An SUV with a grand tourer's soul
When a car company pushes itself outside of its comfort zone, often the result is something that's either surprising and good, or forgettable and bland.
The Maserati Levante, the Italian luxury marque's first sport utility vehicle, finds itself somewhere in the middle. And that's a good thing.
Throughout its 102-year history, Maserati has been known for three things: gentlemanly style, evocative performance, and a rich racing pedigree. And these three have always been expressed in either a saloon, a coupe, or a convertible, all of which can be considered luxurious grand tourers. But the Levante falls not into any of these traditional Maserati categories.
For one, it's marketed as an SUV; by definition a tall wagon with a high ride height, and comes with four-wheel drive. Yet at first glance, the Levante -so named after a wind that blows eastward in the Mediterranean- doesn't quite fit that definition. The body seems more like a wide wagon with a long bonnet, a low, sloping silhouette, and a rear more like a shooting brake. The ride height is also quite low and poised, though it can be raised or lowered via the controls for the air suspension.
Don't get me wrong, I do like the look. The design expresses a style that -quite simply- is stunningly good-looking... well, except for the odd and unnecessary round foglamps on the bumper. Nevertheless, the Levante ticks the gentlemanly-style box with gusto, leaving an impression that it's more GT than SUV.
The interior, however, is where the Levante truly sets itself apart from its peers. The way everything is laid out is logical, the steering wheel is bliss to the touch, the seats are a pleasure to be in, the rear seats fold flat, and the list of features is long. It even includes a B&W speaker system for the Maserati touchscreen. But more than the sum of its parts, the Levante's cabin feels like a finely tailored suit which is perfect: they did collaborate with Ermenegildo Zegna for the cabin's design. Heck, you can even specify a Zegna silk insert for the seats for a premium.
The key for the Levante is heavy, and seems to have been milled from a single bar of metal (aluminum, perhaps?). With it in my pocket, I press the starter button and the Levante is good to go. What's behind that handsome grille is a twin-turbocharged, V6 from diesel specialist VM Motori, and it's got plenty of motivation: 271 bhp and 442 foot-pounds of torque, good numbers for an all-wheel drive, midsize crossover SUV with an 8-speed automatic gearbox.
The Levante absolutely excels as a daily driver. In normal suspension mode with these 19-inch wheels, it drives like a dream over the worst of our streets. Of course, if you activate the sport modes that change, but Maserati is about grand touring, and this is definitely in keeping with that proud tradition of comfort over second-rate roads as much as it does on our newer expressways. And surprisingly, the fuel economy of the diesel is quite impressive: 8.8 km/l in town and 14.2 km/l on the highway. The fuel-miser Maserati, this is.
What could really use a rethink was the operation of the automatic gearstick. It looks as simple to learn as BMW's automatic gearstick, but proved to be a bit more tricky to get used to when it comes to engaging reverse. Often I found myself getting stuck in P as putting the car in reverse entails a half-press (similar to a digital camera) to put in R. It seems straightforward, but it can be tricky, especially in a 3-point turn.
Once I did get the hang of it, the Levante became fun. At full throttle, the V6 and 8-speed AT work together to sprint to 100 km/h in just 6.9 seconds and a top speed of 230 km/h, and does it with a great soundtrack. But all this is straight line work. Maseratis have been known for their handling given their rich heritage on the racetrack, and this Levante keeps at it.
The key to the Levante's SUV-ness is its Skyhook air suspension. Most of it is automatically activated depending on the condition. At highway speeds, it lowers the SUV anywhere between 20mm to as much as 35mm from normal for better aerodynamics. If you're going off-road, then it can be raised by either 25mm or as much as 40mm. It's all automatic and ties in nicely with the drive settings that you pick.
With the sportier settings activated, the Levante sits lower, rides stiffer, and brings out a quicker response from the powertrain. The handling is fun and intuitive. Yes, this is a relatively heavy vehicle, but you wouldn't know it behind the wheel. The 4WD system also intelligently allocates torque to the wheel that can use it best, ensuring surefooted handling whether you're on a slippery road or a dirt path.
The Levante feels as luxurious as, drives as well as, and turns heads on the streets as any Maserati should. I get the feeling that Maserati wants the Levante to do for them what the Cayenne did for Porsche: introduce the brand to a new clientele by offering a vehicle that exudes the brand but in a more versatile SUV form factor. Despite the few nuances expected of Italian cars, I think they've achieved it.
V6, 2987cc, dohc 24V, twin-turbo diesel, 6-speed AT
Max Power: 271 bhp @ 4000 rpm
Max Torque: 442 lb ft @ 2000-2600 rpm
0-100 km/h [0-62 mph]: 6.9 sec.
Top speed: 230 km/h
Price as tested: PhP 8,300,000
+: Head-turning style, luxurious in every way, fun to drive
-: Front foglamps disturb the look, gearstick operation
C! Rating: 8.5/10