Maserati’s misunderstood Biturbo at 40: Giant Test

Maserati’s misunderstood Biturbo at 40: Giant Test

Was the Biturbo the biggest mistake Maserati ever made – or a superbly useable exotic that saved the company? As the Biturbo turns 40 years old, we reassess its legacy via four very different versions. Story by Nathan Chadwick. Images by Michael Ward.


TWIN TURBO PEAKS MASERATI BITURBO GROUP TEST

40 years on, we reassess the Biturbo’s legacy


It was all down to a chance encounter in California in the early 1970s – oh, and BMW. Alessandro De Tomaso, who was yet to take the reins at Maserati and was busy trying to sort out the tricky pickle of his Pantera in the USA, happened to note what was going down on the trendy West Coast. Instead of classic British sports cars and muscle cars, young car enthusiasts were interested in sporting coupes and saloons from BMW, which were more practical, more fuel efficient and faster in the real world. It didn’t take long for De Tomaso to put his vision into practice – as early as 1976, just one year into his tenure at the head of Maserati, he told journalists about plans for a 2.0- litre 2+2 aimed at a younger audience.


Maserati’s misunderstood Biturbo at 40: Giant Test

Maserati desperately needed sales: in 1976, just 89 cars trundled out of the factory. The new model would be a sports car for a new generation, and at the heart of it all would be a V6 engine, deemed necessary to compete with premium German sports saloons. Adding not one but two turbochargers would provide a performance edge that the Germans would struggle to match. Twin turbos offered the prospect of better fuel efficiency and less lag than a single turbo. It didn’t quite work out that way, however…


MASERATI


MASERATI BITURBO 2.0

“The unassisted steering is wellweighted and positive, much more connected than later versions”

The Biturbo was unveiled in December 1981 but Maserati didn’t see fit to bring the Biturbo to the UK until several years into production, despite the best efforts of its UK importers. What you’re seeing here is a rare beast indeed: an Italian-market 2.0 dating from 1983, among the very earliest examples in the UK.


MASERATI BITURBO 2.0

The first Biturbo engines used three-valve cylinder heads – it was claimed that the paired intake valves mitigated turbo lag at low speeds, although engineers later admitted that four-valve heads caused cooling issues. More incongruous was the manual choke and single Weber carburettor – by this time, most prestige cars had moved on to fuel injection. Ironically Maserati had been the first car maker to use fuel injection on a road car with the 5000GT, but its early efforts suffered from poor reliability.

De Tomaso was adamant about using a Weber carb, despite engineers underlining the need for fuel injection and intercooling. This stubbornness created early woes for the Biturbo: the aluminium plenum chamber housing the carb created high temperatures, fuel vaporisation and poor hot starting. Yet at the car’s launch, it proved a hit and Modena struggled to keep up with demand.

The power was explosive for a car of this era. 180hp at 6000rpm was comfortably more than the BMW 323i (137hp), arguably its closest rival. It’s a lot less laggy than I was expecting – its owner, Andy Heywood, says the later 2.5-litre ‘Export’ engine has more torque and less lag than the 2.0-litre. It’s the torque from the twin turbos that you feel more, rushing in smoothly at around 4000rpm. The V6’s creamy smoothness echoes the car’s exterior hue, and the ZF dogleg gearbox is positive and slick. The disc brakes front and rear are equally impressive, and there’s excellent grip at the rear through the GKN Salisbury axle. What’s most surprising is the unassisted steering – well-weighted and positive, but with just the right level of information filtering through the wheel, much more connected than later versions.

It’s an enlightening experience, feeling just as connected as the sportier echelons of BMW E30 3 Series, and an intriguing curio that’s far better to drive than copy-and-paste articles from people who’ve never driven one would suggest. Its plush interior could only be matched by the likes of Jaguar and Aston Martin. Crafted by Missoni, it’s a glorious mixture of super-soft cloth leather, orange-brown leather and ‘houndstooth’ roof trim. It’s very much a love-it, hate-it cabin, and it didn’t find much favour in the UK at the time, but now it’s a fantastic place to be, a winning riposte to grey plastics and cream leather.

Andy has owned this unrestored car since 2008. “I’ve got a real soft spot for Biturbos – I was on the workshop floor when the cars were new. They’re often misunderstood, and the fuel-injected models solved 90 per cent of the problems people moaned about. Most of the faults have been fixed now, but make sure to buy one that isn’t rusty – when they go in the bulkhead, it’s game over economically.”

Ultra-early 1983 example has undeniable purity. Torque, steering feel better than you might expect.

TECHNICAL SPECIFICATIONS MASERATI BITURBO 2.0

  • ENGINE: 1996cc V6 SOHC
  • MAX POWER: 180bhp at 6000rpm
  • MAX TORQUE: 254Nm (187lb ft) at 4400rpm
  • TRANSMISSION: 5-speed manual/3-speed auto
  • MAX SPEED: 134mph
  • 0-62MPH: 8.2sec

430

Maserati could clearly see the market for a four-door model in between the Biturbo and Quattroporte III. Powered by the same 2.0-litre and 2.5-litre engines, the four-door models made their debuts in 1983-1984. The floorpan grew by 24.7mm, and 8.58mm was added to the wheelbase, while it also stood slightly taller and 16mm wider. There was extra power too, with 203hp on offer in the 2.5-litre model, compared to 185hp in the coupe.

Both coupe and four-door Maseratis finally came to the UK in 1987, though still with carb-fed engines rather than fuel injection – something that had been made available with the Biturbo elsewhere a year earlier. The cars were expensive and there were persistent problems with quality and availability, not helped by the Maserati UK sales operation going bust a few times (at one point it was run out of a shed at Southampton docks).

The cars did get better, however, and the 430 represents one of the high points of the ‘normal’ models. The Biturbo name had become a little toxic by 1988 and the name was dropped for increasingly confusing sets of numbers. The hard edges of the original Biturbo design were smoothed a little, but the big news was under the bonnet: 2.8-litre displacement, fuel injection, air-to-air intercoolers and performance figures that could rival anything from Germany – you’d top out at 150mph after kissing goodbye to 62mph in 5.2 seconds. It could transmit the power to the road, too, via the Ranger torque-biasing limited slip differential from Quaife (even if Maserati claimed it was home-grown).

This replaced the fragile ZF Sensitork Torsen diff, which according to some rumours suffered a 27 per cent failure rate.

There’s a marked difference in urgency between the early Biturbo and the 430: the natural torque of the V6 slides in more urgently at 3000rpm before the two IHI turbochargers spin up at 4000rpm and catapult you forwards with a kick akin to main-lining limoncellos. The power-assisted steering feels heavier, with a tad less feel, but then the 430 was designed for high-speed autoroute charges where hyperactive steering would do little for confidence.

The 430 is easily a match for BMW’s M535i E28 and feels so much more special. The unburstable nature of its power delivery puts it up there with its German rivals; like the best super-saloons, it can cosset one minute and electrify the next. The interior isn’t quite as extravagant as the early Biturbo’s, but there’s a pleasing mixture of Alcantara, ribbed leather and wood. It’s also remarkably roomy fore and aft, though being a right-hand drive car there isn’t much space for your clutch foot to rest.

Owner Howard Poole recalls how he was drawn to this particular car: “I first saw a Biturbo on the cover of Car, and then in 1988 Fast Lane put a 430 on the cover and I knew that was the one I wanted. It was an aspirational car.” Howard’s now in his 26th year of ownership, and in all that time the car has never stopped him from getting home. It’s not totally standard, however: the colour isn’t original – it comes from a 2014 Ghibli III – and it’s running on Eibach springs with Öhlins dual-flow valve dampers.

TECHNICAL SPECIFICATIONS MASERATI 430 (FIRST SERIES)

  • ENGINE: 2790cc V6 SOHC
  • MAX POWER: 250bhp at 5600rpm
  • MAX TORQUE: 384Nm (283lb ft) at 3600rpm
  • TRANSMISSION: 5-speed manual/3-speed auto
  • MAX SPEED: 150mph
  • 0-62MPH: 5.2sec

2.8-litre fuel-injected V6 offers plenty of punch. The 430 feels at its best on long, high-speed journeys

222.4v

The standard Biturbo package was potent, but it’s not the Italian way to settle for merely potent; faster is always better. The early go-faster Biturbo was the ‘S’, which first introduced intercooling to the model – and nifty NACA ducts to the bonnet. Designed for the Italian market, it packed 205hp compared to the standard car’s 185hp, and featured stiffer suspension, two-tone bodywork and wider tyres.

Things started to get a whole heap more exciting with the 2.24v, introduced in 1987. Power came from a four-valve, double overhead camshaft version of the 2.0-litre V6, which liberated a healthy 245hp – but more was to come. By this point the Biturbo name had long disappeared, not that anyone seemed to take note in journo-land. Maserati’s endless sequence of numbers and letters would confuse even a motorbike aficionado. The base Biturbo was called the 222 from 1988, and featured fuel injection, the Ranger diff and smoother looks. Engines came in 220hp 2.0-litre form for Italy, or 2.8-litre, 225hp/248hp (cat/no cat) for exports, and was called the 222E. The 222SE was launched in 1990, which introduced a Gandini-penned, Shamal-inspired restyle. This is different to the early SE, which had a Zender bodykit and different wheels for carb cars. Confused yet?

Thankfully there was one last flourish for the Biturbo-era cars before the introduction of the Ghibli II. Announced at the same time as the Shamal, the Racing was an Italian-market special with a 283hp 2.0-litre engine. Then there was the rarest of all, the 222.4v, which is what you see here. The ‘4v’ refers to the four valves per head on the 2.8-litre engine, providing 278hp and monstrous torque of 317lb ft at 3750rpm.

It’s hard not to be won over by this – the engine simply dominates the car. It’s a proper punch in the back that you’ll feel start sling-shotting in at 3000rpm. It steel feels quick today – you’ll hit 60mph in six seconds before ploughing on to 158mph all out. In a package that weighs 1315kg, it feels much more rapid. The 222.4v carried over the four-stage Koni adaptive damping that had been introduced with the 222 model as an option and standardised with the 2.24v. The tab itself looks low-rent, with just a plastic box and some diodes. The system defaults to ‘two’, which is designed for everyday use, but things get more interesting in ‘three’. The dampers tighten up and the steering starts to fizz – not quite as heavy as the 430’s, but there’s so much more feedback. This gives you extra faith in the Ranger slip diff – in ‘three’, you really can feel the back of the car clamp to the road surface. You’re never in any doubt, though, that the tail can become loose if you treat the accelerator like step machine at the gym. The 222.4v feels alive, like a greyhound rearing up for its next charge.

It certainly looks the part, too: the Shamal-style nose style really gives the Biturbo a pugnacious, Delta integrale-style pout. The joy is that it has the bite to match the bark and won’t leave you struggling to control it when you do awake the beast within. That Delta link is what led owner Michael Bedford to his 222.4v: “I’ve always had a thing about Italian cars and had a couple of Lancia Deltas in the late 1980s. I got in a Maserati and liked how different the interior was, and then I went for a test drive. On the dual carriageway in third, I looked at the speedo and couldn’t believe it. In fourth I knew I had to have this car. I bought this example in 1995 having had two previous Biturbos. A growing family meant it was sold, but I bought it back in 2015, when it had had its gearbox replaced as it wasn’t picking up reverse, the diff needed an overhaul and various bits of bodywork needed doing. In my ownership the engine has been astonishingly reliable, and overall the car is not particularly temperamental.”

If this example looks familiar, it’s the one that Jeremy Clarkson drove on Top Gear when it was new in the early 1990s, describing it glowingly as “one for oddballs”. Of course, he later dropped a skip on a Biturbo, before proclaiming his love for the breed in The Grand Tour.

TECHNICAL SPECIFICATIONS MASERATI 222.4V

ENGINE: 2790cc V6 DOHC

MAX POWER: 278bhp at 5500rpm

MAX TORQUE: 430Nm (317lb ft) at 3750rpm

TRANSMISSION: 5-speed manual

MAX SPEED: 158mph

0-62MPH: 6.0sec

Bewildering nomenclature goes with Biturbo territory. 222.4v feels the most focused of our foursome.

SPYDER

Of all the many variations of the Biturbo theme, it’s the Spyder that was the most successful, with around 3000 built by both Zagato and Maserati. Zagato’s take on the formula wasn’t the first droptop Biturbo, though: at the Turin Show in 1982, Embo’s version had four seats and sat on a standard Biturbo wheelbase. Zagato’s take was entirely different, however. De Tomaso originally tasked Zagato with just building the body, though this soon changed to the whole car.

Constructing Spyders was a laborious process. Most of the body was pressed and assembled by Golden Car in Campagna, while the Innocenti factory in Lambrate built the fronts. The shells were then sent to Zagato’s factory in Rho for the work to be completed by hand. It’s a bit of a stretch to say that Maserati saved Zagato – Aston Martin would do much to help – but it certainly helped to put the ‘icons of otherness’ back on the map after a lost decade building golf karts.

Casting a glance at the Spyder, everything from the grille up to the A-pillar is the same as the coupe. However, the chassis and wheelbase were shortened, and the rear end was completely new. Inside, it’s a strict two-seater, although there’s a space that could work as a seat behind the front pews if you’re a contortionist or small dog.

Engine choices largely followed those of the normal Biturbos, with 2.0-litre engines for the Italian market and 2.5 and 2.8 models for export. However, the Spyder never received the four-valve head in export engine specification as the extra power and torque played havoc with the car’s torsional rigidity. Carb-fed models were replaced with fuel-injected ones in 1987 and the model lasted through to 1994, being sold alongside the Ghibli II after a Shamal-aping nose job in 1991.

The car we have here is one of these last-era models, powered by the three-valve 2.8-litre export engine. Due to a fun-sapping catalytic converter, power is ‘only’ 225hp. This one’s fitted with a Getrag H-pattern five-speed manual, though a three-speed automatic gearbox and a ZF five-speed manual were available, Maserati equipping cars with whatever it had to hand, seemingly. The gearchange isn’t quite as smooth as the earlier ZF, but so deep and flexible are the torque reserves that you don’t have to do much ‘rowing’.

Coming from the obviously more sporting 222.4v, the Spyder might seem a bit of a let-down, but it doesn’t take long to settle into its alternative groove. This really isn’t a sports car and doesn’t labour under that pretence: it’s all about smooth, delightful cruising, slipping between the ratios with your arm resting on the window sill, listening to the low, refined burble of the unstressed V6. It’s the kind of car that ought to have been marketed with its own line of branded cigars. After all, the Shamal had its own aftershave…

The engine doesn’t have the same sparkle as the other cars here, and the steering is heavier and more remote – but in this context that’s absolutely fine. The interior still has the foibles of the earlier cars, but it’s a lovely place to be – leather, Alcantara and a gold clock.

Exerting the chassis doesn’t seem right, and on knottier tarmac there’s scuttle shake, but I’m willing to forgive it. Although it has Koni four-stage adaptive damping, this is one occasion where leaving it in the soft confines of position ‘two’ feels utterly correct. The Shamal-inspired restyle that smoothed off the Biturbo’s sharper edges make the Spyder look and feel sophisticated. It might not be the ultimate in sporting performance but it’s a compelling, feel-good car.

Owner Graham Wood is the webmaster for the Maserati Club, and his stewardship came from “just having an itch about the Biturbo, because the first Maseratis I looked at were Ghibli IIs”. He continues: “It’s pretty cheap to run. It had a complete engine rebuild before I bought it, and in the past two years I’ve just had it serviced. I now want to sort the rear tonneau and refurbish the wheels, cam covers and inlet manifold.”

TECHNICAL SPECIFICATIONS MASERATI SPYDER 2.8E

MAX ENGINE: 2790cc V6 SOHC

MAX POWER: 225bhp at 5500rpm

TORQUE: 362Nm (267lb ft) at 3500rpm

TRANSMISSION: 5-speed manual/3-speed auto

MAX SPEED: 143mph

0-62MPH: 6.5sec

“The Spyder doesn’t labour under the pretence of being a sports car: it’s all about smooth, delightful cruising”

VERDICT

It’s time the Maserati Biturbo was fully rehabilitated. Its styling, so often derided as being ugly, is now very much back in fashion – look at today’s market for boxy 1980s cars like the Alfa SZ and Lancia Delta Integrale. With its foibles mitigated over the years, it stands up as an engaging and rewarding car to drive, with a flavour to suit just about everybody.

My inner hooligan makes me gravitate towards the 222.4v, but what’s surprising is just how good all of them are in objective terms. And while Maserati ownership is never a cheap prospect, owner testimony directly challenges the clickbait assertions on the internet with regards to reliability.

Then there’s the car’s legacy. Some say that the Biturbo ruined Maserati, but if it weren’t for De Tomaso’s gamble, the firm simply wouldn’t exist anymore. Moreover, it laid the template for other manufacturers to follow – like Porsche, whose Panamera, Cayenne and Macan make up the bulk of that firm’s sales, providing the fiscal buoyancy to keep the golden 911 afloat.

However, the appeal of the Biturbos means that they can stand up on their own. These are rare, exotic machines that offer weighty performance in a package that’s practical and useable. The best bit? They’re all exceedingly undervalued. For now, at least…

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