The “Maserati of SUVs” has been strutting its stuff on the strada for barely over a year now and yet I have managed to find myself in the far-flung and exotic destination of Ras al-Khaimah to check out the ‘new for 2018’ Levante. This northernmost emirate of the United Arab Emirates is famous for its beautiful beaches along the Arabian Gulf (Ed: Okay Davison, I think our readers know where Ras al-Khaimah is!) and its romantic and remote desert geography - about an hour up the road from my house - is the perfect location to host the International Media Test Drive to highlight what’s new and groovy about the 2018 Maserati Levante.
Maserati has flown journalists in from all over the world - and kindly collected me from my house — to experience the sweeping changes applied to this new and improved for 2018 Levante. These include — in no particular order of importance — some new badges, a couple of different trim options and slightly quicker steering. Wait, what? That’s it? Well, pretty much…
Its performance is nothing short of impressive and I admit to finding a lot of new respect for this Levante
So, is this just a bunch of smug Italians getting overly excited because they did some minor tinkering and tampering? Not quite. But to understand the importance of these changes you need to understand the importance of the Levante to Maserati. The luxury SUV segment is booming and the Levante has propelled Maserati sales exponentially. Back in the dark days of the 1990s, Maserati struggled to shift about 500 vehicles a year. And in the slightly brighter 2000s they averaged about 5,000 units per year. Last year they hit 42,100 total sales and a lot of that was down to the release of the Levante. This year has already surpassed that figure and, importantly, 90 per cent of Levante customers are first time Maserati buyers meaning the marque has managed to successfully stick its trident in a whole new segment of society. Which brings us back to those ’sweeping changes’ mentioned previously.
The quicker steering is due to a shift from the old hydraulic setup to a new rack-mounted electro-mechanical system which has been introduced to keep the Levante competitive in the luxury SUV segment. In this segment, it’s all about tech and safety and the new power steering system allows for integration of semi-autonomous lane-keeping and crash avoidance systems. It has also been tuned to be lighter in normal driving but becomes weightier in sport mode. It’s perhaps lost a little bit of feedback from the older hydraulic system but I guess that’s an inventible sacrifice to stay in the tech race.
And those new badges actually denote the new trim options which now consist of GranLusso and GranSport. The GranLusso is the slightly more luxurious affair with body-coloured and wood trimmings and also the option of a fashionably swanky Ermenegildo Zegna interior. Naturally, noticing how fabulously I dress, I got ushered away from the GranLusso and directed into a GranSport which comes with bigger 20-inch wheels, painted brake callipers, piano black trim, sports seats and quite a nice steering wheel with paddle shifters which suits me just fine. I actually prefer the slightly toned-down aesthetic of the GranSport rather than the chrome bling of the GranLusso. But I’m the kinda guy that had to Google “Ermenegildo Zegna” to find out it was an Italian Fashion House.
Fortunately, both options are available with the 424 horsepower, twin-turbocharged 3.0-litre V6 built by a little known outfit in Italy called ‘Ferrari’ who normally specialise in red cars. And that means the Levante is quite a potent SUV to drive with — especially in sport mode — a suitably sonorous soundtrack. Unfortunately, our test route is frustratingly dual-lane and arrow straight monotony which, granted, lets me play with the new lane departure tech and feel the steering tugging me back between the white lines but… yeah. Yawn.
But there is method in this Maserati madness and our reward for monotonous motorway driving is arriving at a giant playground of sand known as ‘the desert’ which is usually only inhabited by powerful 4x4 beasts. Now, granted, the Levante is a proper SUV (not a crossover) and has been built to traverse mud and snow while simultaneously cocooning its occupants in luxurious comfort. But negotiating the soft sand of the desert and ascending Fossil Rock in Sharjah is different than normal off-roading in Europe or the States. It’s high revs, high speed and maintaining momentum. And there is also the real potential here to look like a complete wally. Only a complete fool would attempt to take a luxury SUV up a serious sand dune and, I confess, I am that fool!
I’m far from an off-road expert, and especially so in the sand. But in the Levante you can raise the suspension by about 45mm, turn off the traction control, stick it into manual and attack some quite serious dunes with surprising confidence. And I didn’t break anything, get stuck or look like a wally which is always a bonus. Angle of attack is naturally a concern as, even in lifted off-road mode, there’s always that fear of ripping off the front bumper. However, its performance is nothing short of impressive and I admit to finding a lot of new respect for this Levante. Although I still think “The Maserati of SUVs” is a bit of a silly slogan. Maybe it sounds better in Italian…