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MASERATI HAS ANSWERED GROWING CLAMOUR FOR LUXURY SUVs, PRODUCING THE LEVANTE – A CAR WITH HEFT AND PRACTICALITY THAT DOES NOT SACRIFICE THE TRADEMARK MASERATI POWER AND STYLE.
Game changer is an overused term when it comes to describing a new product – but in this case it may prove to be an apt one. At the end of the year the Italian sports car marque Maserati will introduce a new model to its lineup: the Levante. It’s also a new class of vehicle for the legendary carmaker and one that would have been unthinkable a decade or so ago. The Levante is an SUV and the very concept of an SUV is anathema to a brand built on speed and sportiness like Maserati – or at least it used to be.
Sales of sport utility vehicles are booming, making it the fastest growing category of the passenger vehicle industry today. In Australia alone sales of SUVs grew by 15.9 per cent in 2015 and accounted for 35.4 per cent of all new car sales. Sales of large sedans by comparison have declined. Globally SUVs account for just over a quarter of all new car sales. Even luxury carmakers have come to realise that giving customers what they want is good for business. Bentley, Jaguar and Tesla have all introduced SUVs into their line-up. Alfa Romeo is due to launch one next year, Lamborghini will follow with their interpretation in 2018. In 2019 Aston Martin’s version will be on the roads, or off them – expect to see the next 007 leaping out of one – and even Rolls-Royce has said it has an SUV in development.
In fact the only luxury car marque without one might end up being Maserati’s former stablemate under Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, Ferrari (FCA separated Ferrari from the group and floated it on the New York Stock Exchange earlier this year). At a public talk in Sydney in June, Ferrari’s design director, Flavio Manzoni, was asked if the company had plans to launch an SUV in the near future. His answer – to the dismay of many Ferrari owners in the audience – was a categorical no. “At Ferrari we are always looking at reducing weight, lowering the centre of gravity … an SUV is heavy, very high, not balanced nicely. Why would we do that? It would not be a Ferrari,” he said.
For Maserati, however, it was more a question of why not than of why, according to Glen Sealey, chief operating officer of Maserati Australia. “Who would have thought practicality would come out of this brand?” he says. “This is not just an SUV that happens to have a Maserati badge on it. This is a Maserati – so it is innately a sports car but it does have features that give it level of practicality combined with the functionality of a sports car. For one it offers the ability of a quiet ride – something new to Maserati. I like to say it’s not an SUV, it’s a Maserati. It’s a new model that delivers, like all Maseratis, superlative style, performance, handling and road holding, but at the same time it adds the space and flexibility of an SUV with real off-road ability.”
Sealey believes the new addition to the Maserati family will appeal to a raft of customers. “We have customers who want an SUV in their garage alongside their existing Maserati, we have Ferrari customers who would like an SUV alongside their Ferrari and we will have completely new customers to the brand who just want something new.” The car is due to arrive in Australia in late December or early January and will have a starting price of $139,990. “That’s an exceptional price when you consider where the brand sits in terms of its level of exclusivity, but we are also very careful to protect that exclusivity.”
By adding an SUV model family to its existing lineup, Sealey says Maserati will effectively double its business in Australia. “In terms of the business and the volume it will create, it will double our volume overnight. We will go from 500 cars per year, give or take, to 1000 cars a year,” he says. “Do we lose our exclusivity with that? One thousand cars is 0.075 per cent of the total Australian market. We are not even one per cent so this is still a very exclusive brand and we want to keep it that way.” The Levante will enter the Australian market in three versions: the turbo diesel entry model, a Levante Sport and a Levante Luxury model, both priced starting at $159,990.
WISH recently visited Maserati’s factory in Modena to experience the car in action and also meet with the company’s design director Marco Tencone to discover how a company with the history of sport and performance cars could get its head around an SUV. The key, he says,
“This is not just an SUV that happens to have a Maserati badge on it. This is a Maserati.”
is to approach the design of this car in exactly the same way as any other Maserati. “It’s not a case that if we are working on a new GranTurismo that we have to be very strong and, when we design a Maserati SUV, we have to be more gentle. Everyone has to recognise it is a Maserati,” Tencone says. “Our cars have to be constructed in terms of volumes, like a main body with added fenders, just like the old real sports cars. This kind of construction is very important to give the real feeling that the car is not a common car, but something very special and something much closer to the world of supercars than the world of traditional cars.”
The design of the Levante is based on the Ghibli and Quattroporte platform. The car has an imposing front grille that instantly identifies it as a Maserati, and the characteristic rear pillar design that gives it a coupéstyle profile. Frameless windows, another Maserati signature, help give the SUV more of a sports car look.
It’s an impressive feat to create a car that is 5m long with a 3m wheelbase and for it not to look like a big and boxy truck. The benefit of the chassis size, however, is that it’s incredibly roomy and comfortable inside. The rear can comfortably accommodate three passengers thanks to the long wheelbase. But the real pleasure of this car is not as a rear-seat passenger. The driver’s seat has a wraparound design and 12-way electronic adjustment for maximum comfort. On a hot day the ventilated seats are amazing. The Levante comes in an optional Ermenegildo Zegna edition with premium Italian leather and silk trim on the doors and headliners.
Maserati was established in December 1914 in Bologna when brothers Alfieri, Bindo, Ettore and Ernesto Maserati began building racing cars and making spark plugs. In 1926, Maserati produced its first car – the Tipo 26 – which scored a victory on its racing debut in the 1926 Targa Florio. It was around this time that another Maserati brother, Mario, an artist, created the trident emblem based on the Fountain of Neptune in Bologna. In 1937 the brothers sold their shares in the company to the Adolfo Orsi family but remained working in engineering roles with the company. Orsi moved the business to Modena where it remains today.
By 1947 the remaining Maserati brothers had left the company owned by Orsi after new talent was brought in from Fiat and Alfa Romeo. Feeling sidelined by the company they had founded, the Maserati brothers left to launch the OSCA Italian sports car company. Maserati continued to focus on motor racing until the 1957 Mille Miglia rally when a crash by Ferrari near the town of Guidizzolo killed 12 people. After that, the emphasis of the brand shifted to road cars.
The second half of the 20th century proved to be a turbulent one for Maserati on the business side. A deal Orsi made with Argentinian president Juan Perón proved disastrous: after the exile of Perón it became impossible for Orsi to receive payments and the company faced financial pressures. Models such as the Ghibli two-seater coupe and the Ghibli Spider, which debuted in 1967 and 1969, were successful enough to keep the creditors at bay. However, in 1967 Orsi sold a majority share of the company to Citroën and by 1971 the French car maker had acquired Maserati outright. Then the oil crisis of 1973 hit car sales hard. By 1975 Citroën had declared Maserati bankrupt.
The company was soon bought by Alejandro De Tomaso who quickly set about launching new models such as the Kyalami, Quattroporte III, Biturbo and Ghibli II. In 1993 De Tomaso suffered a stroke and sold his stake to Fiat. Fiat invested heavily in the Maserati brand and in 1998 it launched the 3200GT – a two-door coupé – which proved to be a turning point for the brand and gave it a much needed integrity boost. Fiat later sold a 50 per cent share to Ferrari, which in 2005 transferred full control of Maserati back to Fiat Chrysler Automobiles – which means the two Italian powerhouse car brands now share ownership with Alfa Romeo, Lancia, Dodge, and Jeep among others.
This choppy business history is now in the rearview mirror. In some ways the introduction of an SUV to the line up signals an era of stability and growth for Maserati. See our motoring editor Stephen Corby’s review of the Levante on page 34.
“It is not a common car, but something very special and something much closer to the world of supercars.”
The Levante tests its on- and off-road chops on the Parma to Poggio di Berceto road, where the Maserati brothers and Enzo Ferrari tested their cars in the 1920s and 30s
Maserati headquarters in Modena, top left; and a Levante is assembled in the factory at Turin