New Straits Times - - VIEWPOINT - HAN­NAH EL­LIOTT

LEG­ENDARY Fiat boss Ser­gio Mar­chione died ear­lier this year, but plans for one of his crown jew­els re­main in­tact. Maserati is con­tin­u­ing to in­crease its mar­gins with sports util­ity ve­hi­cles (SUVs) and, in the near fu­ture, with elec­tri­fi­ca­tion.

Lately, the man­u­fac­turer’s tar­get in­creas­ingly has been the warm, beat­ing heart of Porsche — it wants a big­ger piece of the lux­ury SUV pie. To help win more buy­ers in the seg­ment, Maserati this year has put its pow­er­ful twin-turbo V-8 engine into two new ver­sions of the Le­vante SUV it launched two years ago: the su­per-sport 590hp Le­vante Tro­feo and the el­e­gantly pow­er­ful Le­vante GTS, which is the one we will eye­ball in this col­umn.

Porsche set the prece­dent in 2002 when it in­tro­duced the Porsche Cayenne to gen­er­ate enough prof­its to save the then-flail­ing com­pany. It was the first lux­ury SUV pro­duced by a her­itage lux­ury sports car brand, and Porsche ex­pe­ri­enced great suc­cess. Last year it sold more than 13,000 of them in the United States alone. The in­tro­duc­tion of the Cayenne also paved the way for the smaller Ma­can, which made its de­but in 2014 and is Porsche’s best-sell­ing ve­hi­cle.

Maserati is fol­low­ing the same path, in­tro­duc­ing the two high-per­for­mance ver- sions of its Le­vante be­fore un­veil­ing a smaller SUV by 2020.

Mar­chionne said that, with the help of the sec­ond SUV, Maserati could gen­er­ate ?1 bil­lion (RM4.75 bil­lion) in earn­ings on the an­nual sale of 70,000 to 80,000 ve­hi­cles world­wide. Glob­ally last year, the brand sold just over 50,000 ve­hi­cles.

Plan­ning and ex­e­cu­tion, how­ever, are two dif­fer­ent things. Maserati must get its cur­rent prod­ucts right if it has any hope of a pros­per­ous sec­ond act.

Its re­cent re­li­a­bil­ity track record is not strong. And as a re­port from Bloomberg In­tel­li­gence said, win­ning mar­ket share from es­tab­lished com­peti­tors in the US such as Audi and Porsche, would prove chal­leng­ing.

Maserati’s SUVs over­lap with those of a dozen other lux­ury brands and lack the deal­er­ship net­works and long­stand­ing fan foun­da­tion of Porsche and other ri­vals in the US in­clud­ing BMW, Mercedes-Benz, and Lexus.

I drove the Le­vante GTS for a week through­out the New York tris­tate area. With a front grille like a jacko-lantern smile, poor 15mpg (6.4 km/l), com­bined fuel ef­fi­ciency, lim­ited ex­te­rior colour op­tions, and an untested long-term re­li­a­bil­ity record, the US$120,000 (RM500,592) Ital­ian rig is not per­fect. But it does come well-ap­pointed for its price, with a won­der­fully pow­er­ful and thrillingly vo­cal V-8 engine engi- neered and built by Fer­rari and mul­ti­ple (slightly) su­pe­rior per­for­mance rat­ings to Porsche’s US$124,600 Cayenne Turbo.

If Ger­man en­gi­neer­ing makes your eyes glaze over, the Le­vante GTS could be right for you.

What I liked most about it was the per­son­al­ity, if such a term can be ap­plied to a mid­size SUV. (The seg­ment is rife with bland ap­pli­ances on four wheels).

A mas­sive pol­ished metal tri­dent cen­tred on its nose sets the tone, fol­lowed by wide slats in the grille across its en­tire front and those sig­na­ture “shark gill” air vents along the sides. Al­though the Le­vante GTS sits so low that it is dif­fi­cult to see it tucked away on a street in a line of parked cars, op­tional 22-inch dark gray matte al­loy wheels, LED ma­trix head­lights, and a tiny spoiler lip above the rear win­dow add in­ter­est­ing flour­ishes that draw the eye.

The car’s per­son­al­ity ex­tends to how it drives. From a stand­still, then shift­ing through its eight gears at high­way speeds, the Le­vante GTS feels hun­gry for the road. The engine is the same 550hp twin-turbo V-8 that had been re­served for the flag­ship Maserati Qu­at­tro­porte GTS sedan. The SUV gets to 60m/h or 97km/h kph in four sec­onds. Top speed is 292km/h.

The Cayenne slides through its pad­dle gears smoother and han­dles nim­bler across wind­ing ter­rain, and it has more torque un­der the lower gears, but the sharp, ag­gres

sive Le­vante GTS has nine more horse­power than the Cayenne Turbo and hits a higher top speed by 6km/h kph). (It is a hair slower to 97 kph than the 3.9-sec­ond Porsche; you may feel the dif­fer­ence). The Le­vante GTS’s in­tel­li­gent all-wheeldrive sys­tem and Brembo brakes have real bite, and along with the four drive modes (the “sport” in the Le­vante GTS is new this fall), they are ca­pa­ble and pro­grammed to en­hance the con­nec­tion you feel with the road, eas­ily on par with what Audi and BMW have to of­fer. The Le­vante GTS is not bet­ter than th­ese han­dling-wise, but it is not worse, ei­ther, and if you are bored with Ger­man brands it is a wor­thy op­tion.

In­side, ap­point­ments in­clude op­tional heated and cooled leather seats, metal sport ped­als, the trendy open-pore wood trims (they look matte rather than pol­ished), Zegna silk up­hol­stery, and Al­can­tara lin­ing through­out the cabin. Tech­nol­ogy in­clud­ing 17-speaker Bow­ers and Wilkins pre­mium au­dio, as well as traf­fic-sign recog­ni­tion and other crash-avoid­ance sys­tems works in­tu­itively, but not in­tru­sively. Ap­point­ments are even worth pay­ing ex­tra for — the upgrade-laden Le­vante GTS I drove still cost less than $132,000 (RM550,651.20) all in. And they serve to make the car feel more per­son­alised — a tenet that every auto ex­ec­u­tive I have spo­ken to in the past decade has said is crit­i­cal to the lux­ury buyer.

Is the Le­vante GTS bet­ter than the Cayenne Turbo? No, but it is not far-off, ei­ther, and it will be a re­ward­ing ve­hi­cle if you can get over not own­ing a Porsche - and you are the type that cares about that kind of thing. To get in early on a dis­tinc­tive, ca­pa­ble model line that could be­come great, start here.

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