What is it?
This is Maserati’s long-promised SUV, a model it first displayed an intent to build long ago with the 2003 Kubang concept, a shapely V8-powered crossover designed by Giorgetto Giugiaro. That car never made it, but in 2011 Maserati unveiled another Kubang, this version based on Jeep mechanicals and promised for early 2014. In the event, it has taken five years rather than three to realise this car, and it’s (wisely) based on Maserati rather than Jeep hardware. It’s also produced in Italy rather than the US, as originally mooted, in a refitted portion of Fiat’s huge Mirafiori plant in Turin.
It arrives in time for a flurry of SUVs from unlikely brands, including the Bentley Bentayga, Jaguar F-Pace and the budget MG GS. It’s aimed at the Porsche Cayenne (the grand-daddy of SUVs from unlikely sources) both as a sales and a dynamic target. So it’s big, but doesn’t look it, and expensive, but not as expensive as you’d expect of a car from a blue-blooded brand. The UK launch price is expected to be less than £55,000, pitching the 271bhp diesel V6 between the 258bhp Cayenne V6 diesel and the 380bhp Cayenne V8 diesel. It’s cheaper than all versions of the Range Rover Sport, most of the Mercedes GLE and Volvo XC90 ranges, if not the Audi Q7.
Although the specifications of the UK market Levante have yet to be determined, its core mechanical make-up is impressive for including self-levelling, height-adjustable air springs and electronic dampers, torque vectoring, a limited-slip rear differential and a hybrid materials bodyshell. Despite carrying an extra opening for its tailgate, the Levante’s body is 20% stiffer than the Ghibli’s in recognition of its need to go off-road.
The forward understructure and front suspension towers are aluminium, as are the bonnet, doors and most of the tailgate while magnesium is used for the cross-car beam. The diesel weighs in at 2205kg, however – more than the steel-bodied 2009kg Volvo XC90 D5 and the aluminium-shelled 2115kg Range Rover Sport TDV6, if not the aluminium 2245kg Audi Q7.
Only the 271bhp VM Motori V6 diesel will be offered in the UK; this is an update of the engine offered in the Ghibli and Quattroporte, but other markets will get two twin turbo petrol V6s of 345bhp and 424bhp.
What's it like?
This is a car that’s unusual for constantly monitoring the location of its centre of gravity, which besides shifting on the move is also altered by the presence of occupants, luggage and roof racks. Levante programme manager Federico Landini says it takes no more than a left-right turn of the wheel for the car to determine the load it’s carrying and what that does to its centre of gravity, the result enabling it to continuously adjust its air springs and electronic dampers to suit.
This is one reason why Landini confidently claims that the Levante understeers less than any of its rivals, and wields the graphs to prove it. Further bend-slaying aids include the 51:49 front-rear weight distribution, and a driveline apportioning 90% of the V6’s torque to the back axle by default. It can be adjusted in just 150 milliseconds, these continuous shiftings visible on an attractive instrument cluster graphic.
On a track, the deployment of this armoury of cornering controls is pretty impressive in the diesel, and aboard the 424bhp petrol V6 not far short of spectacular. Of which more shortly. For all versions, Maserati’s aim was to make the Levante easy to drive fast, unintimidating and viceless. And on FCA’s more demanding, long test circuit at Balocco it’s all of these things and more, at least in the dry. The Levante’s grip, body control, willingness to turn in and willingness to change direction mid bend soon have you forgetting that you’re riding high aboard an SUV. Instead, the Levante feels like a giant, fine-mannered, rear-drive hot hatch.
You can provoke understeer of course. On one tight, slippery Balocco bend it starts running wide, and if you have the ESP off it will judder wider still, but throttling off has it neatly edging into the bend’s apex, trajectory restored. Through most curves the Maserati is invigoratingly brisk and satisfyingly accurate, your pace rising with the discovery that you can trim its line with the throttle, impressively potent brakes allowing speedier post-bend departures. Maserati claims among the shortest 62mph-to-0mph stopping distances in the class, incidentally. The gearbox is pretty slick with its ratio selections down the eight-speed order accompanied by smile-firing rev-blending blips. This diesel certainly isn’t ragingly quick, but it’s just brisk enough to carry the badge.
The most potent petrol V6 feels, and sounds, more exciting. It fills your ears with cultured orchestrations of urge, propelling the Levante a whole lot harder and without uncovering any significant dynamic cracks. Turn-in is slightly slower, but there’s less understeer and a lot more of the electrifying physical sensations you’d expect from a Maserati. Market logic suggests a small-to-pointless UK demand for this model, but it’s unquestionably the most compelling realisation of the Levante, even if it’s more stiff-legged than the diesel on real-world roads. The diesel is pretty firmly damped, but acceptably pliant.
Off-road? It sounds unlikely in a Maserati, but the Levante has the tools to adventure without embarrassment, aided by an adjustable ride height, hill-descent control, bags of torque - and the means to effectively split it. Longer wheel travel than offered by its saloon siblings, an impressively robust body structure and a couple of off-road modes complete the toolkit. The Levante’s cabin furnishings will be more readily enjoyed by most owners.
Which as you’d expect is luxurious, if not as sumptuous as several Maseratis past. Striking features include frameless doors (although the front door glasses can come perilously close to your face when boarding), a subtly elegant, leather-upholstered dashboard, an infotainment system more convincing than found in Maserati’s saloons and a high-altitude driving position completely different to that of any previous trident bearer. Mercedes owners will be familiar with the a single stalk controlling indicators, wipers and main beam, the space immediately behind the classy steering wheel dominated by a pair of sizeable alloy paddles.
Practicality has never been a major consideration for a Maserati, but it’s a major reason for SUVs to be. The Levante scores with plenty of room up front, a long if not especially, deep boot and easily folded seats. Rear comfort is reasonable despite limited foot room, while oddments storage is average.
Should I buy one?
If you want a large, aristocratic, adequately practical and brisk SUV with exceptional handling, you should shortlist a Levante. It’s also refreshingly different, surprising value given its lineage and entirely able off-road.
It’s missing a few of the latest electronic and infotainment flourishes (self-parking, a giant-size infotainment screen) and the petrol version is a more complete realisation of a Maserati SUV. This diesel won't win many CO2 emissions face-offs, either, but ultimately the Levante is a handsome SUV that drivers – and passengers - will enjoy.
Location Parma, Italy; On sale November; Price below £55,000; Engine V6, 2993cc, turbocharged, diesel; Power 271bhp at 4000rpm; Torque 443lb ft at 2000-2600rpm; Gearbox Eight-speed automatic; Kerb weight 2205kg; Top speed 143mph; 0-62mph 6.9sec; Economy 39.2mpg; CO2/BIK tax band 189g/km, 35%