An irresistible force
Maserati is the latest premium car maker to surrender to the lure of SUVs
IF you’re a paid-up member of the Anti-SUV Club, it’s time to hoist the white flag. SUV sales are about to overtake cars, and by the end of the decade even Rolls Royce will have one — the Cullinan — as will Lamborghini (the Urus) and Aston Martin, with the DBX.
The only mainstream manufacturers still holding out as cars-only outfits are McLaren and Ferrari, whose Maserati stablemate has just become the latest player in the luxury SUV game with its new Levante.
Luxury SUVs are big-league money makers. Levante will double Maserati’s Australian sales, from about 500 in 2016 to about 1000 this year, and is already its best selling model.
That’s despite the fact that we get one drivetrain only, a 3.0litre V6 turbodiesel/eight-speed automatic, the sole variant produced for right-hand drive markets. Shared with the Jeep Grand Cherokee, in Levante it has more stick and faster numbers: 202kW of power and a 0-100km/h time of 6.9 seconds.
In Europe and the US, Levante is also available with a Ferrari-built 3.0-litre twin-turbo V6 petrol engine that in top spec S tune produces 316kW of power and flings the monster Mazza to 100km/h in just 5.2 seconds.
Local Maserati boss Glen Sealey would dearly love to have it available here, but with our luxury SUV market being 90 per cent diesel, he can’t make a case to the factory. However a recent spike in petrol SUV sales offers a glimmer of hope.
“We might have to look at it again,” he says.
Start money for Levante is $139,990; Luxury and Sport are $159,990. All variants include leather, adaptive air suspension with five ride heights, an offroad drivetrain mode, hill descent control, blind spot monitoring, heated 12-way power adjustable front seats with memory, power tailgate and 8.4-inch touchscreen infotainment. Radar cruise, a 360-degree camera, forward collision and lane departure warning are optional, while automatic emergency braking is not available.
Luxury adds Alcantara roof lining, sunroof, 20-inch alloys, higher grade leather and audio; Sport gets gear shift paddles, more supportive front seats, 21inch wheels, a sports steering wheel and red brake calipers.
If you’re in the mood to really empty your wallet, you can add the Zegna Edition interior decor, with pure silk seat inserts and trim.
It’s an immaculately-coutured, premium-quality interior, as you would expect, particularly the fruitier Luxury and Sport models which get the full Italian soft touch leather/ timber/carbon fibre treatment. Seated deep within the twin cockpit-style front section, Levante feels bigger and bulkier than it is, but there’s plenty of driving position adjustment.
Rear seat space is fine for tall adults. Boot volume is compromised by the low, raked coupe-style roof.
Performance is solid rather than spectacular, even in Sport mode, which is much more responsive than Normal, especially from low revs.
Levante’s 202kW and 600Nm of torque is at the tail end of this class, where the BMW X5 M50d’s 3.0-litre produces 280kW/740Nm, the 4.2-litre V8 in Porsche’s Cayenne S produces 283kW/850Nm and the new 4.0-litre V8 in Audi’s SQ7 shakes the earth with 320kW/900Nm.
As with these rivals, you can punt Levante along at a startlingly rapid pace for a 2.2tonne lump, largely due to a suite of electronic aids such as torque vectoring, which minimises a natural tendency to run wide, a rear-drive bias backed up by a continuously variable front/rear drive split and adaptive dampers that in Sport mode exercise extremely tight control over body movement. Pirelli PZero tyres are suitably sticky, too.
Steering is doughy in Normal mode, gaining feel and precision in Sport, while the ride is compliant and controlled, more so on the base model with smaller wheels and taller rubber.
Levante is a comfortable drive, but rivals offer better performance and value.
Audi’s SQ7, for example, is $153,161, BMW’s X5 M50d is $149,900 and Porsche’s Cayenne S is $149,000. All three will leave the Maserati wondering where they went when you squeeze the go pedal.
But they’re not Italian, I hear you say. True. In that case, I’d be tempted to wait for Alfa Romeo’s Stelvio Quadrifoglio SUV, due early next year. It’s got Ferrari DNA, a 2.9-litre, 375kW twin-turbo petrol V6 and drills the 0-100km/h sprint in about four seconds. That’s more like it.