Concluding the story of the Biturbo and the models developed from it.
Apart from the coupé, saloon and Spyder variants, the Biturbo’s platform and mechanical package was the basis for an additional five closely related Maserati models. The first of these was the 228, unveiled in December 1984 for launch a year later as a 1986 model. This was a two-door coupé, but was based on the Biturbo saloon’s longer 2,600mm (102½”) wheelbase. The 228 was intended to be a grand touring coupé in the Maserati tradition and featured the first application of the enlarged 2.8-litre V6 twin-turbo engine. Although superficially similar in appearance, it shared no body panels with the Biturbo coupé, being both longer and wider than even the saloon.
The 228 was again designed in-house by Pierangelo Andreani. Overall length was 4,460mm (175½”) and width was 1,865mm (73½”), making it 60mm (2¼”) longer and 135mm (5¼”) wider than the Biturbo Saloon. The Biturbo’s geometric lines had been softened, with a gently upswept lower DLO line and more curvature in the bodysides. These changes gave it the more mature look expected of a grand tourer, compared to the taut and angular Biturbo coupé, at least when the two cars were seen side by side. That said, it is a moot point as to whether or not the 228 was distinctive enough, given its significantly higher price point. US sales would be prioritised: Maserati had returned to the US market in early 1984 with the Biturbo and sales for the year had been a respectable 3,400 units(1).
Once again, British and Irish customers faced a considerable delay until the spring of 1988 before RHD versions were made available. In anticipation of its arrival, Car Magazine’s Giancarlo Perini tested the 228 in Italy and his report was published in the December 1987 issue of the magazine. The projected UK price for the 228 was around £40k, a significant premium over the £25k Biturbo coupé. Appropriately, the interior, while similar in appearance to the Biturbo’s, was more lavishly trimmed with dual-tone leather and suede. It was also noticeably roomier.
The 2,789cc engine produced maximum power of 250bhp (186kW) at 6,000rpm and torque of 264 lb ft (358Nm) of torque at 4,200rpm. This was good for a sub-six second 0 to 62mph (100km/h) time and top speed of around 146mph (235km/h). The manual ZF gearbox “requires some delicacy. It is not a fast box and the gate cannot be taken for granted.” The clutch “demands some effort but isn’t unacceptably heavy.” The power-assisted steering was “rather light, but precise even so.” Wheels were an inch larger than the Biturbo’s at 15” and carried wider 205/55 and 255/45 tyres.
The suspension settings were “comfortable”, meaning rather soft, making the 228 “a car to be treated with caution” because of its tendency to roll. It was really “more of a grand touring than outright sports car.” It “shuns easy familiarity and even expert drivers will have to keep their wits about them if the car’s potential is to be explored.” That said, it displayed “impressive stability on the straight, and neutral handling on all but the tightest bends.” The 228 remained on sale until 1992 and a total of 469 were produced over six years.
Maserati’s next Biturbo variation was the 1988 Karif(2) This was basically the short-wheelbase Spyder fitted with a fixed metal roof and the 2.8-litre version of the V6 engine, tuned to deliver 282bhp (210kW) at 5,500rpm. Maserati claimed a 0 to 62mph (100km/h) time of 4.8 seconds and top speed of 158mph (255km/h). It was intended to be a limited-edition high-performance addition to the range, a hard-edged sportscar rather than a grand tourer.
Car Magazine’s Gavin Green reported on the Karif in the April 1988 issue of the magazine, having driven it in Italy. It was described in glowing terms as “Maserati’s first supercar in a decade” and “a car that easily had the measure of the Ferrari GTB.” It was “the car that would put Maserati emphatically back in the supercar business.” The only note of disappointment concerned the Karif’s Biturbo-derived styling: “the quaintness, the old-fashioned look, is there. The styling is boxy, and doesn’t look in the least aerodynamic,” Green lamented.
By the end of what was a very satisfying and rewarding test drive, however, Green appeared to have become reconciled to the Karif’s looks, stating that he was now “rather fond of the modesty, and the Q-car status” with “no ghastly boot spoiler, no ungainly side skirts, no go-faster stripes, nothing to advertise the car’s alacrity, or its muscle. And I rather like cars like that.”
Unfortunately, not nearly enough potential buyers agreed with Green’s opinion of the Karif’s discreet and understated appearance. At its launch, Alejandro de Tomaso stated that only 250 examples would be built in 1988, but the actual number was just 221 over three years before production ended in 1991. It would appear that most supercar buyers wanted their car to advertise its status loudly.
The third Biturbo derivative produced was the 1990 Shamal(3). This was a high-performance range-topping coupé, fitted with a 3,217cc twin-turbo V8 engine, mated to a Getrag six-speed manual gearbox and limited-slip differential. The engine produced maximum power of 322bhp (240kW) at 6,000rpm and torque of 318 lb ft (431Nm) at 4,200rpm. Maserati claimed a 0 to 62mph (100km/h) time of 5.3 seconds(4) and a top speed of 167mph (270km/h).
It shared the Spyder and Karif’s 2,400mm (94½”) wheelbase but the body was restyled by Marcello Gandini. It featured heavily flared front and rear wings and Gandini’s signature rear wheel arch shape. The aerofoil at the base of the windscreen and the front grille and projector headlamp arrangement were shared with Gandini’s 1991 facelift of the Biturbo. One unusual feature was an integral roll-bar over the B-pillars and roof, picked out in grey paintwork. The overall appearance was, to my eyes, sadly rather vulgar.
The Shamal was produced for six years, during which time a total of just 369 were sold. It was joined in 1992 by yet another Biturbo derivative, the Ghibli. This was little more than the Biturbo/222 coupé, updated with the flared wings from the Shamal, but without Gandini’s signature rear wheel arch. It was offered in 2.0 and 2.8-litre V6 forms and remained on the market for six years, during which time a total of 2,337 were sold.
Based on decade-old underpinnings, the Shamal and Ghibli could simply not compete with more modern, capable and sophisticated cars in its market segment. The recycling of much of the Biturbo, including its interior(5), was out of necessity as Maserati was making losses and heavily indebted.
Just after the Shamal was launched in January 1990, Fiat acquired a 50% stake in the company and would purchase the remaining shares in 1993. Plans for a new, larger Biturbo-based saloon were already well advanced and this was launched in 1994 as the Quattroporte IV. The wheelbase was extended by 50mm (2″) to 2,650mm (104¼”). The styling, again by Gandini, was pretty much a four-door version of the Ghibli, albeit with less aggressively flared wings, but with the designer’s signature rear wheel arches. Engines were the familiar twin-turbo V6 in 2.0 and 2.8-litre capacities. In 1996, the 3.2-litre V8 from the Shamal was added to the range.
The Quattroporte IV was handicapped somewhat by being rather too small to be regarded as a ‘proper’ flagship Maserati saloon. Nevertheless, it remained on the market for seven years until 2001, during which time a total of 2,400 were sold.
Under Fiat ownership(6), Maserati would ultimately move away from the smaller and relatively cheaper models it had produced under de Tomaso and return to its traditional position as a maker of large and expensive grand touring coupés and luxury saloons. As for de Tomaso, he suffered a cerebral haemorrhage (stroke) in 1993 which forced him into retirement. He passed away in Italy on 21st May 2003 at the age of 74.
Total production of the Biturbo and its derivatives was 41,388 cars over nineteen years from 1982 to 2001, made up as follows:
These cars represented an interesting experiment to see if Maserati could establish for itself a unique market niche, as a low-volume producer of exclusive luxury cars that were smaller and more affordable, in relative terms at least. Competition from the premium German marques in particular, which enjoyed much greater economies of scale and had deeper pockets and vast technical resources at their disposal, would result in the ultimate failure of the experiment as Maserati could not generate enough income to fund a timely and sustainable model replacement cycle.
(1) Early US Biturbo models were criticised for poor build quality and there were incidents of fires caused by poor thermal insulation of the catalytic converters, which precipitated a recall in early 1985.
(2) Named, in Maserati tradition, after a wind, in this case one that blows south-west across the Gulf of Aden.
(3) Another wind, this being one that blows across the broad plain between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers known as Mesopotamia, supposedly the birthplace of civilisation.
(4) Half a second slower than the Karif, interestingly.
(5) The Shamal contained only two seats, however. The Ghibli remained a four-seater.
(6) In July 1997, Fiat sold a 50% stake in Maserati to its subsidiary, Ferrari, which then assumed control of its Modenese neighbour.
(7) Source: maserati-alfieri.co.uk
Sources: Car Magazine/ Maserati-alfieri.co.uk