Italian sports car manufacturer Maserati first publicly hinted that it was keen to enter the crossover SUV game way back in 2003, when it debuted its first Kubang concept. It's been more than a dozen years, and the Triton brand has finally delivered its first production utility vehicle, the 2017 Levante.
The vehicle's road to production has been one of the longer and more tortured gestations that the auto industry has seen in decades (at one point, Maserati's SUV was to ride atop the Jeep Grand Cherokee platform and be assembled in the US!). The finished product will likely be worth it for faithful Maser customers, however, and it will almost certainly be worth it to the company's bottom line, because the premium utility market continues to be white hot. Simply put, the Levante is Maserati's most important new model in decades.
Of course, adapting a styling language that's only ever been applied to voluptuous sports cars and sedans to something as boxy and upright as an SUV was always going to be a trick, and the Roadshow staff is split at best as to whether Maserati has succeeded with the Levante. There are certainly traditional brand cues in place, including a somewhat Hannibal Lecter-ish grille with prominent trident emblem, fender-side vent ports, and so on. The design's kinship to Maser's Ghibli and Quattroporte sedans is clear, but its styling is likely to be divisive, particularly details like the unusual character lines around the tail lamps.
If the Levante's styling is poised to split opinions, this SUV's performance is likely to unite them. Globally, it comes to market with either of a pair of 3.0-liter twin-turbo gasoline-fed V-6 engines, offering 350 or 430 horsepower, respectively. As you'd expect, the Levante packs a version of Maserati's well-known, well-liked Q4 all-wheel-drive system, backed by a standard eight-speed automatic gearbox.
If I had to bet, the more potent gas version, with its 0-62 mph time of 5.2 seconds, seems like a lock for the North American market. (I'm less bullish on the likelihood of receiving the 275-hp diesel engine of identical displacement, particularly in the short term.)
More promisingly, Maserati claims its first-ever SUV has ideal 50/50 weight distribution and the lowest center of gravity in its class, both of which bode well for crisp handling, as does a five-setting air suspension, which can lower for high-speed road work and raise up for whatever minor off-road work a Maserati SUV is likely to encounter.
Inside its luxurious cabin, Maserati is promising a new evolution of its Touch Control system, an infotainment architecture many of you will recognize as a close relative of Chrysler's UConnect. For the Levante, it picks up an 8.4-inch screen and a new rotary controller located on the transmission tunnel.
No word yet on Android Auto or Apple CarPlay compatibility, but hopefully the new system will be a leap ahead from what's currently found in Maserati's other products.
Once upon a time, Maserati had a chance to be among the first in the luxury SUV pool, even ahead of the Porsche Cayenne with which it will now surely compete. In order to still make a splash, it will have to drive amazingly well, and be priced smartly.
US pricing will start at $72,000 plus destination and delivery, which means it will line up squarely against entrenched rivals from Porsche, Land Rover and BMW.