There is no such thing as an overnight sensation in the car industry. The Maserati Levante – the first ever SUV from the Italian luxury car maker – may seem to have appeared out of nowhere, but it’s undergone three major evolutionary phases in the 14 years it has taken to get it to market.
The Levante’s roots run deep. Back at the turn of the millennium, the company had explored the possibility of producing a luxury SUV in partnership with Audi. The plan was that the two companies would share a platform designed to underpin both SUV and saloon car models, catering for a range of engines and transmissions.
The result was a production concept designed by Italdesign dubbed the Kubang, which first appeared at the 2003 Detroit Motor Show. The project never materialised but Porsche, part of the Volkswagen-Audi Group, had tremendous success with the Cayenne around the same time – paving the way for other premium makers to follow suit.
A totally revised Kubang appeared eight years later at the 2011 Frankfurt Motor Show, this time designed by Centro Stile Maserati. Fiat’s CEO Sergio Marchionne (Maserati is owned by Fiat Chrysler Automobiles) had announced his plans for a radical shakeup of Maserati the year before, including aggressive production targets and investment into new products.
Shifting large numbers – 50,000 annually by Marchionne’s calculations – is not a job shouldered by the likes of saloon and GT cars alone. The Quattroporte, 2013’s Ghibli and the GranTurismo two-seater have helped push global sales from 6,159 in 2011 to over 42,000 in 2016 – but to really boost the balance sheets to where the boss wanted them, Maserati needed to make good on their promise of an SUV to rival the likes of Porsche, Jaguar, Mercedes-Benz and BMW, and stave off upcoming competition from Aston Martin and Lamborghini. That’s why you’re now looking at pictures of the Levante, which launched earlier this year.
This is a vehicle the company insists remains a true Maserati at heart. It comes with a twin-turbo three-litre V-6 engine in two levels of tune. The Dhs329,000 base model makes 350 horsepower and 500Nm torque, while the Dhs379,000 S spits out 430 horsepower and 580Nm with the taps fully open. Both have been tweaked by Ferrari’s engine boffins, and both sound as though they’re bred more for a life on track and high performance than as sedate family movers for soccer moms and commuters.
Priority, as it should be, has been placed on making that sound as immense as possible. In Sport mode, the Levante begins to get aroused at around 3000rpm when the car’s computer triggers bypass valves in the exhaust system, venting a glorious rasp right up to that car’s 6200rpm redline. It’s incredibly satisfying from the driver’s seat as you reach for another gear.
There’s no question that the Levante is quick and handles well, much of which can be attributed to the combination of aluminium control arms up front and five link rear suspension, with standard air springs and electronically controlled dampers. The system has five ride-height settings, including two each for sporty and off-road driving.
Prodding the Sport button twice triggers sweeping changes that stiffen the dampers considerably, limiting the amount the car squats under acceleration and dives under braking.
A handful of laps around the Dubai Autodrome was enough to suggest that at over 2.1 tons, the Levante seems a lot better than the Ghibli on track. Perhaps it’s the fact that Maserati claims the car has the lowest centre of gravity of any SUV in this class, or the fact that you simply don’t expect an SUV to handle this well on the track, but the figures are impressive. It pushes a top speed of 264 km/h and will hit 100 km/h from standing in 5.2 seconds.
While it’s tempting to suggest this is where the Maserati performs best, venturing off-road is where the Levante really earns its SUV stripes. Those two off-road settings can be set to hitch the Levante’s skirt to two different levels for a total ground clearance of 247mm. Coupled with a standard and permanent all-wheel-drive system, a computer-controlled multiplate clutch sends torque to the front wheels when required. The all-wheel drive system is set up to send drive to the rear most of the time, even in slippery conditions. When the system senses you’ve pushed the limits – maybe by stabbing the throttle too aggressively or thundering into a corner too hot – it will react by funnelling torque to the front end. Maserati says the Q4 all-wheel drive system can switch torque split settings in milliseconds, going from 100 percent rear-drive to 50:50 front-to-rear.
That makes off-road driving a lot of fun. Not only does the Levante swallow up challenging rocky routes that require excellent axle articulation, but it’s also quite at home in Dubai’s dunes. Approach and departure angles are generous, while a thoroughly sorted four-wheel drive system tackles deep, soft sand journeys with confidence, even with tyres more suited for road and track driving.
With so much attention focused on the success of Maserati’s first ever SUV, engineers were charged with an exhaustive test and evaluation programme. Hot climate testing was conducted in South Africa, Morocco and Dubai; extreme cold climate tests were done in Finland and in New Zealand, while specific quality checks were carried out in China and the UAE. High mileage reliability tests were carried out in the USA and in Russia. Five continents and millions of kilometres were covered during the testing. Maserati had a long time to get the Levante right, and it appears they managed to do so.
The interior is an improvement on the Ghibli. A new control knob for the centre touchscreen is a welcome addition, while the choice of 28 interior colour combinations will make speccing a challenge. Those familiar with the Ghibli and Quattroporte will recognise the instrument panel layout, while the mechanical dash clock is a pleasant addition to an otherwise tech-laden façade.
There’s 580-litres of space in the boot, which is less than most of its rivals, but you’re able to spec optional luggage rails, an aerodynamic roof box that adds 410 litres of extra space, a lockable ski and snowboard carrier for six pairs of skis or four snowboards, and a lightweight surf or bike carrier. There’s a towbar option too, and the Levante is rated to haul 2.7 tonnes.
The Levante faces stiff opposition in this segment, but its blend of versatility and style make it an impressive choice for those who’d like to stand out from the crowd.