Today, Maserati is a purveyor of what I like to call automotive pornography. They produce two products - the almost criminally good-looking Gran Turismo and the equally seductive Quattroporte. Both sell for north of $100k, are chock full of Ferrari bits, and are absolutely wonderful, top-notch modern supercars. This hasn't always been the case.
Maserati returned to the US market in 2002, after leaving without saying goodbye in 1991. They, like Alfa Romeo, were basically chased out of the US thanks to persistent rumors of suspect reliability as well as a less than favorable exchange rate which artificially inflated prices. Many say that the reason for Maserati's failure in the US was the Biturbo. Let's take a look at that car (and it's derivatives) and return to the question of Maserati's departure from the US later on.
The Biturbo was designed as a step "down market" for Maserati. Under previous control by Citroen, they'd cranked out a series of achingly beautiful, if troublesome, mid-engined supercars like the Merak and Bora. This was all part of the big plan of one Alejandro de Tomaso, who'd acquired the ailing Italian sportscar maker in 1976. His idea was to bring the flair and excitement of the prototypical Italian supercar to the "common" man, through increased usability and a lower price tag.
The styling was the work of DeTomaso stylist Pierangelo Andreani, which would explain why it looks like every DeTomaso that wasn't the Pantera. What it doesn't explain is why the Biturbo looked so eerily similar to the E30-series BMW 3-series. See what I'm talking about?
Still, when the BiTurbo debuted at the 1981 Turin Auto Show, people were confused. Considering it replaced the mid-engined V6-powered Merak, which had what we'll call "humorous" back seats, it was a big step forward on the usability front. The BiTurbo could actually seat 4 passengers in relative comfort, at least as long as the rear seat passengers were on the shorter side of things. And also, the interior was absolutely to die for. Although the only good-quality Biturbo interior picture I could find has these classy velour seats, most Biturbos came with butter-soft brown leather buckets that just looked absolutely amazing. But I digress: on the 1-10 scale, how fantastic is this interior?
So while the outside and the general layout of the BiTurbo was conventional, under the hood it was anything but. The engine was based on the old 2.0L V6 used in the Merak, but it was force-fed by twin Garrett turbochargers, which made it the first production road car to use a twin-turbocharger setup. Interestingly enough, fuel management was by a single Weber carburetor, there were 3 valves per cylinder, and Maserati didn't see fit to include an intercooler (heat exchanger) in the setup, but hey - no one gets everything right the first time, do they?
The 2.0L V6, which featured high-tech Nikasil liners (which BMW had fantastic luck with, remember?) was only sold in non-catalyst form in the Italian market, where engines over 2.0L of displacement were subject to very heavy taxes. In export markets, the BiTurbo received a 2.5L version of the same twin-turbo carburetted 18v V6. Horsepower for the 2.0L Italian market Biturbos was pegged at 180bhp@6000rpm, with 187 lb-ft of torque at 4400rpm. Export-market 2.5L's were torquier and less high-strung, with 192bhp@5500 rpm and 220lb-ft@3000rpm. US-market cars had a catalyzed version of the 2.5L with 185bhp.
Performance was sizzling. With a low curb weight of about 2,400lbs, the twin-turbo rocket could accelerate to 60mph in 6.5 seconds, and topped out just north of 135mph - which was pretty high-end performance by 1982 standards. Suspension was via MacPherson struts, coil springs and an anti-roll bar in the front, and semi-trailing links with coil springs in the rear, giving the Biturbo nimble, balanced handling.
There was a Biturbo S version for 1983 as well, making 205bhp in carb'd 2.0L Italian market form (25 more than normal) and 196 in 2.5L export form - up only 11bhp thanks to the addition of a flow-choking catalyst.
Two years after the debut of the two-door BiTurbo, Maserati introduced the 400 series sedan. Based on the Biturbo, the sedan had a longer wheelbase to accommodate the extra doors and passengers. The official name depended on the engine equipped; Italian market sedans, with the tax-regulated 2.0L V6 were called 420, the carb'd 180bhp 2.0L V6; 420i, the fuel-injected 2.0L 190bhp V6 (1986+), or the high-output 420S, which made 210bhp with a carb. All Italian-market 2.0L of this generation used the unsual three-valve-per-cylinder head.
In other markets, it was sold as the 425 with a 2.5L 18v V6, carb'd with no catalyst and 200bhp. There were a total of 2,372 425's made, including later fuel-injected and catalyst-equipped 425i models.
The next year, Maserati debuted the stunning drop-top Spider derivative at the Turin Motor Show in 1984. It rode on a shorter wheelbase than the regular BiTurbo, and was a strict two-seat design. It looked a bit like TVR's of the time period, perhaps, but it was a twin-turbo Maserati convertible, by god!
The Spider originally came with the 2.0L 180bhp carb'd 2.0L 18v V6 in Italy, or the 2.5L 18v Carb'd V6, with a catalyst and 192bhp in export markets.
Over it's lifetime, the Biturbo evolved mechanically and it's derivatives grew laterally. In 1986, the twin-turbocharged V6 received the benefit of fuel injection instead of the troublesome carburetor, as well as sprouting an intercooler to keep the charge air temperatures down entering the intake manifold. The highest performing first-generation Biturbo was the Italian market Si, with it's fuel-injected non-cat 220bhp motor.
Maserati introduced another variant on the Biturbo theme in 1986, with the 228. The 228 was based on the long-wheelbase BiTurbo sedan platform, but was a 2-door 5-seater, meant more as a "classical GT." Styling was again by Pierangelo Andreani, the stylist of the original Biturbo. Meant to follow in the footsteps of classic Maserati GT's like the 3500GT, Mexico, and Kyalami, the 228 offered more space and grace to Maserati buyers. Equipped with the 3v injected 2.8L motor, the 228 had a healthy 250bhp or 225bhp in catalyzed form. Only 469 were made.
The entire Biturbo range got a mechanical update for 1988. The export-market engine was updated to 2.8L, and for the first time came the option of dual-overhead camshafts with 4 valves per cylinder instead of 3. Fuel injection was now standard across the line. The Biturbo itself was no longer called the Biturbo; Italian market Biturbo's were called 2.24v, with export market cars named 222. Power in the 2.8L engine, now with fuel injection, was up to 225bhp with catalyst, or 279bhp in the 222 4v with catalyst. The high-output 2.0L Italian-market V6 in the 2.24v made a respectable 245bhp, or 240 with a catalyst.
Meanwhile, the 425 sedan had a name change to 430, to reflect the increased 2.8L displacement. Yeah, the Italians aren't that great with numbers, I suppose. 2.8 = 3.0? Power was up to 225bhp from 200 in the 425, and 188 in the 425i, with a standard-fit catalyst. I know, it's confusing. Stay with me. Italian-market sedans also received a power boost, from 190bhp to 220bhp.
For 1990, Maserati introduced the 222SE, as a replacement for the defunct high-performance Biturbo S. On the outside, it featured a much smoother bodykit with integrated front foglamps, a deep front valence, and two-tone body skirts like the old S model. Power was up to 250bhp from 225bhp in the 2.8L 3v "E" motor.
The fastest of 222 models was the rare 222 4v. Using the 2.8L block mated to 4 valve per cylinder heads with dual overhead camshafts on each cylinder banks, as well as twin water-cooled IHI turbos and twin air-to-air intercoolers, the 222 4v made an impressive 279bhp@5,500 rpm and torqued out 319lb/ft at a low 3,750 rpm. Mated to a 5-speed ZF manual and fitted with a standard limited-slip differential, the 222 4v could top out north of 255km/h - or almost 160mph. Serious performance back then, especially from a small 2.8L engine. Other standard goodies included electronically adjustable dampers, unique front fascia, and wider lightweight alloy wheels. Only 130 222 4v's were made over it's 4 year production span.
I can't go on from here without mentioning the exceedingly rare Maserati Karif. The Karif was intended as a lightweight, hardcore 2-seat hardtop derivative of the original Biturbo structure. It used the shorter wheelbase platform from the Biturbo Spider (which was assembled by Zagato) with a unique body, and Maserati stuffed their most powerful 2.8L V6 under the hood. The 3-valve injected mill was good for a healthy 285bhp and 319lb/ft of torque, and in the 2,800lb Karif that was good for a 0-100km/h time of 4.8 seconds -faster than most stuff on the road back then, for sure.
The Karif was in production between 1988 and 1993, with only 222 Karif's being produced and delivered to customers. It was a telling sign of things to come.
It must be said, however, that the Biturbo didn't exactly resonate with the public the way Maserati wanted it to. They tried to build a Maserati for the "common man" but the formula gradually wondered away from that after a while - and plus, since when were Maseratis for the "common man?"
Also, they weren't the most reliable things on the road at the time. For one thing, hello! They were made in Italy! Were you expecting a Mercedes Benz? Early engines were far more failure-prone than later ones; to their credit, Maserati really did figure out the whole high-tech twin turbo V6 thing. They even had some 2.0L Biturbos rolling around with prototype 36-valve heads - yes, that would be 6 valves per cylinder, with seperate overhead intake and exhaust cams operating three valves apiece. But still, despite it's exotic heritage the Biturbo turned out to be true to it's Italian roots - electrical problems were rampant, they loved to overheat and blow turbos, the carburetted models needed constant adjustment and didn't work real well as far as turbo lag was concerned, either. They occasionally caught fire or refused to start on hot days.
So while Maserati managed to sell a total of more than 38,000 Biturbos (and derivative models) worldwide over the nearly dozen year lifespan, only less than 5,000 of those came to the US market. Initial sales were strong; easy to understand what with the impressive performance, Maserati badge, and relatively sane $25,000 price tag. Maserati moved 2,023 in 1984, 1,190 in 1985, and 1,298 units in 1986. Sales fell drastically after that, ironically right about when Maserati sorted out the serious problems with the car. 1987 was so bad that no new Biturbos were imported in 1988 so that dealers could clear out there backed up inventories. Maserati only sold 240 units in the US in 1990, it's final year in the US before it's return more than a decade later. They left with their tail between their legs, sort of like Alfa Romeo did. They're successful now because they're found their true target clientele, but the downmarket reach of the Biturbo basically destroyed the brand in the US.
Still, the Biturbo story doesn't end quite here. There were a few special offerings, as well as the continuance of the Biturbo line in Europe up to 1994. Let's take a look at those.
Final Biturbos and Special Biturbos
Of obvious worth to bring up here is the rare 1991 Maserati Racing. Yes, very creative name, right? The Racing was a limited-production 2.0L car built for the Italian market, and was basically a rolling testbed for changes and developments that Maserati would later incorporate in the Shamal and Ghibli II. These goodies include a lightened and balanced crankshaft, sodium-filled exhaust valves, redesigned heads, lighter forged connecting rods, forged aluminum pistons, and redesigned IHI turbochargers. Power output from the little 2.0L motor was a healthy 283bhp, and the Racing was a screamer just like it's name proclaimed.
You can see the Racing's tweaked motor in this shot, showing off two huge vertically mounted air-to-air intercoolers. When you're making 142bhp/L, you do need to keep your intake charge temps low. Only 230 Racing's were made, making it one of the most sought-after Biturbo derivatives.
The sedans continued on as well. The names changed again in 1990, with Italian market sedans going by 4.18v (4-door, 18-valve 2.0L) or 4.24v. The twin-cam 4.24v made 245bhp compared to the 4.18v's 220bhp. Elsewhere, a 430 4v was introduced for the 1991 model year, with a 2.8L twin-cam 24v engine making 279bhp - same as in the 222 4v. Confused yet?
The most exciting development of the Biturbo line was undoubtedly the Shamal, introduced in 1990. It was meant as the most extreme extension of the Biturbo line, with a brand-new 32-valve dual-overhead-cam twin turbocharged V8 of 3.2L displacement. Power peaked at 325bhp, and was transmitted to the road through a brand new Getrag 6-speed manual transmission. 0-100km/h took only 5.3 seconds, and the top speed put the Shamal squarely in supercar territory - 168+ mph flat out, if you could find a long enough stretch of road. The interior was equally sumptuous and driver-focused. Love those Recaros.
The final evolution of the Biturbo line was the Ghibli II. Named after the 1967 classic model, the Ghibli showed what Maserati was really capable of. The 2.0L Ghibli, which replaced the 2.24v, made an enormous 306bhp, the highest specific output per litre of any production car at the time. Export market cars made do with a 286bhp 2.8L 24v motor. Early 2.8L's had a 5-speed manual; all other Ghibli's had the Getrag 6-speed from the Shamal.
As if that wasn't enough, Maserati put together 60 special Ghibli's - called Ghibli Cups. The 2.0L V6 was boosted to an even greater output of 330bhp@6,500 rpm, with torque still at a respectable 279lb-ft. There were also huge flared fenders, 5-spoke lightweight Speedline alloys, a ZF limited-slip differential, and many other goodies.
The Biturbo lineup (even though by then they weren't called Biturbos) came to an end when the last Ghibli rolled off the assembly line in 1997. They were replaced by the thoroughly modern 3200GT, which used a tuned version of the 32v Shamal engine. While the Biturbo might not have been the best thing to grace roads when it debuted, thanks to a constant stream of revisions and updates it became what it should have been in the first place - a real Maserati.
Thankfully, Maserati survived the near-lethal hit to it's image the Biturbo caused in the US. If they hadn't, who would be pedalling automotive pornography today?