lovely bespoke interior will ensure its berth in the pantheon of all-time great Italian cars.

Problem is, it was cramped, thirsty, rear-drive only and expensive to build. The bodies were made in Turin, shipped to Ferrari in Maranello for painting, then sent to the Maserati factory in Modena where the cars were essentially hand assembled. Production was limited to 135 cars per day.

This new Quattroporte, along with the Ghibli and Levante, will be built at a brand new factory in Turin. The engines, as before, are built by Ferrari in Maranello.

Maserati’s Modena factory will continue to produce the GranTurismo coupe and GranCabrio convertible along with the carbon-fibre Alfa Romeo 4C sports car.

So. To the million lira question. How to make an all-new Quattroporte that hangs on to Maserati’s trademark passione while delivering the room, comfort, economy and all-wheel drive the segment demands?

After driving the 2014 404-hp twin-turbo V6 all-wheel-drive Quattroporte S Q4 on both road and track, I’d have to say mission pretty much accomplished.

This 2014 model is a much bigger car, and while not as achingly gorgeous as its predecessor, it’s still immediately identifiable as a Quattroporte, separating itself in no uncertain terms from the usual German suspects. The trunk is now class-competitive at 530 L and rear passengers enjoy a 117-mm increase in legroom.

The cabin doesn’t quite have the hands-on bespoke feel of the outgoing model, but it is elegantly designed and nicely rendered. The front seats are on the firm side yet hold you in place when cornering with brio.

I’m betting owners of this Italian sedan will not be quick to say, “Hey, did you know the window switches and 8.4-inch infotainment touchscreen are right out of a Dodge Charger?” That said, those switches look just fine and that big touchscreen is easy to navigate. Okay, the Garmin navigation graphics are a bit, well, dodgy.

Of course, the heart of any Maserati is found under the hood, and my initial fear of being disappointed by this new 3.0L direct-injection twin-turbo V6 vaporized with the first run up through the gears. Eight, to be exact in the Maserati-tuned ZF auto, with huge column-mounted alloy paddle shifters to do its bidding.

This Maserati/Ferrari 60-degree bent-six punches above its weight, putting out 404 hp and 406 lb-ft from 1,750 rpm. Like all good Italian engines it loves to rev and make fabulous noises. Pressing the Sport button on the dash rejigs the Skyhook adaptive dampers, steering feel, throttle response, tranny mapping and stability control to put the sedan in full play mode. Just to be sure, bypass valves in the exhaust system allow the V6 to bark, wail, blat and woof on upshifts. Fantastic. There will be no mistaking this for anything other than an Italian car, even with your eyes closed.

And there is certainly no lack of urge. Maserati claims a 0 to 100 km/h time of 4.9 seconds and a top speed of 283 km/h. It returns a combined 10.5 L/100 km on the Euro combined cycle.

Maintaining the purity of the driver’s experience was a priority when developing this car. Maserati forgoes electric steering for the more feelsome hydraulic variety, and despite the car’s obvious girth, extensive and strategic use of aluminum in the body and suspension nets a 50/50 distribution and a 100-kg weight reduction over the outgoing V8 model.

It has double-wishbone suspension up front, a five-link setup out back and the aforementioned Skyhook adaptive damper system.

The all-wheel-drive system was developed especially for this car (no, it’s not the Dodge/Chrysler setup) and it runs about 70 percent rear bias under most driving conditions.

And so to the mountains we head on this sunny northern Italian day. The first thing I notice on the Autostrada is the Quattroporte’s laser-like tracking. The second thing I notice is a busier ride – certainly not what your typical Mercedes S-Class owner is used to – but to be fair this tester is running on the optional 21-inch wheels. The standard 19-inchers are smoother.

Once we hit the winding mountain roads another aspect of the S Q4 comes fully into focus – that being its ability to shrink itself around you when pressing on. Finding a flow is dead easy. The steering weights up beautifully, the paddles bang off shifts instantly, the V6 goes on an absolute tear above 4,000 rpm, and the chassis… well, lets just say you’ll forget you’re driving a full-size luxury car.

Later in the day, laps at the Balocco test track (with all electronic aids turned off at the request of Maserati) confirmed this car’s dynamic acumen. While most luxury sedans would roll over and play dead out here, the Quattroporte S Q4 will happily dance on the edge of adhesion and call for more.

Will your average S Q4 buyer spend much time on the edge of adhesion? Probably not. Will they bemoan the fact that de rigueur safety systems like lane departure warning, blind spot warning and adaptive cruise control are not on this luxury sedan’s menu? Possibly.

As I’m writing this, Mercedes-Benz has just revealed its all-new S-Class sedan that will, with the push of a button, drive itself at up to 60 km/h.

For those who care (and Maserati hopes there will be many) this new Quattroporte is still all about the driving.

I say grazie.

Competitors:
Audi A8
BMW 7 Series
Jaguar XJ
Lexus LS
Mercedes-Benz S-Class

An Italian cat with a nove lives, Maserati has skirted the Grim Reaper more than a few times in its almost 100-year history. 5/27/2013 10:22:38 AM