The Biturbo’s bigger brother appeared very much the sober Italian aristocrat. Unfortunately, both breeding and manners were slightly suspect.
The Biturbo could be said to have saved Maserati, yet is perhaps best remembered for its troubled reputation than any commercial, aesthetic or performance-related virtues. Whether such a reputation remains entirely justified is perhaps a question for another time, but what is often forgotten amid the flow of water under the Tridente’s bridge is what a significant step the Tipo AM331 was when first introduced in 1981.
An entirely new type of Maserati, the Biturbo jettisoned the exotica of the Bora/Merak era, returning to a sober pragmatism of something akin to 1966’s Mexico model line. Viewed internally as very much son-of-Quattroporte: (Giugiaro’s 1979 ‘Porte III, that is), its styling, developed in-house by De Tomaso’s Pierangelo Andreani was described by Car magazine as “a cross between a BMW 320 and a Lancia Delta“, which if a little snide, was perhaps only half half wrong. In fact, Andreani’s initial shape was nicely proportioned with sharp, well tailored lines and an excellent stance. In fact, it could be said to have decisively out-BMWed the Vierzylinder, to say nothing of Giorgetto himself.
While the Biturbo family (and it quickly became a decidedly fecund one) took Maserati into a more mainstream arena with all the advantages and drawbacks that entailed, the more traditional (and profitable) areas of the Tridente’s business could not be neglected either. One being that of the incumbent Kyalami model, introduced in 1976 during a period when Maserati’s very survival was under threat. This car, a four-seater design based upon cleverly refocused De Tomaso hardware, was nearing the end of its useful life. Kyalami production ended in 1983, meaning the gap between Biturbo and Quattroporte models would have to be addressed. Enter the 228.
By now, pragmatism was a watchword for De Tomaso Group direttore di ingegneria, Aurelio Bertocci, meaning Tipo AM 334 (as it was designated) would draw heavily from the Biturbo well. Based on the stretched wheelbase of the four-door Biturbo models, the 228’s body would be longer, wider and taller than its sibling, as befitting a more upmarket vehicle. Styling, again by Andreani, was very much in the Biturbo mould, although no external panels were said to be shared. The family look was softened, the extremities more rounded and the canopy section enlarged. Additional brightwork was added, in particular, a more regal looking grille. The overall effect was that of a more mature product, albeit one with something of the jolie-laide appearance of the Frua-bodied Maserati’s of yore.
Mechanically, it shared most of its componentry with the Biturbo. Suspension was carry-over struts with lower arms up front, while semi-trailing arms and struts did duty at the rear. However, spring and damper rates were altered to cater for the 228’s additional weight. But as with all Maseratis, the engine was the thing and here, the 228 utilised a 2789 cc derivation of the Biturbo 90° V6, itself a distant relation to the Alfieri unit fitted to the Merak series.
However, this powerplant differed notably in that its three valves per cylinder were actuated by single overhead belt-driven camshafts, each cylinder bank being force-fed by a water-cooled IHI turbocharger. Developing 250 bhp and 264lb ft of torque, it propelled the 2788 lb 228 to a top speed of 146 mph with a 0-62 time of under 6 seconds – serious performance for the time. Power went through a five speed ZF gearbox mating with a torque sensing Sensitork differential.
First shown at the tail end of 1984, the 228 didn’t actually enter production until late 1986, although deliveries began in earnest the following year. The first English language reviews appeared in the winter of 1987 with Car’s Giancarlo Perini describing it as “a fast, characterful cruiser that knows how to kick up its heels when skilfully used… a car that appreciates the appreciative driver.” However, his report suggested that in order to get the best from the 228, it required a driver with both confidence and experience.
Priced at a significant premium above its Biturbo brethren, the 228 was also trimmed and specified to a higher order, featuring a notably bigger, airier cabin ambience. Perini noted the somewhat over-wrought interior’s “…sense of opulence, the amusingly ‘antique’ clock , the warm wood embellishment, the ruched leather effect on the seats… It’s an environment where you feel cherished, cosseted.”
However, there were few takers, the Biturbo family having already gained a toxic reputation for mechanical fragility and breath-taking repair costs, this before the savage depreciation kicked in. It remains unclear if any 228’s officially made it to UK shores, but given the reported 469 produced up to 1992 when production ceased, it is unlikely. Even in the US market (where the 228 was clearly aimed), less than 100 were believed to have been imported.
Offering customers little by way of visual receipt for the outlay, eclipsed by more accomplished rivals, and never quite able to shake off either the taint of unreliability or the whispers that both it and the Biturbo series that spawned it were somehow unequal to the heritage of the storied nameplate, the 228 remains to this day something of an automotive pariah, assuming anybody remembers it at all.
Car magazine summed up the Biturbo series as “schizophrenic“, which upon reflection seems a fairly accurate assessment. From the outside, restrained, tasteful, elegant. Inside, wildly decadent, sybaritic, almost baroque. In road behaviour too, the cars were well mannered; up to a point, at which they became decidedly leery. Watch that tail.
It could be argued then, that the Biturbo series neatly encapsulates the character of (then Maserati owner) Alessandro de Tomaso. A faint whiff of disrepute, somewhat rough around the edges, but with charisma to burn. There was never a dull moment with de Tomaso, nor was there likely to have been with his best known creations with the Trident badge.