It may not look stylish, but behind the wheel it's pure Maserati

It's the first everyday exoticar without the exotic price tag. That's the way Kjell Qvale, Maserati chairman and US importer, describes the Maserati Biturbo, a $26,000 automobile that is moving the historically minivolume Italian carmaker into the ''mass-output'' range.

Mass output to Maserati, however, means 9,000 Biturbos this year (more than 3 ,000 for the United States) and a far smaller number of the high-image Quattroporte. Then there is the Biturbo 425, more luxurious and some 10 inches longer than the standard Biturbo, as well as a convertible, both of which are due to reach the US in calendar-year '85.

Driving a Maserati carries with it a recognition - even a high respect - for Italian engineering at its best. And even though it may look as if it just came off the boat from Tokyo, don't be fooled by the design.

Appearances aside, the fun-filled Maserati Biturbo is an exoticar to be seriously dealt with. Indeed, it should cut into the customer base of West Germany's BMW, its major target, as well as the upper-crust cars from Japan.

Unlike the $66,000 Quattroporte, which is built in Maserati's Modena factory, the Biturbo is assembled at the Innocenti factory in Milan, which also produces some 30,000 Italian versions of the venerable Austin Mini.

The hand-stitched, thick leather seats support the driver and front-seat rider in supreme comfort, although the rear space is tight. Wheelbase is 98.9 inches.

Suede-leather trim and headliner, wood veneers, and an opulent aura describe the inside. In some instances, however, the interior workmanship seems a little less than precise.

The carbureted, twin-turbo, 185-horsepower V-6 engine produces plenty of punch with the car whooshing from zero to 60 m.p.h. in less than 7 seconds, its estimated top speed 125 m.p.h. The shift linkage is excellent and the braking swift. A foot-to-the-floor braking exercise produces a sudden, straight-line stop.

There are plenty of functional dials on the instrument panel, plus an array of warning lights above. However, at its best adjustment for me, the steering wheel cuts right through the speedometer and fuel gauges, blocking the view.

During my test driving, the windshield-wiper stalk always seemed to be in the way when I turned the steering wheel, thus engaging the wiper blades when there wasn't a cloud in the sky.

As for mileage, you may be able to get a bare 20 on a trip, but only if the conditions are right. In the city, the figure drops to the mid-teens. An automatic version of the car is due around January at a premium of up to $2,000.

In sum, the car is aimed at that small number of motorists who can appreciate it for what it is and have the cash or credit to buy it.

The Biturbo isn't as racy and stylish as a lot of its competition, and it certainly doesn't look like the exoticar that it is. But behind the wheel, the feeling comes through.

The revitalized Italian carmaker now seems a far cry from the Maserati of the mid-70s, when it all but closed up shop. In 1975 total Maserati output had diminished to 201 cars. It was then that Alejandro de Tomaso, the Argentine-born ex-auto racer, bought an 18.7 percent stake in the company from Peugeot, the French car company, with the rest of the equity going to an Italian government holding company.

What the new owners had bought was a superelitist, performance-bred image, a tradition born on the racing circuit since the company was founded by the four Maserati brothers in 1914.

Above all else, the Italian government wanted to protect the firm's heritage even while widening the nameplate's appeal.

Traditions intact and the work force cut in half, the company is well on its way. Last July Chrysler Corporation bought a 5 percent stake in Maserati and will begin selling an up-market sports car in 1986 or '87. In a major switch, the company is now believed to be making money after years of heavy losses.

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