Taking a vehicular vacation in a flawed but phenomenal sports sedan.
“Maserati” is one of my favorite automotive words. It trips off the tongue so gracefully that it’s like a little verbal vacation, transporting both speaker and recipient to San Marino for a luxurious escape from reality. The mere mention of the word primes the brain for sumptuous leather and posh accouterment, all done with the kind of flair that only comes with proximity to the Mediterranean or the Alps.
Adding the phrase “Ghibli Trofeo” thereafter, though, rips you from your seaside resort and throws you into the bone-strewn Catacombs of Rome. The midsize sedan finally gets huge power for 2021, trading the standard Ghibli’s twin-turbocharged 3.0-liter V6 for a Ferrari-derived 3.8-liter V8, also augmented by two turbos. On paper, the transformation is dramatic – 580 horsepower and 538 pound-feet, relative to the Ghibli S’ 424 ponies and 428 torques. The 2021 Maserati Ghibli Trofeo finally stands next to its namesake, the 1967 Ghibli, by offering motorsport-inspired performance without abandoning Italianate pampering.
It’s impossible to deny the personality that the new engine imparts on the sedate Ghibli, as I experienced over a few hours of hot laps at Willow Springs International Raceway. Far from a luxurious vehicular vacation, the V8 Ghibli is a hairy, hyperactive vehicle on track. And at the end of the day, I was left with a split first impression. I didn’t expect some of the refinement issues it presented, but I nevertheless wanted to keep lapping the Ghibli Trofeo well into the night.
Shared with the Levante and the Quattroporte Trofeo, the twin-turbo V8 in the exuberant Ghibli differs from Ferrari’s 3.9-liter V8 via a shorter stroke and a cross-plane crankshaft (to Maranello’s rev-happy flat-plane). As such, the Maserati version of the V8 doesn’t spin as high and has less total output, but it makes peak twist lower in the rev range, appropriate for a luxury sedan. The Ghibli Trofeo hits 60 miles per hour in 4.0 seconds (uninspiring compared to the much faster BMW M5 and Mercedes-AMG E63), but once underway, the little Maserati hustles to a top speed of 203 mph.
Aided by an intelligent eight-speed automatic gearbox that executes firm, exhaust-blatting shifts in Sport mode, the turbocharged V8 makes track passing effortless, and turbo lag is nearly invisible. Unfortunately, that utterly tractable power is hidden behind a curtain of surprisingly quiet engine noises, even with its active exhaust flaps wide open. It was so muted that I found it difficult to manually change gears without glancing at the tachometer. You wouldn’t force Andrea Bocelli to wear an N95 in the recording studio, so why would you stifle the sound of a Maserati on the track?
Once underway, the little Maserati hustles to a top speed of 203 mph.
Luckily, that was one of few complaints I had about the Ghibli Trofeo while hurtling through Big Willow’s long, sweeping Turn 8 at 105 mph. Calling a vehicle “unflappable” at triple-digit speeds is an exercise in hubris, but the Maserati tames the laws of physics about as well as anything else near its $109,980 starting price. The Brembo six-piston front and single-piston rear brakes grab hard, but using a light touch makes trail-braking a delight. And even if you muff it up by making abrupt mid-corner corrections (as I did repeatedly), sport-tuned stability control will gently step in, get you back on track, and recede to the background.
There were a few gasping moments related to driver error – poorly timed brake application at the end of the long back straight resulted in some uncomfortable see-sawing at the wheel, for one – but I appreciated that the Maserati didn’t absolutely smother my inputs in favor of stability. I haven’t driven a BMW M5 on the track (yet), but I drove the mechanically similar M8 Competition last year. And while it was undeniably quick, the M8 also felt aloof and clinical. I’m sure the Bimmer laps a track more quickly, but my heart was pounding much harder in the Ghibli – credit where it’s due.
The aging, 2013-era Ghibli gets a refresh for 2021 via a new front grille with vertical slats that split near the top into a tuning-fork shape and boomerang-inspired taillight accents that leave a lasting impression on whoever you just passed. The Trofeo adds a set of standard, staggered-width 20-inch wheels (this tester wore 21s) and a subtle-yet-sinister vented hood, with some very tasteful ground effects keeping everything looking suitably sporty. You won’t immediately notice the changes if you’re not a Maserati superfan, appropriate for the Ghibli’s “Ferrari-powered Q-ship” mission brief.
The 2021 makeover also brings significant upgrades to the interior of every Maserati. Both the Ghibli and the Quattroporte get a new 10.1-inch center touchscreen display, a genuine improvement over the 8.4-inch unit found on the outgoing sedans. Meanwhile, the Levante SUV soldiers on with that smaller screen, though its resolution and graphics are better than before. Running the show in each model is a new infotainment system, called Maserati Intelligent Assistant (MIA).
Along with plenty of shared switchgear, the similarities to a Chrysler 300 are unbecoming of a $110,000 car.
Far more intuitive than the old system, MIA looks like a reskin of Chrysler’s excellent Uconnect 5 infotainment, which isn’t surprising given their shared Android Automotive roots. The map display could be more detailed, but graphics are clear and MIA responds to touch inputs accurately and instantly. There are a few redundant heating and air conditioning switches below the screen that improve ergonomics, but on-screen adjustments are easy enough, too. And switching between functions (navigation, media sources, climate controls, and wireless Apple CarPlay or Android Auto) is an easy task.
There’s an unfortunate side effect to MIA’s close Uconnect resemblance, though. Along with plenty of shared switchgear – window switches, headlight knob, etc. – the similarities to a Chrysler 300 are unbecoming of a $110,000 car. Maserati makes up points with a leather dash, carbon fiber center console, and huge metal shift paddles, as well as available Ermenegildo Zegna Pelletessuta woven leather upholstery. I haven’t seen it, but I suspect it’d be worth the 8 grand it costs. But even standard Maserati leather isn’t anything to sneeze at either. Unfortunately, there are some nasty plastics down low, which is a shame at this price point.
I’d have sold an organ for more lateral seat support.
And I had a hard time getting comfortable behind the wheel of the Trofeo out on the track. The Ghibli favors drivers with short legs and long arms, meaning I had to sit a bit too close to the pedals in order to reach the wheel effectively. What’s more, I’d have sold an organ for more lateral seat support to keep me from having to brace myself with the wheel or the hard plastic knee bolster. That said, seated in the pit lane with my helmet removed, finding a comfortable driving position was much easier since I didn’t have to sacrifice headroom for steering wheel reach.
Unfortunately, I didn’t have the opportunity to take a Trofeo out on the open road, though Maserati did make a Quattroporte S GranLusso and a Ghibli S Q4 GranSport available. Out on the highway, both vehicles made compelling cases for themselves, although broken pavement sent a shimmy through the structure on either sedan via a quivering steering column and seat bases. Nevertheless, both provided peace and quiet even at higher speeds, with the Ghibli offering a more intimate interior and the Quattroporte affording a smoother ride from its long wheelbase and less sporty tuning.
Adding to both sedans’ grand touring pretensions, Maserati’s new-for-2021 Active Driving Assist works very well. An evolution of the company’s 2018 Highway Assist feature, Active Driving Assist works on any maintained road with clear lane markings, and although it’s not a hands-off system, it keeps the vehicle well-distanced from the vehicle ahead and provides decent lane centering in most cases. There was some bouncing between the lane lines on Southern California’s grooved concrete freeways, a problem that doesn’t exist on the traditional asphalt of surface streets.
It’s not really fair to Maserati that I sampled a BMW M5 Competition the week before the Trofeo (review coming soon), because the Bimmer is a machine that does everything well. Even so, when it was time to give it back, I bid it a fond, but not forlorn, goodbye. It was capable, but it didn’t really inspire lust. A few hours in the Trofeo left me feeling similarly split, but in the inverse.
It was palpably slower than the M5 and felt twitchier at high speeds, and a few suspect interior materials feel out of place for a car that costs nearly four times as much as the median US income. But the Maserati’s steering and chassis were far more communicative, uploading information about weight balance and reserve grip directly to my feet, hips, and palms. The Ghibli Trofeo has the same handcrafted feel you’d expect of the Trident badge, but this time, the aim is tactile excitement, not grand touring luxury.
In fact, the only sense neglected by the V8 Ghibli is hearing. It looks wonderful, feels alive, smells rich, and offers tasteful stylistic upgrades over its less powerful siblings. If it had an exuberant exhaust note that matched the rest of its hyper-sensory experience, it could be the perfect sport sedan for the devil-may-care hedonist. Even as it sits, the 2021 Maserati Ghibli Trofeo is a supremely scintillating machine, with bone-chilling attitude in a stylish package.
Gallery: 2021 Maserati Ghibli Trofeo First Drive
2021 Maserati Ghibli Trofeo