Porsche 968 vs Maserati Ghibli
In a battle to survive the dark days of the early 1990s Porsche and Maserati went hardcore. Do they still have the skills to thrill?
Words Sam Dawson Photography Lyndon McNeil
Over in Modena, Maserati spotted an opportunity to enter this new world of mass-market exotica. The Biturbo, and later the 222-era cars, were the result.
However, come the early-1990s recession, the everyday exotica market vanished. Both marques needed a new strategy, but with their cashflows choked off they had to be based on proven mechanicals, yet reworked for a new market. Salvation lay on circuits, with track days and single-model race series blooming in popularity.
Porsche was the first to cherry pick this market by focusing a new car on it. The 968 Club Sport, evolved from the 944, featured a stripped-out interior, stiffened anti-roll bars and seats adjustable by Allen key. Unusually, it charged less for this special edition.
A year later, Maserati’s Ghibli – in essence a 222E with Quattroporte IV bits nailed to it – spawned a customer race series, called the Open Cup, and a roadgoing version of the competition cars. The Ghibli Cup had Momo bucket seats, stiffened suspension and a screaming 2.0-litre, twin-turbo V6 with, at 330bhp, the highest per-litre power output yet seen..
Nowadays, the near-double price differentials between these variants
and the standard 968 and Ghibli II models they are based upon reflect their special status as superior driving machines, the finest of their respective – sometimes corrupted – bloodlines.
However, they’re far more important than that in the Modern Classics universe. Without them, would Porsche and Maserati even be around today?
Porsche 968 Club Sport
It’s a harsh, unyielding world inside the 968 Club Sport. Padding on the Recaro racing seat is wafer-thin, door cards are near-featureless save for a manual window-winder, and the black, plasticky dashboard could have come out of a 1990s supermini – at least on 944s this dash was often treated to swathes of colourful cloth.
There are no rear seats, and you get the impression that specifying a rollcage would have been more logical than a radio. It’s a message beyond that of mere driver-centrism – this car’s focus is on winning races, or nailing every apex on multiple track days.
I turn the key, expecting a yelp followed by a restless bass-buzz, but I’m met with a quietly undistinguished four-cylinder fizz. Prod the accelerator and the predominant sound is a big-lunged gasp rather than an unrestrained roar. Could the track modifications be shoestring posturing rather than genuine poise? The standard 968 was heavily criticised for being too luxurious, expensive and remote in a 928-lite manner when new.
Thankfully it only takes a few seconds behind the wheel to realise the extent of the Club Sport makeover’s effectiveness. The ride is choppy on uneven surfaces, but once on smooth tarmac that wheel pulses with masses of feedback, rather like that kart you thrashed on track on your stag do. In no way does it feel like a car with power steering and 205/55 ZR16s up front. It’s an intuitive steering rack too, with no dead-zone straight-ahead, the nose darting into country-lane bends with little more than a quarter turn of the fat wheel.
So far, so Porsche, but it’s the Club Sport’s behaviour mid-corner that sets it apart. Pitch a 924 hard into a bend and the body rolls noticeably. Do the same with a 911 and you have to keep your mind on the car’s imbalanced rear-engined physics to avoid emerging on to the next straight backwards. With this 968, there’s no nose-bob or side-to-side shimmy, just an impressively neutral 50/50 chassis stance that responds to mid-corner throttle adjustments, yet unlike a 911, backing off will bring its tail neatly back into line. Accelerate, and the rear-end piles on the grip as keenly as any rear-engined Porsche.
But it’s the engine that truly defines the 968. It was the first Porsche to receive the VarioCam system, tensioners lengthening the intake valve’s timing under throttle load. As a result, it always feels as though it’s in its torque band, rapidly reeling in an endless elastic horizon while the initial uninspiring underbonnet hum becomes an exhilarated scream as low down as 2000rpm. The flick-wrist six-speed gearchange is as compliant as the best Japanese sports cars, rather than the baulky walking-stick that protrudes from the floor of a pre-1989 911.
Admittedly it’s not as fast as a 911. However, from the perspective of a proper B-road hoon, it’s infinitely more compliant. And in the real world, that actually makes it the better car.
Maserati Ghibli Cup
For a car derived directly from a GT-class racer, the Ghibli Cup feels almost too civilised, especially compared to the Porsche. There are imposing Momo bucket seats, but they’re beautifully upholstered in suede. There are usable similarly finished rear seats, a dashboard full of electrics – including the window switches – and although a strip of carbonfibre circumnavigates the cabin, it still has the famous ovoid carriage clock.
The driving position, as well as being more comfortable than the Porsche’s, is similarly well laid-out. The Momo
wheel in particular is beautifully sculpted, despite looking like part of a co-ordinated, yet still markedly aftermarket, budget cockpit facelift.
Turn the key, and the V6 burbles into life. Prod the throttle and there's a noticeably bassy undertone beneath the hissing turbochargers. Aurally it’s closer to a big V8 than a small V6.
The gearchange doesn’t slot home with the same sharp precision as the 968’s. Despite the hefty metal ball, the action is a plasticky-feeling short-travel click rather than a big-GT clank, lending it a feel closer to a hot hatch than a supercar.
Under way, despite the power steering, the Ghibli’s stocky 215/45 ZR17 front tyres lend the car a resistant, weighty quality. Initially this suggests the steering feel will be dulled but, once up to A-road speed, it’s clear it's dealing with an enormous amount of grip. What the 968 achieves with the balancing of engine and transaxle along the chassis, the Ghibli emulates with gluey foursquare adhesion to the road. Perhaps overcompensating for the Ghibli’s wayward older sister, the Biturbo, Maserati created a car that feels impossible to unstick, at least in the dry.
Naturally there are drawbacks to this. There’s no sense of mid-corner adjustability. Rather, you pick your line, stick to it and power out. As with TVRs of this era, there’s a sense that there’s often no progressive, gradual breakaway in cars with roadholding so apparently viceless, thus when it does finally let go of the road, you’ll probably be going too fast to regain control.
What it does give you is the confidence to use its colossal power. Accelerate hard down a straight, and that torquey burble hardens in volume and savagery up to 3500rpm, upon which the turbochargers sweep whistling into life, lifting performance on to a further, more aggressive plane. It’s no supercar – the 2.0-litre engine may have a phenomenal specific power output but it’s still a
1424kg car – but its behaviour is sophisticated, with none of the lag found on the era's overboosted shopping trolleys. You have to be smooth with the Ghibli, but power comes in progressively as you head for 168mph. Yet such is the torque that it’ll happily cruise down motorways too.
In civilising a racer, Maserati built a true dual-role high-performance car and luxury GT all in one.
Buying tips: Porsche 968 ClubSPort
Some dealers are passing off Sports as Club Sports by aesthetically modifying them. While they are similar in terms of suspension, it isn’t possible to replicate the specification with the Sport exactly. To spot a real CS, look for manual windows, a glassfibre panel in place of rear seats and a pull-cable release for the rear hatch. There shouldn't be mountings for rear seats, either.
Detailed service history is a must, and take care leafing through it. Look for evidence of the exhaust camshaft belt and tensioner, inlet camshaft chain and balancer shaft belts having been changed every 50,000 miles.
A whining sound from the rear end signifies a worn pinion bearing in the transaxle assembly, which requires a lengthy gearbox stripdown and rebuild at a cost of £2000.
Although the Club Sport’s ride is understandably firm, any knocks from the suspension are usually the sign of worn-out dampers.
Brake caliper baseplates can lift up when the aluminium corrodes, causing the brakes to bind. It makes it impossible to fit new pads, so people bodge it by grinding them. A £150 per brake stripdown and rebuild is the only solution.
Buying tips: Maserati Ghibli Cup
Make sure it’s complete, as some basic parts are virtually impossible to get hold of now. Tail-light clusters, trim, plastic bumpers – if they’re missing or damaged, getting hold of them isn’t easy.
If the engine warning light stays dark on start-up, this suggests someone has unplugged it to conceal a fault, and very few specialists will have the Marelli diagnostic equipment to track down the problem.
Rust attacks Ghiblis from underneath. Also, water collects just below the bonnet hinges, causing rust that allows the electrical system to get wet. Budget for undersealing on purchase.
Make sure you're buying the real deal. Back when these cars were nearly new, many owners fitted Cup trim and badges to standard Ghiblis when the spare parts were readily available. Confusing matters, there were two Ghibli Cups – the 330bhp roller-bearing-turbo 2.0-litre, and the ‘hybrid’ Cup which teamed the Cup chassis with the Ghibli GT’s 285bhp 2.8-litre engine. The hybrid will be easier to live with, but not as sought-after as an investment. To tell the difference check the ID plaque on the front crossmember – genuine Cups are stamped AM577, while GT engines are AM496; they also have an ECU per bank rather than a single ECU.