Group tests

Maserati Quattroporte v BMW M5 v Mercedes CLS 55: The Outsider

Is the elegant Maserati Quattroporte Sport GT a match for the muscle-bound BMW M5 and Mercedes-Benz CLS 55 AMG?

When cut-price airlines can fly you to any major European city for less than the price of a tank of petrol, you might think that the role of the classic breed of high-performance, luxury four-door saloon had become obsolete. Continent-crushing abilities are all very well, but surely they belong to a bygone era when fuel was cheap, roads were clear and British Airways charged whatever they liked. As we've arranged to drive Maserati's new Quattroporte Sport GT press car from the Modena factory to the UK, we'll be putting this theory to the test, for all that stands between myself, photographer Dave Shepherd and the brand new Maser is the 0715 Ryanair flight from Stansted to Bologna-Forli. Forli is actually nowhere near Bologna, but its remoteness is a minor irritation compared to the flight itself. After being embroiled in chaos at check-in, then having our take-off delayed, in-flight entertainment eventually comes in the form of two medical emergencies, the most serious of which results in the classic cry of 'Is there a doctor on board?' Fortunately, there is. By the time we've landed and caught a taxi to Maserati's recently revamped HQ, a farcical eight hours have passed since I stumbled blearily out of bed. The sight of the Quattroporte - cleaned, fuelled and awaiting our arrival - lifts our spirits, but is nothing compared to the heightened sense of control and personal freedom gained from being handed its shiny blue key, along with a European satnav CD. It's an early and powerful reminder of why our love affair with the car has endured for more than a century, and why the novelty of cheap flights soon wears very thin. The stark concrete backdrop of the factory car park is a perfect place to get some early shots in the bag, for it serves to emphasise the Quattroporte's curvaceous lines and bold proportions. In Sport GT guise the Quattroporte is treated to a number of technical and cosmetic changes. Most obvious are the vast seven-spoke alloy wheels, spanning some 20in and smeared with the lowest of low-profile Pirelli rubber. Quite what they do for the Quattroporte's finely wrought dynamics remains to be seen, but from a purely aesthetic standpoint they seem to shout a little too loudly, dominating the car in the same way a showy tie spoils a crisply tailored suit. The black-chrome mesh grille and side vents are less in-yer-face, and hark back to Maserati's racing cars of the past, while small 'Sport GT' badges mounted at the base of the B-pillars are a subtle but effective distinguishing feature. The original details are the sweetest, however, such as the chromed tridents on the C-pillars and the delicious, flowing 'Maserati' script on the bootlid. Personal reservations about the wheels aside, it still adds up to an immaculate and elegant piece of design. Inside, the Sport GT shuns wood veneer for the glossy weave of carbonfibre, which clads the doors, dash, steering wheel and centre console. Combined with the black leather of our test car, it creates a fittingly luxurious and sporting ambience. Hardware-wise, the Sport GT still relies on the familiar, front-mid-mounted, 400bhp 4.2-litre V8 and six-speed paddle-shift transaxle gearbox, but it differs from the standard and Executive GT models in a number of invisible but important areas. The DuoSelect transmission has been reprogrammed to shift up to 35 per cent faster when Sport mode is engaged, and the Skyhook adaptive damping software has been tweaked in an effort to further sharpen the Quattroporte's responses, again while working in conjunction with the Sport mode. Standard cross-drilled and vented disc brakes are clamped by bright red callipers which are now fed by braided metal hoses. A more vocal exhaust (thanks to bypass valves) gives the Sport GT a deeper and more distinctive voice, and completes the package of upgrades. While Shepherd and I have been in the air (and the passport queues and the taxi...), John Hayman and Roger Green have been driving across Europe in the new Quattroporte's most formidable rivals. Our plan is to rendezvous with each of them on our route home - a course that takes us directly north from Modena, across the Brenner Pass to Innsbruck in Austria, then on into Germany, where we'll stop for the night in Munich, BMW's hometown. It's a fitting stage on which to acquaint the Sport GT with the M5, München's most potent four-door export. From there we'll continue, on autobahnen and minor roads, to Stuttgart, where a Mercedes CLS 55 AMG - the second of our two surprises - will be waiting for us. We've wanted to pitch the big Maserati against both these mighty German machines for a long time now, as they present a greater and more complete challenge than the excellent, if rather leftfield, Alpina B5 and Cadillac CTS-V 'alternatives' that the standard Quattroporte so convincingly defeated back in November 2005 (evo 085). If the Sport GT can build on the base Quattroporte's core qualities, it should be quite a battle. From Stuttgart we'll scribe a path to Nürburg for our second overnight stop, then spend the following morning testing our trio on the terrific roads (but not the legendary circuit) that criss-cross the Eifel region. Then all that remains is to blat through Belgium as quickly as possible, reach Calais, board the Eurotunnel and, after three days of hard driving, arrive back at home. That isn't the end of it though, for we've also got a morning appointment with Bedford Autodrome's West Circuit for the final and most extreme element of this gruelling group test. Only then, after four days and more than 1000 miles in each car, will we have intimate knowledge of our three spectacular four-doors, and, hopefully, one clear winner. For now, though, the Quattroporte is our focus. The V8 takes a while to catch, the frantic starter spinning a second or two longer than you'd expect, but once running it has a sharp, inertia-free response and a businesslike exhaust note. The transmission defaults to 'D', which means the sequential manual operates in auto mode, shuffling up and down the ratios as it deems appropriate. Though smoother and quicker-witted than early Quattroportes (especially when pulling away from a standstill, low-speed manoeuvring and reversing up an incline), it still struggles to work as effectively as a conventional torque converter auto when self-shifting. As a result, you soon reach for the button marked 'M/A' to switch from auto to manual mode. Flipping the paddles is hardly taxing, and you're rewarded with more satisfying progress. The motor's feeling of low inertia is mirrored by the speed-sensitive steering, which is surprisingly light at urban speeds. It certainly increases the impression of effortless immediacy when guiding the big Maserati through town, but it also takes some getting used to. Leave the Sport button alone and the GT's low-speed ride quality is reasonably rounded, but you can sense those rubber-band tyres are already testing the Skyhook dampers' reaction times, with the more extreme potholes feeling sharp-edged. At speed the Quattroporte's steering gains some weight and feel. You can also sense the chassis hitting its stride, expansion joints and other motorway bumps being absorbed in a more convincing style. The engine is happier, too, its liking for revs served by the occasional burst through fourth and fifth gears (at one point we power to an easy 160mph), but generally speaking it seems to like settling in sixth at a natural-feeling 100mph. Things are pretty busy at this speed, though, the tacho reading close on 4000rpm, which seems excessive for a car that you'd expect to dominate motorways in a relaxed and refined style. There's noticeable wind noise, too, the slipstream whistling noisily through the wipers, which park proud of the trailing edge of the bonnet rather than sheltering beneath it. Despite these few niggles, the Quattroporte's cockpit is a seductive environment. The view out over the huge bonnet is commanding and inspiring in equal measure, the seat cosseting and the contrasting leather, chrome and carbonfibre used throughout the interior creating a truly special sense of opulence and quality. As we approach the Brenner Pass, my phone rings. On the other end is a mildly flustered John Hayman, who explains that Roger has been nabbed by the gendarmes somewhere near Reims. Travelling at a restrained (for Rog) 106mph, the police lasered him, flagged him down, escorted him to the station and relieved him of 90 euros. And his driving licence. Oh bugger. With Rog banned from driving in France for 15 days, our intrepid heroes are now faced with the small problem of having two cars and one driver. Electing to leave the CLS with the police and continue onwards in the M5, we mobilise evo's International Rescue team, comprising Harry Metcalfe and Owen Brown, who jump into Thunderbird 1 (Hazza's Fezza) and hotfoot it for the stricken Merc. They don't arrive until 1.30 the following morning, eventually collecting the car from the gendarmerie after breakfast, but with the M5 still on schedule the test remains viable, albeit by the skin of its teeth. After the flat plains of northern Italy, the mountains are a welcome sight. We'd originally hoped to drive into Austria via the Stelvio Pass, but as this remains impassable until late May, we've had to opt for the Brenner. The lowest pass in Europe, it's open all year round, but forget any sinuous hairpin imagery you might have, for the Brenner is nothing more than a busy motorway, heaving with HGVs. We work through Austria and into Germany, spearing in and out of long alpine tunnels and passing spectacular ski-jump towers. Snow begins to fall, which, as we're on summer tyres, is a bit of a worry, but we make it safely to Munich just as it starts to settle. Predictably, Hayman and Green aren't so lucky, and as they approach Munich from the west, the autobahn gradually disappears under snow. The M5 slithers and fishtails up the inclines, while locals with their winter tyres steam past unabated. It's well after midnight before they arrive at our hotel, bloodshot eyes out like organ-stops. Yesterday saw us grab lunch in Modena and dinner in Munich. Now, after a good night's sleep, it's time to discover whether the Quattroporte can manage an M5 for breakfast. Side by side in the subterranean car park, the M5 is meaner and more muscular than the svelte Maserati, but an educated eye is needed to spot the wider rims, cross-drilled discs and stubby tailpipes. From a distance it could quite easily be mistaken for a 530d. Climb in and the M5 feels solid and well built, but its familiarity counts against it when compared with the Maserati's greater sense of occasion. Things don't improve when you press the BMW's starter, for in the concrete confines of the car park the V10's dry, chattery tickover sounds even more diesel-like than usual. Though both cars employ paddle-shifts, habits formed in the Maser don't translate to the Bee Em. For starters the paddles are mounted on the M5's steering wheel, rather than fixed to the steering column as they are in the Quattroporte. Consequently concentration is required if you're not to wash the M5's windscreen instead of changing up a gear. The SMG system also relies more heavily on the selector stick, as you need to move it into Drive, Manual, Neutral and Reverse, while the Maser's DuoSelect system employs a button to switch between Auto and Manual modes, a small T-bar to select reverse, and the paddles to engage drive and find neutral. If you could select neutral by pulling back on the SMG paddles, as you do in the Maser, it would be perfect, but as it stands both systems have flaws. BMW's iconic 'four-cylinder' HQ building is sited in the middle of Munich's Olympic Village. The place is an amazing hotch-potch of spectacular modern architecture and endless construction sites, the biggest being 'BMW Welt', which will ultimately house BMW's collection of cars and motorcycles. In the chaos and confusion we manage to drive close enough to get our shot, before heading out of wintry Munich towards Stuttgart and the waiting CLS. Sticking with the M5 for the city-to-city run, it immediately feels the more compact car (as you'd expect), but it also feels heavier, thanks to the weightier steering and pedals. The damping is firmer, too, and you can sense the M5 is fist-tight, with everything clenched and ready for action. The engine is gruntier than the Maser's, but still needs revs to truly come alive, and you find yourself pulling back on the left-hand paddle more often than you expect, dropping a few gears to stoke the fiery V10 into life. It's mainly autobahn between the two motor cities, but it soon becomes clear that the fantasy of flat-out running is just that, for the reality is trucks, roadworks, traffic jams and frequent sections of 50mph limits. It's immensely frustrating, and in the end we peel off in search of some excitement. Shepherd knows a good cross-country route, so we follow his lead and head up into the hills. There's a lot of snow, but the roads are clear, if a bit wet. Up here the M5 really comes alive, its big V10 filling its lungs with cold, crisp air and powering us though the snowfields with a feral bark. The way it pulls through the gears is dizzying, each upshift sustaining the squeeze on your torso. The Maser can't live with this kind of savage power, though it doesn't fade too far in the mirrors. However, when we get to an inviting sequence of broad hairpins, the M5's more aggressive set-up, quick-witted M diff and truly switchable DSC system make it a riot to powerslide. It might not have the bespoke exclusivity of the Maserati, or its mature feel on the autobahn, but it certainly knows how to attack a country road. Fun over, we complete the run into Stuttgart, but not before stopping to fill the M5 with fuel. Again. If there's one thing worse than its formidable thirst, it's the dismal fuel range afforded by its barely adequate 70-litre tank. It's really annoying if you're in the Merc or Maser, for they each consistently have a third of a tank left when the M5 is running on vapours. When you're covering big distances, stopping every 250 miles or so is a major handicap. Porsche fans might regard Stuttgart as their manor, but if you approach from the east, the city is dominated by Mercedes-Benz. Following signs for the Mercedes Museum, we eventually find ourselves in the middle of a cluster of monumental, silver-clad buildings. Amusingly, the biggest and most impressive of these is 'Mercedes Welt', which looks suspiciously similar in concept to 'BMW Welt', albeit much closer to completion. Is there nothing these two giant corporations won't compete over? Having found Owen and the silver CLS, we grab our third factory shot and hightail it for Nürburg. I've never driven a CLS before, but have long admired its elegant, adventurous shape, and it's a real pleasure to open the frameless driver's door (this is a four-door coupe, don't forget) and drop into the spacious but intimate cockpit. The dash is dominated by a broad, satin-finish swathe of wood, while a neat set of crackle-silver AMG instruments nestles in the binnacle. A true auto, the CLS 55 has a conventional selector stick, backed-up by shift buttons on the back of the steering wheel spokes. Having spent the last few days in sequential manual cars, I've got comfortable with their foibles and didn't expect to feel such a wave of relief at being able to simply slot D and drive. Like the M5, the CLS has a meatier feel than the Maserati from the moment you set off. In fact the whole car feels weighty and more substantial, but it also has a satisfying pliancy and an uncanny malleability that always seems to adapt to match your mood. Through town it has the smooth, instant step-off you need to compete in the cut-and-thrust, while out on the autobahn it surges imperiously through the traffic with the slightest squeeze of the throttle. Its 5.5-litre, 493bhp supercharged V8 has been around for a while, but it's still very special indeed. It's the 516lb ft of torque that sets it apart, the rippling low-and mid-range urge crushing the thin-feeling Maserati V8 and the muscular but rev-reliant BMW V10. It also has a deliciously deep note, unobtrusive at modest throttle openings but Wagnerian when you open the taps. We're hoping for better luck on the autobahnen between Stuttgart and Nürburg. We do get a few clear stretches, but they're insufficient to hit the CLS's limiter, despite the needle passing 160mph on several occasions. It's only when we arrive at the Dorint Hotel in Nürburg that I find the spec sheet explaining that our press car has had its limiter upped to 186mph. Must try harder tomorrow. We retire to the bar and begin to evaluate our three protagonists. Tomorrow morning promises to be a test of each car's ability on tricky minor roads, but for now we've got a clear picture of how each performs on the motorways and on some of Germany's finer fast country roads. As the pilsner flows, it becomes clear that we've all developed a soft spot for the CLS, with unanimous praise for its inspiring combination of beauty, comfort, awesome performance and, so far at least, impressively rounded dynamics. Come the morning, Nürburg is crawling with prototypes as we make for our favourite roads. In the space of ten minutes we see a barely disguised V8 M3, a battle-scarred Audi R8, a Skyline GT-R mule, a Mini Traveller and a mean-looking Jaguar XKR. It's like Disneyland for car spotters, and poor Shep doesn't know which way to point his camera. Much of our test route follows the perimeter of the Nordschleife, and we catch tantalising glimpses of the circuit through the trees as we make our way towards Adenau. The beauty of the roads around here is their variety. Some sections are recently resurfaced and velvet smooth, others, particularly those in the forested areas, are as rough and pockmarked as any you'll find in the UK. There's also everything from fast fourth-gear sweepers to the tightest of switchbacks, so you get a complete picture of a chassis' strengths and weaknesses. Even if the Nordschleife didn't exist, this would still be a great test venue. While Shep concentrates on getting the final shots in the bag, I take the CLS for a blast, keen to discover whether its motorway muscle translates on tighter, twistier roads. On the smooth sections it feels rock-solid and composed, even with the suspension on its hardest setting. There's meaty feel through the steering, and the chassis has a brilliantly neutral balance through the quick corners. Of course, through tight corners you can use the torque to bring the tail into play, but it remains controlled, progressive and hugely entertaining. On the bumpier, tighter stretches it pays to knock the suspension back one setting, as the stiffest mode never lets the big Benz settle completely, but it still makes an impressive fist of roads that just a month ago tied the much smaller, lighter and more focused TVR Tuscan in knots. What's genuinely impressive is the way the CLS puts its power down, and the Herculean manner in which it catapults you between the corners. You know by the hammering V8 that the engine's working hard, but the performance is delivered so smoothly, and the chassis copes so completely, that you're filled with the superior sense of having plenty in reserve. Drive the same roads in the M5 and it feels a little sharper on turn-in, a little keener to change direction, though it's also harder work, skittering over bumps the CLS smothers. It's quicker to wag its tail, too, and it has a general feel of increased urgency. It also has two stages of suspension stiffening, but the second of these is simply too uncompromising for anything other than the very smoothest roads. However, once you've found the ideal setting, the M5 allows you to mount a more sustained attack on the road, enabling you to keep your foot in through sections where you'd ease-off fractionally in the CLS. Though there's hardly anything in it between the M5 and CLS point-to-point, the M5 feels more suited to this kind of back-road scratching, hungrier for action, more alert, more up for it. The brakes are sharper and more feelsome, the steering quicker, the body control that bit tighter. It soaks up the punishment and allows you to push that bit harder. But then, to be honest, so it should, for it's a far edgier and more tightly focused machine than the Maser or Merc and sacrifices their comfort, refinement and relaxed mile-eating appetite for those fleeting moments of ultimate excitement on challenging roads. Back at base, I swap into the Quattroporte. This is crunch-time for the Maser, for while it's a more accomplished and desirable distance runner than the M5, it's been taught a lesson or two by the sophisticated and massively potent CLS 55. And as the M5 has shaded the CLS for outright dynamism, the Quattroporte needs a strong showing here to uphold Italian honour. It shines, but sadly not brightly enough. There are moments when the Quattroporte is inspirational, times when it feels half its size and weight. It makes fast direction changes without hesitation, and tackles long, balance-testing corners with a delicious whiff of oversteer, the V8 singing a sweet, cammy song. But there are also times when you wonder what on earth Maserati has done. You'd expect the bigger rubber to generate more grip, but you never really sense the Sport GT keying into the road, and though it does carry prodigious speed, there's less feedback and progression. When at or close to the limit, there's a snappy edge to the handling that the standard car doesn't have. Worse, on the bumpiest sections of our test loop, the Quattroporte's wheel control falls to pieces, the oversized alloys simply overwhelming the Skyhook dampers' ability to control their vertical movement. It's a real shame. The only way to enjoy the quickest gearshifts is to engage Sport mode, but this also stiffens the suspension, which is then too much for bumpy surfaces and exacerbates the wheel control problem. So you switch Sport mode off to calm down the damping, only to discover that this also robs you of the last 500rpm to the red line. There's also something strange about the MSP stability programme, for even when you switch it off it still feels like the fly-by-wire throttle is artificially backed-off when you floor it through tighter corners, full power only arriving after a suitable pause. It all seems so unnecessary, for in all honesty there was little wrong with the standard Quattroporte chassis. Indeed, if the Sport GT had the pliancy and measured poise of the standard car, together with its superior progression and feel, such uniquely satisfying dynamics might have compensated for its very obvious lack of grunt in this company. As it stands, however, the M5's sharper, tighter and more polished damping highlights how wrong Maserati has got its chassis modifications, and the seismic shove of AMG's supercharged V8 makes the Maser's naturally-aspirated engine feel embarrassingly gutless. No-one is more disappointed in the Sport GT's showing than us, especially as we've championed the Quattroporte so vocally in the past. The truth is we're still huge fans of the standard car, but it's a great shame that the Sport GT modifications prove the old adage 'less is more' so conclusively. The M5 is an odd one. Polar opposite to the Maserati concept of flamboyant style and exclusivity, its gritty, hard-edged delivery makes it the sharpest tool in the box when you get to challenging roads, but that uncompromising approach does limit its ability to cosset on a long journey. True, it's considerably cheaper, but so it should be, based as it is on a large-volume saloon. While that won't bother some, if class and exclusivity count, a 5-series - albeit a £65K, 500bhp one - simply doesn't cut it. That leaves the CLS. Immensely quick, fantastically comfortable, beautifully styled and solidly built, it combines the style and charisma of the Maserati with all the M5's integrity and nine-tenths of its dynamism. It's the most complete and desirable car here, and the one that each of us yearns to experience again. You certainly can't say the same about Ryanair.

Comparison

 BMW M5Maserati Quattroporte Sport GTMercedes-Benz CLS 55 AMG
Engine90-degree V1090-degree V890-degree V8, supercharged
LocationFront, longitudinalFront-mid, longitudinalFront, longitudinal
Displacement4999cc4244cc5439cc
Cylinder BlockAluminium alloyAluminium alloyAluminium alloy
Cylinder HeadAluminium alloy, dohc per bank, 4v per cyl, bi-VANOS variable camshaft controlAluminium alloy, dohc per bank, 4v per cyl, variable valve timingAluminium alloy, sohc per bank, 3v per cyl
Fuel and IgnitionMS S65 engine management, multi-point fuel injectionBosch Motronic ME7 electronic ignition/injectionElectronic ignition and multi-point fuel injection
Max Power501bhp @ 7750rpm394bhp @ 7000rpm476bhp @ 6100rpm
Max Torque383lb ft @ 6100rpm333lb ft @ 4500rpm516lb ft @ 2650rpm
TransmissionSeven-speed SMG III paddle-shift manual, rear-wheel drive, M differential, DSCDuoSelect six-speed auto-actuated manual, rear-drive, stability controlFive-speed automatic, rear-wheel drive, ASR
Front SuspensionMacPherson struts, coil springs, electronically controlled dampers, arbDouble wishbones, 'Skyhook' continuously adaptable dampingFour-link, AIRMATIC DC air suspension, anti-roll bar
Rear SuspensionMulti-link, coil springs, electronically controlled dampers, arbDouble wishbones, 'Skyhook' continuously adaptable dampingMulti-link, AIRMATIC DC air suspension, anti-roll bar
BrakesCross-drilled and vented discs, 374mm front, 370mm rear, ABS, CBCVented discs, 330mmfront, 316mm rear, ABS, EBDCross-drilled and vented discs, 360mm fr, 330mmrr, ABS, ESP
Weight Kerb1830kg1930kg1920kg
Power to Weight278bhp/ton207bhp/ton252bhp/ton
Max Speed155mph (limited)171mph (claimed)155mph (limited)
Lap Time94.85secs94.85secs95.50secs
Basic Price£61,775£80,550£70,890
On SaleNowNowNow
Rating545
0 to 60 MPH4.7sec (claimed)5.2sec (claimed)4.7sec (claimed)
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