At some point, in the distant future, we as a species will reach peak SUV. Some tardy automotive company will bestow yet another propped-up, semi-ruggedized, slightly-spacious sedan upon the world and the world will say: "No thanks, we're good."
That day is not today, dear readers, and so with high hopes for booming sales and rave reviews comes another luxury SUV rolling onto the market: the Maserati Levante. It's an Italian foil set to cross with established sporty SUVs like BMW's X5 and Porsche's Cayenne, not to mention newcomers like Jaguar's F-Pace.
How does it fare? What better place to find out than Italy?
The Levante (which means "east" in Italian), is in many ways a taller, stouter version of Maserati's former new car, the Ghibli. But the Levante rolls over bumps with lifted air suspension and a revised chassis that's some 20 percent stiffer than its littler, younger, sibling.
The family resemblance is clear, with Levante wearing the same angry, slightly pouty, angular interpretation of Maserati's classically orthodontic grille. But that grille is much bigger here, of course, leading to a long nose that flares up before blending into a sweeping roofline that tapers naturally up and back down again.
The rear of the car features wrap-around glass and a stubby, top-mounted spoiler that looks more than a little Juke-like, while the flared rear fenders remind you where this car likes to send its power. Yes, the Levante comes with all-wheel drive as standard, but by default 100 percent of available power goes to the rear. A clutch-type center differential sends some up to the front wheels only when needed.
It's a bit of a shame those fenders don't blend a little better into the overall package, and indeed the rear styling of the Levante doesn't really seem to match the front on a variety of levels. The look of this machine overall will divide opinions, but I must say I like the aggression of the front end. It does, at least, match the driving character.
According to Maserati, Levante was designed to be "an on-road SUV that can go off-road." In other words, it's much more in the mold of a road-optimized SUV like BMW's X5 than a more rugged rig like a Land Rover. However, Levante won't leave you stranded when it comes time to traverse the rocky driveway leading up to your ski chalet.
Corporate-cousins Jeep helped Maserati engineers tune the Levante, and so this SUV includes such niceties as a hill-descent mode and an additional 40mm of lifted ride height when you select Off Road 2 mode (from a series of fussy buttons in the center console).This car is competent in the muck and mud, but is definitely more comfortable on paved surfaces.
Toggle Sport mode and the throttle gets sharper, while the eight-speed ZF automatic transmission does its thing in 150ms instead of the usual 250. Levante gets louder, too, dispelling baffles in the exhaust to let that 3.0-liter V-6 within sing. At speed, the car actually hunkers down by 35mm for better aerodynamics, and should you select Sport 2 mode the suspension gets firmer. Even at its stiffest, however, Levante has a pliant, well-damped feel that's rewarding, not punishing.
Sport mode is the best way to experience either of the engines we will receive in the US. Both are basically the same Ferrari-sourced, 3.0-liter, twin-turbo V-6. The base model makes 345 horsepower, while the S steps up to 424 thanks to a new crank and revised head. The base engine is far from lacking, but it doesn't have nearly the urgency of the speedier version, which is properly quick -- though sadly both both have had their throttle response neutered in pursuit of emissions results.
And, while neither engine makes anywhere near the kind of beautiful music that comes out of the exhaust of the lovely, long and low, the Levante does make some compelling sounds of its own. More harsh than sonorous, more of a snarl than a song, Levante will still make you go hunting for tunnels and other opportunities to roll those windows down.
Frameless windows, interestingly enough. And should that inspire fears of wind noise, don't fret. Maserati calls the interior a "cocoon" and that bit of marketing hyperbole isn't far from the truth. Put the car in Normal mode, close those exhaust baffles, back the speed down a bit and Levante becomes whisper-quiet and smooth. All the better to appreciate the optional B&W speaker package.
Interior and tech
For too long, Maseratis have been crippled with some of the most outdated electronics systems on the road, so much so that the Granturismo I reviewed last year would have been considered behind the times a decade ago. Thankfully, all that changes with the Levante and its new Touch Control Plus infotainment system.
Okay, so it's actually a skinned version of Uconnect, which isn't exactly the most exciting infotainment option in the world, but the 8.4-inch HD touchscreen offers features and performance that are light-years beyond anything Maserati has ever offered before. And, the promise of Android Auto makes it even better.
That said, the current layout is a bit clunky and in desperate need of some optimization. For example, seat heaters cannot be changed on the Climate control page. Instead, you have to toggle through to a separate page, one that oddly also controls the function of the 360 camera.
Yes, the 360 camera is new, too, and the car has other niceties like rear cross-traffic alerts, emergency brake warning and active braking, adaptive cruise and lane departure warning. However, while the adaptive cruise will take the car to a complete stop, it'll only pick up speed again within three seconds. And, while the lane assist is happy to blink and beep at you, it won't actually steer you back into the lane, vastly limiting its usefulness.
As for the rest of the interior, it's a mixture of highs and lows. Materials are generally good and most surfaces feel nice to a casual touch, but let your eyes and fingers linger and you'll find no shortage of controls and components borrowed from the Chrysler side of the factory, including a chubby turn stalk that doubles as a wiper control. That's a bit of a bummer on a car costing this much.
There is, at least, plenty of room in the front and even more in the back. It's rare I find a rear seat where I can sit upright, but there were no worries about interference with the headliner here. Plenty of legroom, too.
Options and competition
Base price of a Maserati Levante, with the 345-horsepower V-6, is $72,000. Go for the 424-horsepower S model and that starting price jumps to $83,000. Full options pricing isn't available as we go to print, but there will be two main options groups: Luxury and Sport. The former offers a series of premium interior trims and other luxe-minded niceties, while the latter adds 20-inch wheels and more supportive seats.
Either package will set you back around $6,000, but buyers will have plenty more boxes to tick, including five separate caliper paint colors and, of course, a selection of interior colors, trims and widgets.
Maserati is positioning this 'ute most strongly against the BMW X5 and Porsche Cayenne, a pair that both start below $60,000. That's a pretty significant premium over two certifiably excellent luxury wagons. The base Levante has significantly more power than the base models of the German opposition, but even when you select higher-spec competition, you're still looking at hefty premium for the Maserati.
The Maserati Levante certainly has room for improvement, but most of its foibles are minor and don't distract too seriously from the overall character. And that's perhaps the most important aspect of the Levante: it has character. SUVs, even those that lean more toward the Sport than the Utility side of the equation, tend to be just Vehicles.
This is very much a Maserati. The sound is evocative, the handling engaging and, while the looks won't be for everyone, they are at least distinctive.
How many more such SUVs the market can sustain remains to be seen, but if new models keep coming that are as genuinely good as this one is shaping up to be, it's hard to see an end to this trend of Bigger is Better.
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