Vince Pornelos / Brent Co | January 11, 2017 09:32
The Grand Touring SUV
Let's start this story about a Maserati with one from Porsche; yes, it sounds odd, but bear with me.
In 2002, Porsche shocked their purist clientele by coming out with the Cayenne. The company known for a line of purely sportscars and coupes ventured into SUV territory, much to the chagrin of their very loyal followers. But the Cayenne proved to be a commercial success, introducing their brand of drive to a very large segment of a market previously untapped by Porsche, offering the versatility and daily usability of an SUV with the performance expected of the brand.
With the Levante, Maserati ventures out of their comfort zone to achieve the same thing. It seems odd for an Italian luxury GT manufacturer head into this market segment, but it's very worthy to note that SUV sales globally have been growing for the last 20 years. So much so that many premium and luxury marques introducing near complete lines of SUVs like BMW (X5, X3, X6, X4, and X1) and Audi (Q7, Q5, and Q3). Even the ultra-luxury brands are taking notice, so much so that Bentley decided to enter the game with the Bentayga and beating Rolls-Royce to the punch with their yet-to-be-released Cullinan.
Like the Cayenne (which happens to be its most direct competitor), the Levante is the Italian luxury marque's first sport utility vehicle. We've had SUVs from purist manufacturers before, but that was Lamborghini with the LM002 back in the 1980's.
Maserati isn't going for Rambo muscle like Lambo did. Throughout their 102-year history, Maserati has been known for three things: gentlemanly style, evocative performance, and a rich racing pedigree. All these three are firmly expressed in the Levante.
Following in Maserati tradition with the likes of the Mistral, Ghibli, Khamsin and Shamal, the Levante is so named after a wind, a mediterranean breeze that blows eastward. It's apt; the biggest growth market for a brand such as Maserati is in the east, particularly in Asia.
An SUV, by definition, is a tall wagon with a high ride height, and can come with four-wheel drive, but somehow the Levante doesn't quite fit that definition to the T. The body seems more like a wide wagon with a long bonnet, a low, sloping silhouette, and a rear more like a shooting brake. The ride height is also quite low and poised, though it can be raised or lowered via the controls for the air suspension.
The design expresses a style that -quite simply- is stunningly good looking, well, sans the oddly-placed round foglamps on the bumper reminiscent of the Nissan Juke. Nevertheless, the Levante ticks the gentlemanly-style box with gusto, leaving an impression that it's not just a mere SUV, but stays faithfully in line with Maserati's distinct GT flavor.
The interior, however, is where the Maserati's expertiese truly shows. The way everything is laid out is logical, the steering wheel is bliss to the touch, the seats are a pleasure to be in, the rear seats fold flat (as an SUV should), and the list of features is long. It even includes a Bowers & Wilkins speaker system for the Maserati touch screen. But more than the sum of its parts, the Levante's cabin feels like a finely tailored suit which is perfect: they do have an active collaboration Ermenegildo Zegna whose CEO sits on the board of Fiat, the parent company of Maserati. Heck, you can even specify a Zegna silk insert for the seats for a rather hefty premium.
The key for the Levante is heavy, and seems to have been milled from a single bar of metal (aluminum, perhaps?). With it in my pocket, I press the starter button and the Levante is good to go. What's behind that handsome grille is a twin-turbocharged, V6 diesel from VM Motori, and it's got plenty of motivation: 275 PS and 600 Newton-meters of torque good numbers for an all-wheel drive, midsize crossover SUV with an 8-speed automatic gearbox.
Out of the garage, the Levante is impressive already, but I feel the gearstick operation could do with a good rethink. It looks as simple to learn as BMW's automatic gearstick, but proved to be a bit more tricky to get used to when it comes to engaging reverse. Often I found myself getting stuck in P as putting the car in reverse entails a half-press (similar to a digital camera) to put in R. It seems straightforward, but it can be tricky, especially in a 3-point turn.
Once you do get used to it, the Levante absolutely excels as a daily driver. In normal suspension mode with these 19 inch wheels, it drives like a dream over the worst of our streets. Of course if you activate the sport modes that all changes, but Maserati is about grand touring, and this is definitely in keeping with that proud tradition of comfort over second-rate roads as much as it does on our newer expressways. And surprisingly, the fuel economy of the diesel is impressive: 8.8 km/l in town and 14.2 km/l on the highway. The fuel-miserly Maserati, this is.
At full throttle, the V6 and 8-speed AT work together to sprint to 100 km/h in just 6.9 seconds and a top speed of 230 km/h, and does it with a great soundtrack; unexpected of a diesel, but necessary in a Maser. There's a real sensation of thrust from that torquey diesel, and it easily goes through all 8 speeds quickly.
A key feature of the Levante is its air suspension, the oddly-named Skyhook. The operation of Skyhook can be manually overridden if you choose to push a few buttons just aft of the gearstick, but mostly it's automatic depending on the speed and conditions. At highway speeds it lowers the SUV anywhere between 20mm to as much as 35mm from normal for better aerodynamics. If you're going off-road, then it can be raised by either 25mm or as much as 40mm.
On a light dirt road or tricky road conditions, the Maserati Levante exhibits a neat surefootedness at reasonable speeds. Slips and losses of traction are caught immediately, giving the driver a sense of confidence on the road beyond just the head-turning style. I would have wanted to test the capabilities of the Levante further by taking on more challenging trails to put the Pirelli P-Zero tires in a place way out of their comfort zone, but I'd rather not nick that Blue Emozione paint with flying pebbles and other debris.
Really, however, Maseratis have been known for their handling given their rich heritage on the racetrack, and this Levante keeps at it. With the sportier settings activated, the Levante sits lower, rides stiffer, and brings out a quicker response from the powertrain. The handling is fun and intuitive. Yes, this is a relatively heavy vehicle, but you wouldn't know it behind the wheel. The 4WD system also intelligently allocates torque to the wheel that can use it best.
A bonafide Maserati SUV, the Levante is. Yes, much in the same way that 911 owners cast pitchforks upon sight of the Cayenne back in 2002, Maserati owners would cast tridents with theirs when they see a sport ute bearing the same emblem. But change is the way of the world, and in the case of the Cayenne, the model became their bread and butter, spelling plenty of profit that funded even the development of bigger and better sportscars. The Levante could do that for Maserati, opening them up to a wider clientele that they could introduce their brand to, all while providing the versatility and usability that our modern lives demand.