Carmel, California is a postage stamp of a place with a postcard aesthetic — here the Pacific Coast Highway snakes along sandy beaches, rushing streams, and epic cliffs. Home to 4,500 gentle souls, this golfer’s paradise once boasted a rather famous mayor: Clint Eastwood. But rather than asking his wouldbe constituency, “do you feel lucky, punks?” candidate Eastwood sought to make the West slightly more wild.
Eastwood was an active 55 years young at the time he started his campaign in protest of red tape — the town bureaucracy had stymied his plans to build office space on property he owned, likely resulting in the actor’s trademark scowl. Obviously, you don’t mess with Clint Eastwood, who not only sued the town and won, but decided to run for office and effect real change in his adopted hometown. For Eastwood, this scenic corner of the American West was overburdened with rules — not only were the building permits hard to come by, but a 1929 zoning law still prohibited the sale of ice cream cones. I scream, you scream, Clint screamed for ice cream (or at least the cones) and in the end the man known as Dirty Harry won the vote 2,166 to 799.
It’s a shame he couldn’t have done anything about the speed limits. Like Carmel’s former Mayor, the car that brought me here is equal parts tough and intrepid. You can drive the Maserati Levante GTS up a rocky pass, scanning for bandits in your rear view, or roll up to an Oscar after-party in black tie and mingle with the real bandits of Hollywood. Either way, this is not an SUV that disappoints.
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With 550 horses and peak torque of 730Nm, the GTS will clearly outrun the bad guys, using it’s laudable 3.9kg/hp weight ratio to catapult this rather full sized vehicle to 100kph in 4.2 seconds. Like many super SUVs, the Levante GTS probably feels even faster than it is when you’re caning it through the turns. But at the same time, the opposite is true — you’ll be (seemingly) cruising along at a perfectly reasonable highway pace, only to look down and realize you’re in danger of receiving a rather expensive ticket. The car is smooth and quiet when you want it, roaring and aggressive when you need it.
The GTS’s 3.8-litre V8 is a Ferrari cousin, and even more closely related to power plant in the flagship 530 horsepower Quattroporte GTS. This engine begins with that same V900 architecture but has been re-engineered and upgraded. Like all Maserati petrol units, it is assembled by Ferrari in Maranello, Italy, but the piston sequence for all Maseratis is different, giving the cars their signature sound. This Twin Turbo eight-banger has been revised to mate with Maserati’s Q4 Intelligent All-Wheel Drive system. In order to make space for the drive shaft towards the front axle, Maserati designed a new crankcase with specific crankshaft assembly, new oil pump and auxiliary belt etc. Why might they go so far, you ask? The car buying world has a mania for AWD crossovers and Maserati wants a piece of the pizza pie.
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The Levante GTS inspires a certain amount of awe, as in “how can this full-size crossover hold a line so unbelievably well”. Underpinning this beasts dancing skills is a host of technological support. The mechanical Limited-Slip Differential at the rear axle helps ensure optimal traction in all driving situations, while torque-vectoring considerably enhances the car’s sporty character. In the corners, the system distributes more torque to the outer wheels by applying a slight braking force to the inner wheels and the result makes the vehicle extremely stable at cornering speeds lesser cars wouldn’t dream of.
Fitted with an eight-speed ZF automatic gearbox, the go to slushbox for sporty whips, I found the shift points quite subtle in the default drive mode, and quite excellent in Sport mode, which holds the gear much longer to wring out more torque. Maserati says they’ve redesigned the gearshift lever for a more intuitive pattern, but I found it confusing nonetheless and had particular difficulty getting the vehicle into reverse. I also found it similar to BMW’s system, which everyone else seems to feel is simple but I also find confusing— so maybe I’m the problem here?
The GTS chassis feels suitably rigid for the curves, and its 50:50 weight balance between the front and rear axle makes for a very self possessed driving experience. Meanwhile the addition of the V8 has only brought the kerb weight of the car up a mere 60kg. Kick your least favorite friend out of the back seat and the difference is mitigated.
With its finely tuned double-wishbone front / Multi Link rear suspension and 265/40 front and 295/40 rear tyres fitted on 20in aluminium alloy wheels, the new Levante GTS demonstrates very balanced handling and lateral stability. The Air Spring control has been tuned for the Levante GTS and is appropriately optimized in each driving mode. The pneumatic system provides six different levels and 75mm height variation from lowest to highest position. Based on the same operating concept, the Sport Skyhook damping system has been tuned to match the handling requirements of this new V8 version.
Meanwhile, the Maserati Integrated Vehicle Control (IVC) system has been incorporated in the ESP control for the first time in the new GTS and Trofeo versions. IVC uses a feed-forward controller that predicts driving situations and adapts the engine speed and brakes accordingly, providing excellent driving dynamics for a car this size.
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Inside the Levante GTS is quite a comfortable and luxurious place to be. Jogging the car up and down Northern California, I was always quite at home amid all that leather and contrast stitching, with swaths on alcantara on the headliner. There’s an impressive 900W, 14-speaker Harman Kardon sound system controlled via Maserati Touch Control Plus with 8.4in capacitive touchscreen and a rotary knob in the central console. The high-resolution screen operates like a tablet, recognising drag, scroll, swipe and rotate gestures— although, full disclosure, I was much too busy enjoying the car’s performance to futz with any of that.
All in all this is a great driver’s SUV, and no, that doesn’t have to be an oxymoron. This high-riding sport luxury vehicle does just about everything well and always with that requisite Italian magic, making la vita just a tad more dolce.