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Milan showers its romance upon the mid-size SUV class by way of an Alfa Romeo platform, a supercar V6 and lashings of soft leather

You could be forgiven for asking where Maserati has been for the best part of the past decade. It’s not so much that the Italian brand has vanished completely, rather that it has been missing in action from vital areas of the market. 

Nowhere has that been more obvious than when it comes to SUVs – cars that since the turn of the century have been surefire money-spinners for any brand with more than a hint of premium appeal and a desire to stay financially solvent.

No SUV has proved this more decisively than the Porsche Macan, which over the past eight years has been a staggering sales success and proved to keen drivers that high performance and a high centre of gravity needn’t be mutually exclusive. So it’s a surprise that Maserati has waited so long to try to steal a slice of the Macan’s ultra-profitable D-segment SUV pie.

Of course, the Grecale isn’t the first Maserati with a mud-plugging vibe, but the larger Maserati Levante of 2016 managed to fall between two stools, being neither as compact nor driver-focused as the Macan, nor packing the presence and overpowering muscle of the Porsche Cayenne.

On paper, however, there have been no such mistakes with the Grecale, which, along with the sensational new Maserati MC20 supercar, has been charged with breathing much-needed new life into a brand that has been largely moribund over the last decade.

So while the newcomer is no doubt late (very, very late) to this particular party, Maserati claims it will be the breath of fresh air (Grecale is the name of a Mediterranean wind, so there you go) required to tempt customers into one of its showrooms, many of them for the first time.

Maserati Grecale news

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For starters, it’s based on Alfa Romeo’s Giorgio platform, which also underpins the surprisingly dynamic Alfa Romeo Stelvio Quadrifoglio, although it has been extended by 50mm between the axles (it’s a touch over 4.8 metres long all in).

That means it’s roomier for rear passengers than most, while at 570 litres, it sticks the boot into its rivals for luggage space. For the families at whom such cars are aimed, these things matter.

Then there’s the availability of resolutely ‘on message’ mild-hybrid engines, plus the promise of a pure-electric Grecale Folgore later this year. Yet if you have unleaded rather than electrons pumping through your veins, it’s the flagship Trofeo variant that will be getting you hot under the collar. Packing a detuned version of the MC20’s new, Maserati-developed Nettuno V6, it’s an SUV with the soul of a supercar. Sounds promising, doesn’t it?

Before we get to that, however, there are a few caveats. First off, our time in the car was brief and limited to mostly urban and suburban routes around Milan – a realistic simulation of the on-road environment that a typical Grecale is likely to inhabit but not one to truly delve deep into a car’s dynamics. Also, all the cars were fitted with winter tyres – not ideal when the ambient temperature was a balmy 24deg C...

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First impressions count, and visually the Grecale certainly does enough to capture your attention. It looks bigger than the Macan, and while the shape itself is a little generic, it’s stuffed with enough Maserati cues to leave you in no doubt as to its heritage.

There’s the brand’s trademark front grille and the trio of air vents in the front wings, plus, of course, more trident logos than you can shake a large, three-pronged stick at.

The Trofeo variant stands out further with its quad-exit exhaust, 21in alloy wheels that cover larger, cross-drilled discs clamped by vast callipers (six-pot at the front and four-pot at the rear) and a rear track that’s stretched by 34mm to 1982mm.

Climb aboard (the flush exterior door handles hide a touch-sensitive button for access) and you find an interior that oozes rich Italian luxury in the finest tradition. Soft, finely stitched leather covers almost every surface, while the driving position manages to be low-slung while still delivering typical SUV elevation.

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There are also wall-to-wall digital screens, plus all the connectivity that we’re told we need.

Sitting proudly atop the dashboard is the trademark Maserati clock, but now it’s a configurable digital item that also hosts the “Hey, Maserati” virtual personal assistant.

On the whole, it looks great and works well, but the execution isn’t quite as good as it could be. The touch-sensitive surfaces occasionally require another stab for a response, while some of the switchgear, such as the push-button gear selector, has a gritty quality that’s more Fiat Panda than premium.

The two circular dials on the thick-rimmed three-spoke steering wheel will be familiar to MC20 owners. One controls the driving modes (Off Road, Comfort, GT and Sport, like in the standard Grecale, plus hardcore Corsa), while the other is the starter button for that 523bhp 3.0-litre V6.

As in the MC20, the Nettuno delivers plenty of low down, lag-free muscle, and it has no trouble hauling the Grecale along at indecent speed with very little effort, but aural drama is in short supply.

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Only when extended in Sport or Corsa mode does it deliver the bark and bite that you expect, finding its snarling voice and razor-sharp responses as it rips around to the redline at just over 7000rpm.

Maserati claims a BMW M3-beating 3.8sec for the emergency start to 62mph, and it feels every bit as fast as the numbers suggest.

It’s aided by an eight-speed automatic gearbox that delivers crisp and quick shifts (although in Corsa it’s perhaps a little too eager, sending gears home with enough violence to throw your head back against the headrest). Talking of which, the brakes are grabby at low speed but deliver powerful and progressive stopping when worked hard.

The steering is quick, precise and well weighted, the car rotating surprisingly quickly in to corners. Any loss of turn-in bite from the winter rubber at the front is offset by the relative lack of grip at rear and an aggressively eager electronically controlled limited-slip differential, the car eager to sidestep a few subtle degrees at corner exit if you’re in the mood.

Grip would be way more tenacious on summer tyres, but we sense the car’s inherent inclination to have a good time would be undimmed.

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It certainly feels more playful than the Macan, but it can’t match the German’s cast-iron composure, the initially taut body movement on the air springs (usually optional, standard on the Trofeo) and adaptive dampers giving way to some float and heave when it’s unsettled by mid-corner bumps, at which point you really feel its considerable mass.

Only in Corsa does the Trofeo feel truly tied down, but the reduction in rock and roll comes with a brittleness that makes you wince over even the smallest imperfections and causes the odd rattle and resonances from the otherwise impeccably finished interior as it’s shaken and stirred.

Slacken the dampers off and an underlying firmness remains, but it copes with bigger undulations in a more relaxed manner, the easygoing vibe matched by the impressive isolation from road and wind noise.

Sunken manhole covers and expansion joints are less adroitly dealt with, however, the peace shattered as shockwaves are sent crashing through the car’s structure.

You sense that long-haul journeys are right up Grecale’s street, while heavily pockmarked urban routes most definitely aren’t.

Obviously we will have to wait until we try a Grecale on representative rubber and decent roads before delivering our definitive verdict, but even after this first taste, it’s clear that it lacks both the finely honed and expensively developed dynamic polish of the Macan or its hewn-from-solid integrity. There’s a good car in there somewhere, but fine-tuning is still needed.

Yet despite its obvious flaws, the Grecale isn’t without appeal, and for many the romance of the brand’s history will be a serious tug on the heart strings; plus it’s extremely practical and, when you’re in the mood, that engine can lift spirits and deliver a truly crushing turn of speed.

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And while the arrival of another large SUV probably isn’t the answer the world is looking for, you do end up rooting for the Grecale, because there’s no doubt that healthy sales would make Maserati’s future less laced with uncertainty.

Maserati Grecale First drives