There are a bunch of Ram truck switches in the new Maserati Levante and I don’t really care. It’s a car that expends your focus on another curiosity. So hang on a minute, an SUV, that’s fun to hustle up a serpentine 50km-long historic Italian hill climb in the Apennine Mountains?
You mean here, where this Panda barely squeezed past going the other way, where Antonio Ascari’s straight-six Alfa screamed up in 35 minutes nine decades ago? Where a 21-year-old Enzo Ferrari made his first racing start in a four-cylinder CMN? And yes, the Parma-to-Poggio di Berceto road, hallowed ground where in 1923 the Maserati brothers announced their racing aspirations to the world with a debut victory powered by an engine of their own make.
Maserati was founded to race and this road is where the Trident began marking its territory. And the Levante — a 2.1-tonne SUV with all-wheel drive and silk seat inserts, and a tow bar for the first time in the company’s history (Madonna mia!) — doesn’t even come across like it’s trespassing.
Boy, that’s almost scandalous. This SUV is actually kind of fun to drive, and I’m almost disappointed at myself for enjoying it so much. There is too much arrogance about sports SUVs, in that they actually believe they are sporty. The Porsche Cayenne Turbo S gets close, but it is the Gustav railway gun of SUVs, a juggernaut that overwhelms with the shock of that much velocity and that much mass. Anything less than the Dh800K that Porsche’s asking and you’d be shortchanged.
It’s the same for much less than half that is in this generic class of car. A Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT is hilarious to drive because it’s daftly overpowered and because it wrestles gravity through the corners with bulk as a weapon. But the Levante fights physics — the laws which are undeniably written against its favour — with agile movements and a light feel to it on the move.
Besides the window switches and turn stalks rummaged out of a bin in Detroit, none of this is a Jeep though. The Levante drives well because it’s basically a Ghibli with some extra weight and a hardly compromised centre of gravity. Like Jaguar did with its $2b (Dh7.3b) scalable architecture underpinning Coventry’s XF and XE saloons to form the base of its F-Pace SUV, the first in Jaguar’s history, Maserati too is taking its latest Ghibli/Quattroporte saloon platform to make its own baby step in the luxury SUV segment.
And it has thought about the weight penalty. In the foot of the Appenines — the Levante’s test drive location — Davide Danesin, the car’s product development manager, said that to offset the additional 200-250kg, the engineers stiffened the SUV’s body by an extra 20 per cent compared to the Ghibli.
Front to rear, the weight distribution remains 50:50, and Danesin claims the lowest centre of gravity in the segment at 610mm above the ground in the car’s sportiest setting with the four-level adaptive air suspension. A sportscar is typically at around 500mm.
It looks, well, like an Infiniti, or a Genesis, but it isn’t ugly. Viewed from the front three-quarter angle the swollen, large frontal area has the obligatory Maserati grille tacked on, and lights inspired by the 2014 Geneva show Alfieri GT concept, but that also shifts mass forwards visually and lightens the rear end, which makes the car look as generic as a big hatchback. From the side the opposite is true and the rear sags with plenty of overhang, so no matter how large the optional wheels are they seem small, surrounded by so much surfaced sheet metal, and the designers couldn’t resist the trendy rear haunches of course, because a Fifties A6GS looked amazing with some. Anyway, look, porthole vents. It’s a Maserati…
So, you can make up your own mind about the styling but regardless, Maserati’s still getting started with this SUV thing on the right track. There’s no point competing with the Cayenne Turbo Esses and Bentaygas and upcoming Uruses of the ultra-luxury SUV segment, because that’s only worth about 10,000 cars a year. Maserati needs a people’s champion to bring the company closer to its goal of 70,000 annual sales, provided the people can afford a Dh360,000 SUV.
The company expects 70 per cent of Levante customers to come from other SUV ownership, meaning conquest sales exposing the brand to buyers that previously wouldn’t have considered a Maserati. An SUV was crucial for the push to 70,000 annual sales, as China alone will take 10,000 Levantes a year. The Middle East’s take will be about 1,300 cars for 2017. Like Porsche, with its 150,000 SUVs a year, and Bentley with the Bentayga projected to account for half of Crewe’s volume, Maserati too is a storied motorsport brand that has become a truck maker. The customer is always right…
As for the novelty of an all-wheel drive Maserati, there’s nothing novel about it. Only a tenth of the company’s production is rear-drive, two-door sportscars. In markets like the US the take is already 70:30 favouring all-wheel drive saloons.
The Levante goes further — a Maserati, with an optional tow-bar, and roof rails, that goes off-road. Just not that much further… Come on, 21in wheels with low-profile summer performance tyres…
The all-wheel drive system features a specific torque vectoring system and electronic control of traction on low-grip surfaces, and does a decent job of dirt trails and slopes with an automatic crawl function. Maserati says less than two per cent of Levante owners will ever go off road, and those two per cent will be illegally parked on a kerb. During the Great Annual Dubai Floods every March you’ll be fine getting home to Emirates Hills with its maximum wading depth of 460mm, but if you want to go to say, Jebel Ali Gardens, you’ll still need a Range Rover’s 900mm.
In our region, the 350bhp Levante starts from Dh316K but most will go for the 430bhp Levante S from Dh363K. It’s inside the Levante where you have to get picky. A single colour choice for the leather swallows the interior’s details, because otherwise the design is quite plain and it’s not the most exciting car to sit in. The tan leather and dark, contemporary woods, or the Zegna-edition’s silk finishing, lift the cabin environment a bit.
From the driver’s immediate standpoint things look good with a three-spoke steering wheel perfect to hold, and a proper driver’s position. Most importantly outward visibility is likely best in class and it allows easy placement of the car, which really helps to make the Levante appear slightly smaller, lighter, and more eager on its wheels. When you’re cocooned in a bunker of a typical modern car the world outside seems to be scary.
Speaking of bunkers, Maserati benchmarked all the usual suspects for the Levante, fretting over Cayennes, BMW X6s, and Merc GLEs. The Italian firm isn’t going at the Germans with a 3.8-litre twin-turbo 530bhp from the Quattroporte GTS, yet, but it is working with the plug-in hybrid tech from Chrysler’s Pacifica minivan to make it feasible in a Levante. The other FCA brands like Alfa Romeo will take care of smaller crossovers. Then there is the Alfieri flagship GT headed to production in 2018 (watch out for a debut at the Paris show this October), and until then you have this 3.0-litre twin-turbo V6-engined SUV.
And it’s a beautiful engine, built by Ferrari in Maranello and updated mostly on the software side to develop 20bhp more than the Ghibli for a quoted 430bhp in the Levante S. You’ll get 0-100kph in 5.2 seconds and a 264kph top speed. It runs great all over with 580Nm of torque from 1,750rpm and the eight-speed torque-converter ZF automatic gets a lot of use because this engine seems happy to stay near the red line. The shift paddles — and this is the time we live in — are better in this SUV than in most sportscars, extended metal spokes with long mechanical throws and fixed in position.
The V6 really slurps for revs like a naturally aspirated engine that makes its induction roar known over the exhaust, just backed with, you know, power. It’s mounted low in the aluminium-intensive body, and the Levante is more responsive for it with a quick front end and drive shafts running through the sump so the V6 can drop further. The car’s hydraulic steering is light and firm, with no vibrations over very rough road surfaces up and down these hills. The wheel tries to pull from your grasp away into the imperfections of the road and that’s a good thing. That’s something we’ve forgotten called feel. And that’s why this sports SUV doesn’t come across as arrogant, because it doesn’t just pretend.
Really, with the offset of its stiffer body and stronger engine the Levante is what it is, a Ghibli S Q4 and the driver’s seat jacked all the way up.