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In the mid-sized luxury executive segment, the default choices have long been the usual German suspects. Not any more, Maserati proves that you can have a characterful, break-out Italian instead. One with a hackle-raising engine note, an achingly lovely body and more performance than you'll ever need, writes Dave Moore.
We could all be forgiven that the biggest news right now at Maserati is the Levante luxury SUV. In the sense of being a whole new and lucrative direction for the marque it is. But it's best not to forget the Ghibli sedan, the company's middleweight sports-luxury four-door, which has just gone through a mild but effective refettle, to make it quicker, slicker and cleaner, to cement its position as a perfect foil for its bigger sibling, the Quattroporte.
It would be difficult to overshadow the Ghibli. From its 2013 launch, it has always had a striking, shrink-wrapped curvaceous style, confident dynamics and excellent performance and it moves into late 2016 with even more of the same and a few other refinements to boot.
I'm driving the new Ghibli S, which uses the more powerful of Maserati's choice of two twin-turbocharged Ferrari-built V6s.
Instead of the normal-but-nice 345-horsepower engine, the S employs a 301kW (410-horsepower) unit and distributes that urge and 550 Newton-metres of torque through a slick-quick eight-speed paddle-shift automatic.
And the music it makes surely marks the quad cam 24 valve engine as the best sounding V6 on the market. With slam-dunk shifts and a gorgeous crackle on the overrun, the Ghibli S's performance matches its voice with a zero to "sorry officer" sprint time of five seconds (at least that's the factory figure, we managed about 4.7, which tends to agree with Car and Driver's numbers). The flat-out performance is 285kmh, but I'll take their word on that.
For all the Ghibli S's horizon-sucking performance and seat-crushing acceleration, Maserati has worked hard on engine and turbocharger calibrations to produce a 12-percent reduction in emissions, though fuel-economy is about the same at 12L/100km, which for a four-hundred plus horsepower car, is remarkably good.
Drive the Ghibli around Christchurch and instead of the blank gaze you get from motorists if you're in something big and German there are smiles, cocked eyebrows and even passers-by move their heads as if it was a tennis-rally, possibly unable to believe that a car so beautiful can make such a blood-curdling sound.
Speaking of blood-curdling, the Texas chainsaw massacre like interior of 'my' Ghibli S - or 'Nero/Rosso' as the factory puts it - is as arresting as the car's voice and soundtrack. I have to say that while the alternative dark grey, black and mid-tan alternatives are lovely, the red suits the car emphatically - and I don't think another four-door car on earth could wear it with such nonchalance - I'd tick THAT box for starters.
New to the Ghibli in its latest guise is a standard Stop/Start system, Blind Spot and Rear Cross Path alert, while the usual Skyhook electronic damping control continues, along with a power-operated boot, a security alarm system, heated front seats, that remarkable hide upholstery and a pair of front seats that locate and hold with the familiarity of catcher's mits.
Other special elements that complete the Ghibli S package include Bi-Xenon headlights with LED detailing, power rear sun blinds, a power glass/shade sunroof, sound and light absorbing rear glass, a rear parking camera and all-round sensors and of course Satellite Navigation, though as far as the latter is concerned, getting lost in this car is surely a benefit.
Especially when you find yourself on a favourite backroad, where the car's surprisingly light but reassuringly accurate steering, comes into its own. It weights-up beautifully as the going gets quicker and twistier and imbues great confidence in the driver and even on stunning 21 inch 'Titano Anthracite' rims, the car traverses bumps and rills with remarkable aplomb. All that adds up to a chassis that will not be diverted by surface imperfections while offering a remarkably high level of grip.
It might be about 35cm shorter than the Quattroporte, but the new Ghibli appears to comfort and accommodate four or five with similar ease and to my mind looks even better than its larger, older sibling.
I love its detailing, from its Trident-chewing maw, through those gorgeous wing-top side vents and headlamps whose eyes have the hooded sniper's gaze that has become as much of a signature as that three-pronged fork.
The Ghibli was used to transport friends to a dining/theatre occasion, and Tom, who normally studiously ignores what I'm driving, was so taken by the Maserati's gob-smacking looks and sumptuous comfort that he insisted that I drop him and Mrs Tom right outside the venue.
It had the desired effect. Other patrons looked up from their programmes in and around the lobby having heard the car's hackle-raising growl, and watched drop-jawed as our couple disembarked. The Ghibli is the perfect car for such a head-turning entrance. Tom was delighted.
Getting in and out is actually quite decorous, even Tom's 1.9m length did not require any folding or unfolding. I'm told that dresses and skirts hold no awkwardness when leaving the Ghibli's rear seat either.
The best seats in the house are naturally up front of course, not only because of their comfort, but also because of the black and red dash and well-quipped console in front of those occupants. You feel good right away, even before you drive the car.
Maserati has never previously created a car before that is as 'right' as the Ghibli. Its gentle refettle makes a great car even better, which means that Maserati has moved to offer a clever, well-equipped and not to mention beautiful alternative in a segment which until recently was the sole preserve of Germans brands with silver stars, blue and black roundels and four overlapping hoops on their noses.
The fact that model for model, your Ghibli is likely to cost you less is worth considering too especially when you're counting horsepower and head turning ability at the top of your wish list.
My Ghibli S with all the fruit and all those horses was a very reasonable $169,990, while the range starts at about thirty grand less than that.