When the hissing beast that is the Dodge Viper first launched back in the early ‘90s, I can remember feeling strangely disappointed by it.
Not because a rear wheel-drive monster powered by a V10 truck engine bellowing through a set of side pipes is in any way boring. Because it isn’t.
No, the problem was one that became evident once you’d clambered over the scalding-hot sills and settled behind the wheel.
Anyone who’d spent time around anything wearing a Jeep or Chrysler badge would find themselves playing an involuntary game of automotive ‘I spy’. Components borrowed from the Wrangler, Voyager and even a Neon popped up throughout the otherwise spartan interior.
For a car costing nearly £70,000, it made it feel like a parts-bin special.
I experienced a similar feeling last week when I sat inside the new Maserati Quattroporte diesel.
The TFT display in the instrument cluster, the Uconnect-based touch-screen in the centre console, much of the switchgear, even the way the gear shifter annoyingly returns to the same position – it all felt strangely reminiscent of the Grand Cherokee.
Even the engine and transmission are the same. The Quattroporte diesel uses the Grand Cherokee’s 3.0-litre V6 unit, although power is up from 247hp to 275hp with torque increasing by 30Nm to 600Nm. It’s even mated to the same eight-speed ZF automatic transmission.
It might make you wonder where the extra money went.
At least until you drive it.
This is a car I would describe as exceptionally well calibrated, and there are three key areas where the efforts of Maserati’s engineers are most apparent.
Firstly, there’s the suspension. Left to its own devices, the diesel QP rides calmly and comfortably, with the adaptive dampers making automatic and independent adjustments according to the prevailing road conditions; the way you might expect a car to perform should you find yourself shuttling, say, an Italian president from one engagement to the next.
Press the suspension button mounted by the gear lever, however, and there’s a noticeable change in its responses.
While other manufacturers take this as a sign you’d like to have your teeth rattled out of your skull, Maserati’s engineers use it as a cue merely to tighten things up. Instead of simply squaring off the edges and wilfully introducing a harsher ride, in sport mode the QP maintains passenger comfort but works harder to resist body roll and to contain weight transfer during changes of direction and speed.
What’s surprising is how the change doesn’t necessarily alter the character of the car – instead, it seems to shrink it. What felt like a large executive express suddenly becomes pointy and wieldy, allowing the big Maserati to string a series of bends together in a way normally reserved for a car half its size.
That it can achieve this level of road holding and body control without sacrificing its composure – nor that of its occupants – is what’s so commendable here. Indeed, so well-judged is its performance in this mode that there’s little to be lost by keeping it permanently engaged.
A second illustration of where the Maserati magic is deployed to maximum effect is provided by the transmission.
In the Grand Cherokee, the eight-speed ZF unit works perfectly efficiently, if occasionally rather reluctantly. In the Maserati, however, it’s been given a welcome sense of urgency.
In normal mode, or the confusingly named I.C.E mode (short for Increased Control & Efficiency – what’s wrong with Comfort?), it still swaps between ratios with the minimum of fuss.
But in Sport mode, changes come faster and more keenly, with the engine held higher up the rev range to ensure power (and, more usefully, torque) is always available. Gear-changes are still entirely automatic, but they arrive at points that match those of an enthusiastic driver.
Sport mode also opens a valve in the exhaust system, giving the Maserati a deep-chested, authoritative rumble that would be characterful for a V8, let alone a diesel.
Certainly no Grand Cherokee ever sounded this good.
The Quattroporte, then, perfectly demonstrates that it isn’t so much what a car is made from that’s important, as how it has been tuned and optimised.
And what I learned in my admittedly short time with the Quattroporte, was that Maserati know not only how to coax astonishing performances out of components with the most unlikely beginnings, but also how to instil those components with – frankly – a little bit of soul.