Maserati for the Masses (Part Three)

Concluding the story of the Biturbo and the models developed from it.

Image: weilinet

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.

Image: only-carz

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.”

Image: klassiekerweb.nl

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).

Image: roadandtrack.com

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.

Image: maserati.com

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.

Image: maserati.com

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:

Model: Total Sales(7)
Coupé 22,217
Saloon 10,299
Spyder 3,076
228 469
Karif 221
Shamal 369
Ghibli 2,337
Quattroporte IV 2,400
Total 41,388

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

SourcesCar Magazine/ Maserati-alfieri.co.uk

Author: Daniel O'Callaghan

Shut-line obsessive...Hates rudeness, loves biscuits.

17 thoughts on “Maserati for the Masses (Part Three)”

  1. Interesting article to read with my morning coffee, with new insights. Funny, the Shamal, which I never encountered and never knew it’s existence, reminds me of the Lancia Delta Integrale, but flattened as if somebody squashed it. I don’t recall ever spotting a Quattroporte IV, unless I had mistaken it for a Lancia Kappa.

  2. Thanks for this excellent series, Daniel. Maserati’s Biturbo gamble, in combination with Aston Martin’s V8 adventure, leads me to a bunch of conclusions which, with very little need for adjustment/adaptation, also applies to other vehicle industries, either more pedestrian or more exotic:

    1. Enthusiasm about cars in general, or a certain brand in particular, is not enough to guarantee success in car manufacture.
    2. You may think you’re a well-established magnate in another field, like shipping, ship building, or what have you. If you’re not prepared to invest heavily in your car company, you’ll fail miserably (here’s looking at David Brown, Victor Gauntlett, Peter Livanos, and Nicholas Papanicolaou), especially when you have to compete with the “big boys”.
    3. The luxury goods market is highly demanding, highly conservative, and consists of buyers whose cynicism makes Charles Forstman from Suits look like a wide-eyed dreamer. These guys can tell a mediocre product from a distance of seventy light years, and they’d sooner set a $1,000,000 bond on fire with their Cohiba Behike than spend $150,000 on a poorly-assembled, half-assed “luxury sports car” built in a shed pretending to be a factory.

    1. Even if you made your money as a supplier of complex componentry for the car industry (Paragon), you have the big ones behind you (Fujitsu) and you have supposedly knowledgeable people on board (KH Kalbfell) you can still fail – Artega GT. Not to mention Gumpert Apollo or Treser Roadster.
      But how do companies like Koenigsegg, Pagani or the Danish with the silly rear wing survive? Their products can’T be hones to the degree of perfection expected from an everyday vehicle of today.
      After VW bought Lamborghini Fugen-Ferdl very closely inspected their then currrent product (Diablo?) and was shocked by the lack of attention to detail he found. As a result Lamborghini and Audi teamed up to run a fully fledged assault on product quality on the Italians’ side.
      The guy running the Carglass repair shop once told me that they had to replace the windscreen on a V12 Ferrari because the workshop of the importer fifty metres from them didn’t have the necessary tools. They were shocked by the primitive way the screen was fitted to the car and by the general crudeness they found when they disassembled the parts that blocked their accesss to the windscreen.
      When Lamborghini can only survive because Audi is throwing endless ressources a them how does Ferrari do when Fiat is barely existing?

    2. Dave,

      I’d argue that the main difference between de Tomaso-era Maserati and Koenigsegg/Pagani is that they’re aimed at completely different markets. A Biturbo was an everyday proposition, whereas a Huyira (sic?) is something one buys instead of another holiday flat or some Damien Hirst item. A hyper car has to be special, rather than exceedingly reliable – which is also the area where Gumpert et al failed, as their products always had an air of the amateurish (at least visually) about them.

      With regards to Fiat & Ferrari, I’d like to remind you that they’re only connected via the Elkann family’s Exor holding. Fiat/FCA/Stellantis don’t own a single share of Ferrari stock.

    3. In truth, De Tomaso´s idea of “a sports car for the ´80s” wasn´t absurd at all. It could have worked. Designing a powerful, fun to drive, conventionately styled and practical two door coupé that could be developed into a four door saloon or a convertible (even perhaps a shooting brake) was very sensible. As always, the difference was in the “small” details: a properly engineered product, quality control, and a decent after sales service.

  3. I always rather liked that Quattroporte IV, although I also can’t recall ever seeing one for real.

    This story certainly underlines how hard it is to make money from making and selling cars. I recall there was a statistic at one point that Toyota made more money than every other car maker added together, which should make anyone about to invest in either a new brand or resurrecting an old one stop and think for a minute or two.

    1. I remember reading a few years back that Ford didn’t make any money from making cars in the USA, but made decent profits from financing the purchase of those cars.

    1. Indeed, Faisal, that was certainly the case. With interest rates at such low levels for a long time, those cryptic financing deals really were highly remunerative for the automakers.

      I have only once ever bought a car on finance. On every other occasion, I’ve enjoyed watching the salesman’s expression sour momentarily when I tell him I’m a cash buyer.

  4. I kind of like the Shamal for the “in your face” attitude. Gandini’s wheel arches work on something as crazy as Shamal but make no sense on a sedan.

  5. Hello all. Of all the Biturbo variations, I think I would have a 228 for its relative rarity and slightly more mature looks (and because Gandini wasn’t let loose on it):

    That said, given their reputation for frangibility, I would guess that good ones are now as rare as hens’ teeth.

    1. Thanks Daniel, with DTW I´m learning new things almost every day. While the Biturbo is a car familiar to any ´80s and ´90s aficionado, I didn´t know about the 228, a two door coupé with the saloon wheelbase! indeed, the Biturbo range was very prolific and the nomenclature a bit confusing.
      For me it would be a Ghibli. I like it a lot.

  6. Found an image of what appears to be a fastback coupe prototype at Maserati-Alfieri.

  7. Great triology piece Daniel. I would give my right arm to own a Maserati Quattroporte IV even though the old-old Top Gear Jeremy Clarkson’s road test I found on YouTube was not encouraging. I’m currently in Crete and have spotted only one Maserati Ghibli (new model) so far. My Italian car highlight so far on this island has been the current Fiat Tipo saloon/sedan which we don’t seem to get in the UK. Rental car fave by the looks.

    1. Thank you, Christian. Hope you’re having a very enjoyable holiday!

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