It is the fastest-growing segment in the world. Even though we have had first-ever SUVs from luxury brands such as Jaguar and Bentley this year, it isn’t enough for this hungry animal. It has demanded more and so next up to join the growing list is Maserati with the Levante. And with Lamborghini doing likewise soon, it seems nothing is sacred anymore...

We know the 102-year-old Trident for its sportscars and its heroics in motorsports but with plans to sell around 75,000 units a year — a large bulk of which will be SUVs — we may know it in the future for its family haulers. That should be a depressing thought but on the contrary, it’s very exciting, for the Levante isn’t a pedestrian SUV, oh no. There’s a tradition to uphold by the Italians and my word, have they.

In spite of it being in development for well over a decade, it looks the freshest in the crowded segment. Maserati deserves huge credit for that; it first showed us the Kubang concept 13 years ago and then the reworked prototype with a proposed platform share with Jeep in 2011. Finally, it’s given us the real deal — and it’s all Maserati (even if some of the switchgear is Chryslers...) — but if you thought time might have already caught up to the luxury model because of its late arrival on the scene, think again.

The Cayenne took a while for us to get accustomed to (I’d imagine the Bentayga will take just as long to be accepted) because it had a hard time delivering on aesthetical appeal. But Maserati has knocked it out of the park when it comes to design. The Levante doesn’t even look like an SUV — it’s more like a big hatchback.

Designed at the Maserati studio at the FCA “Centro Stile” in Turin, and based on the evolution of the Ghibli and Quattroporte platform, it looks like no other SUV in the market today. You sure won’t confuse it for anything but a Maserati as the brand’s DNA is visible for all to see. Take the front fascia for instance — the imposing concave grille, inspired by the stunning Alfieri concept, is the focal point, and the flow of the front fenders, the squinting Bi-Xenon and LED headlights, and the Trident badge all help to accentuate it. The grille alone does a sterling job in making it stand out, but there are other stunning design elements such as the coupé-like roofline and the muscular profile — which carry the signature three side vents — that ram home just how attractive this SUV is. The design team even managed to incorporate the characteristic Maserati rear pillar and frameless doors. The 21in wheels our tester came with help keep your eyes glued on this, but with a slippery body formed in the Turin wind tunnel helping it achieve a drag coefficient of 0.31 (that’s the best in class for aerodynamic efficiency) and a mighty twin-turbo V6 under the purposeful bonnet, it’ll be out of view in a flash. Gawk all you can while it’s standing still.

More on performance later but first to the cabin, which is as luxurious as a first-class lounge and is characterised by rich leather and wood trims. At first sight, the chunky seats and large steering wheel may appear overbearing but you soon grow into your classy surroundings. There are many highlights in there such as the huge 8.4in touchscreen (it recognises drag, scroll, swipe and rotate gestures just like a tablet, and includes Bluetooth and sat-nav), a centre console that houses the drive modes, a rotary knob and the air suspension switches — but unlike the Cayenne, it isn’t awash with buttons; it has a cleaner and smarter layout and at the top of the dash sits the classic Maserati analogue clock.

It’s packing lots of standard equipment including cruise control, Hill Descent Control, wipers with rain sensor, keyless entry and a power lift tailgate with a kick sensor that is activated by foot movements, and an array of optional equipment. Ours had the full panoramic electric sunroof equipped with a sun-blind, an easy entry and exit system (it retracts the seat backwards and the steering column upwards) while a two-way electric pedal adjustment can be specced along with a tow bar for the first time in Maserati’s history. Tick that box and the Levante can tow a trailer of up to a maximum of 2,700kg. Ours also had a 1,280-watt Bowers and Wilkins Surround System, and with 17 speakers it sounded crystal clear.

Front-seat passengers get ample leg- and headroom, and those at the back get plenty of space, too, considering its sporty, coupé-like roof. But this is a Maserati — a brand with a rich motorsport history so getting it in gear should still be your priority — no matter how many people are with you. Ah, but there’s a problem; the gear lever is difficult to use what with a clunky and imprecise action (it’s easy to overshoot to Park when you want Reverse...) but when you finally get it in Drive, the rewards are great.

The twin-turbo 3.0-litre V6 — designed and manufactured by Ferrari in Maranello — makes 430 horsepower at 5,750rpm and 580Nm of torque from 1,750rpm. It’s potent enough to move this 2,109kg SUV from 0-100kph in just 5.2 seconds and on to a top speed

of 264kph — and as you’d expect from Maserati, the exhaust delivers an awesome thrill. The system is controlled by pneumatic valves meaning the soundtrack that we all love isn’t just intact, but in Sport mode it’s at its operatic best. The Three Tenors would have a hard time overpowering it.

Handling the horses is an eight-speed automatic blessed with smooth shifts, which sends the grunt to all four corners via the Q4 all-wheel drive system. It has a 100 per cent rear-wheel bias in normal driving conditions but in just 150 milliseconds it can alter the torque split sending 50 per cent to the front and back. What’s more, traction is guaranteed thanks to a mechanical limited-slip differential — the only model in its class equipped with it — while the multi-link five-arm suspension provides a comfortable ride, and with an air suspension system as standard with six different height levels, you can happily take the Levante off-road, too.

But on the blacktop, with its 50:50 weight distribution, the poised chassis and the brilliant engine and transmission, the Levante is eager to attack the twists and eat up the straights. And with a good-old hydraulic steering providing excellent feedback and a more natural feel than some of its electrical rivals, it’s often easy to forget this is the brand’s first ever SUV, and not another sports saloon. The difference between the two is marginal. Body roll is controlled very well but heads start to toss from side to side if you push it too hard, however, when coasting along the highway the ride is serene and barely any wind noise enters the cabin. Even with a large contact patch from the fat Continentals, road noise is kept at a minimum too. Maserati clearly went to great lengths in the quality stakes and it shows.

Usually, Sports Utility Vehicles tend to fall short on the ‘sports’ promise but the Levante bucks that trend and sits alongside the BMW X6 M and Cayenne Turbo S in the fun-to-drive stakes. The Range Rover Sport SVR is also fun but in a different sort of way; it’s got way too much power and weighs too much, too, and as a result takes a sledge hammer approach to life. The Levante is more intricate and responds to delicate inputs and is more rewarding than the Rangey — and is almost as good as the German pair.

Rather than baby steps, Maserati has taken a giant leap in the division with this model. The Urus will likely be a game changer but until that one comes along, the Levante sure is blowing a cool new wind through the SUV segment.