Alongside the inescapable rise of the sport utility vehicle, there's been a complementary rise of high-performance luxury SUVs. From the Porsche Cayenne to the Lamborghini Urus, all of the major performance players are getting into the game, and I reckon the 2019 Maserati Levante is about as close as we've gotten to a Ferrari SUV… at least, for now.
The prancing pony DNA manifests as a 3.0-liter, twin-turbo, Ferrari-sourced V6 that lives in the Levante's engine bay. You can also find this Ferrari-built engine powering Maserati's Quattroporte and Ghibli sedans -- as far as I can tell, the V6 is exclusively used by Maserati. The base Levante gets 345 horsepower and 369 pound-feet of torque from this powerplant. Stepping up to this Levante S trim also steps the output up to 424 hp and 428 lb-ft.
Top-trim GTS and Trofeo models replace the F160 for a twin-turbo V8 good for 550 and 590 hp, respectively, but that's a story for another day.
Standing between the V6 and the contact patches are an eight-speed automatic transmission and Maserati's Q4 all-wheel-drive system. The AWD setup has a rear-biased torque split with a rear limited-slip differential for a sporty feel, further enhanced by the Levante's suspension. Electronic damping control and a five-level height adjustable air suspension allow the driver to tailor the handing from firm-yet-comfortable to really-firm-and-dynamic.
Of course, my favorite part of the Levante's powertrain is the exhaust, which sounds like a finely tuned maelstrom. The Maser sounds like a proper exotic in its sportiest setting, with a satisfying howl and pops and burbles punctuating each shift. The Levante can be so loud, and so aggressive with its downshifts in sport mode, that it can get a bit obnoxious if you try to drive it in this mode around town. Fortunately, there are more sedate comfort settings that quiet things down and make the SUV much easier to live with.
Zero-to-60 sprints are tackled in 5 seconds -- impressive for an SUV, but not exactly supercar quick -- with acceleration that is linear, stable and mostly drama-free, unless you count the extremely dramatic sound emanating from the exhaust tips and engine bay. Handling is surprisingly nimble for an SUV. In its sport mode, the Levante's suspension hunkers down and firms up its dampers for very flat, agile cornering with gobs of grip provided by its 265mm-wide Pirelli Scorpion Verde tires and 21-inch wheels.
The Levante wears Maserati's design hallmarks well, wrapping gorgeous Italian styling around the more upright proportions of an SUV. From the trident grille to the fender vents and sculpted shoulders, the Levante certainly feels like a member of the family that birthed the Quattroporte and GranTurismo.
The cabin is luxuriously appointed with high-quality trim and upholstery, but a trained eye will spot all sorts of Fiat-Chrysler parts bin bits peeking through. From the switchgear to the instrument cluster to the entire infotainment stack, Maserati chose not to reinvent the wheel with the Levante's cabin. Honestly, I don't have a problem with this -- the Levante's cockpit still feels luxurious, especially with optional packages upgrading the look and feel of the leather trim.
There are a few bespoke bits scattered around the Levante's cabin that make it feel more special, from the analog clock that peeks up from the dashboard to the large, metal paddle shifters. The paddles are mounted to the steering column, not the wheel, and remain stationary when turning, hinting at Maserati's race heritage. They make a satisfying "ping" with each shift and are just satisfying to slap during heated driving.
Besides, the Chrysler Uconnect is a perfectly good, fully featured infotainment system. Redubbed Maserati Touch Control Plus and sporting a reskinned interface, this is basically the latest generation of FCA's 8.4-inch Uconnect tech. It features good navigation and mapping software, voice command that works well, and a customizable interface that can be enhanced by downloadable apps. It's not as flashy a setup as the Porsche Cayenne's PCM suite or BMW's iDrive, but with standard Android Auto and Apple CarPlay connectivity, I've got no complaints about MTC Plus.
The Levante also benefits from FCA's suite of driver aids and safety tech, with available adaptive cruise control that works in stop-and-go traffic, lane-keeping assist that uses steering torque to keep the SUV between the lines, lane-centering assist on the highway and forward collision warning with automatic emergency braking assist.
The 2019 Maserati Levante starts at $76,980 for the base, all-wheel-drive model. Another 10 grand gets you 80 extra ponies, stepping up to the $87,980, 424-hp Levante S. My example also features the GranSport appearance upgrade package along with larger wheels, bigger brakes and a sportier appearance inside and out. As tested, you're looking at about $11,000 in what are essentially visual upgrades that bring this car to an as-tested price of $103,845.
While you could certainly skip some of those aesthetic options, style and performance are kind of the whole point of the Levante, so I'd probably spec mine similarly to this one. As expensive as it is, the S is a sweet spot in the lineup before reaching the $120,980 GTS and $169,980 Trofeo -- uber expensive upgrades that are less an exercise in how much you should spend and how much you have to spend.
The 2019 Maserati Levante S faces some of the stiffest competition in the business, including the Porsche Cayenne S, which is pretty much better in every way, with sharper performance, a more luxurious cabin and smarter technology. But the Cayenne also is more expensive when comparably equipped. The logical choice would be to go with something like the BMW X5 xDrive50i or the Audi Q8 for a lot less money, but somehow these rides don't feel as special as the Maser.
No, the Levante isn't the best in its class, but with its engaging performance and dramatic flair it has an emotional, intangible appeal all of its own.