AT A GLANCE

The Courier-Mail - Motoring - - Prestige -

YES­TER­DAY’S shapes don’t make to­mor­row’s prof­its. While sexy sedans, curvy coupes and sleek sports cars laid the foun­da­tions of Maserati’s rep­u­ta­tion, its fu­ture pros­per­ity rides on a high and heavy SUV. The new Le­vante, due to reach Aus­tralia late this year, is the first SUV from the cen­tury-old Ital­ian car maker.

Maserati man­age­ment ex­pects the Le­vante to in­stantly be­come the brand’s most pop­u­lar model. Through 2017, its first full year in pro­duc­tion, sales of the SUV should eas­ily ex­ceed ev­ery other car in its line-up.

In Aus­tralia, Le­vante will be more richly equipped than in Europe, prom­ises Maserati Aus­tralia chief Glen Sealey. Some items in the op­tional Sports and Lux­ury packs there will be stan­dard here, he says, in­clud­ing sun­roof, pad­dle shifters, elec­tric steer­ing col­umn ad­just, rear cam­era and full elec­tric front seats. Ex­pect larger wheels than Europe’s stan­dard 18-inch­ers, and bet­ter leather up­hol­stery, too.

Sealey says the aim is to launch the Le­vante at a price “around $150,000”.

This is $10,000 more than the diesel ver­sion of the Ghi­bli. It’s a valid com­par­i­son, as it will come with ex­actly the same en­gine and eight-speed au­to­matic as the lower and lighter sedan.

But Le­vante won’t come to Aus­tralia with the loud and lively, Fer­rari-man­u­fac­tured twin-turbo 3.0-litre V6 petrol en­gine used in the Ghi­bli and Qu­at­tro­porte. The rea­son? Right-hand drive Le­vantes come only with the 202kW 3.0litre V6 turbo diesel. For now …

De­spite the diesel-only dis­ad­van­tage, Sealey be­lieves the Le­vante can park it­self in a new niche in the lux­ury car hi­er­ar­chy — be­low ex­otic brands like Bent­ley and Fer­rari, yet above pre­mium brands like Porsche and Jaguar.

So, in the case of the Le­vante, does the hard­ware live up to the hype? Mostly, yes.

Maserati’s en­gi­neers say the Ghi­bli pro­vided the start­ing point for the SUV and the two are near iden­ti­cal in length (5m) and wheel­base (3m). Le­vante’s ef­fec­tive all-wheel-drive sys­tem is the same as Maserati in­stalls in some left-hand-drive ver­sions of the Ghi­bli and Qu­at­tro­porte. For help with de­vel­op­ment and test­ing of the sys­tem in the Le­vante, Maserati went to Jeep. Both brands are part of the FCA (Fiat Chrysler Au­to­mo­biles) fam­ily.

But the Le­vante does get an all-new sus­pen­sion set-up, to pro­vide the ground-clear­ance and wheel-travel needed by an SUV. What’s more, Maserati’s en­gi­neers added air springs and adap­tive dampers.

The Le­vante has four dri­vers­e­lectable driv­ing modes, which af­fect the ve­hi­cle’s ride height. MASERATI LE­VANTE PRICE $150,000 (est) WAR­RANTY 3 years/un­lim­ited km SAFETY Not yet rated EN­GINE 3.0-litre V6 turbo diesel; 202kW/600Nm TRANS­MIS­SION 8-speed auto; AWD THIRST 7.2L/100km DI­MEN­SIONS 5003mm (L), 1968mm (W), 1679mm (H), 3004mm (WB) WEIGHT 2205kg 0-100KM/H 6.9 secs Lower for sporty driv­ing and speed, higher for off-road work.

The Le­vante’s sus­pen­sion is out­stand­ing, with grippy han­dling in Sport mode and ex­cel­lent com­fort in Nor­mal. For some­thing weigh­ing well over two tonnes, its agility on wind­ing Ital­ian back­roads was truly as­ton­ish­ing. Later, pumped up in Off-Road mode, it showed it has more ca­pa­bil­ity than any cus­tomer is ever likely to need.

In com­par­i­son, the diesel en­gine isn’t so bril­liant. Per­for­mance is brisk enough and while the ex­haust sounds bet­ter than any other turbo diesel on the mar­ket, the Le­vante’s very ef­fec­tive sound­proof­ing turns down the vol­ume a notch too far, even in louder Sport mode.

Maserati’s first SUV is also the first model it has made with a num­ber of driver-as­sist and safety tech­nolo­gies. The tri­dent badge in the grille is a cover for the Le­vante’s for­ward-fac­ing radar for its ac­tive cruise con­trol and au­ton­o­mous emer­gency brak­ing sys­tems.

The Ital­ians grudg­ingly ad­mit that ac­tive safety is th­ese days ex­pected by cus­tomers.

You don’t find an in­te­rior like the Le­vante’s in any­thing from Ger­many. It has a live­lier feel and looser look.

This is a pleas­ant change from the dark, pre­cise and sternly tech­ni­cal am­bi­ence the Ger­mans so love.

The Maserati’s in­te­rior is also spa­cious, at least for four. Front and rear seats are fine, both for com­fort and room. Be­hind is a broad but high­floored cargo com­part­ment that can hold a use­ful 680 litres.

There’s no doubt the Maserati has real pres­ence on the road, es­pe­cially seen from the front. Nor does it look like any other lux­ury SUV. It’s sleeker than, say, a Porsche Cayenne. And it’s not as stupidly com­pro­mised as a BMW X6.

But, from the out­side, the Le­vante does look a bit like a nor­mal hatch­back — say an over­in­flated Mazda 3. Not that this is likely to put off the sta­tus­con­scious and SUV-hun­gry types the Le­vante aims to at­tract.

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