It would be hard to overestimate the importance of the Levante SUV for Maserati. The brand came back to the US over a decade and and half ago, but since the financial crisis and amid an SUV boom, it’s been selling only stylish luxury sedans and sexy GT sports car.
That will all now change, and it couldn’t happen at a more important time for the Italian automaker, part of the Fiat Chrysler Automobiles empire. It’s down at the bottom of the luxury sales hierarchy in the US, with a puny 0.1% overall market share (Porsche sells five times as many vehicles annually).
The Quattroporte and Ghibli sedans have their fans (me, for example). But in the US and increasingly China, you really need a strong crossover offering. Porsche established the template for an automaker that had never built an SUV crossing that river in the early 2000s when it created the Cayenne, a hugely successful vehicle.
Now Maserati has taken the same plunge.
We first saw the Levante when it was revealed at the 2016 Geneva Motor Show and later in the flesh at the New York auto show. Last year, we spent some time behind the wheel. It was a relatively brief, two-hour run from a working farm and restaurant, Blue Hill at Stone Barns, about an hour north of New York to Bear Mountain.
This wasn’t enough time to fully evaluate the vehicle — we’ll get a crack at that later — but we formed some early impressions. And those impressions were good.
I arrive at the driving site. It's the rustic Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture, home to the well-known and highly regarded Blue Hill restaurant.
The scenery is spectacular. This is a working farm. There are cows and sheep in the fields, a beekeeping area, and lots of farming plots and pastures.
For me, the sharpest luxury SUV coming in a wave of such vehicles is Jaguar's new F-PACE. But it only took a few seconds for the Levante to steal my heart. What can I do? I have a weakness for Maseratis.
The design is aggressive, but in creating an SUV, Maserati worked hard to avoid compromising the essential sexiness that its cars have always projected. The airy grille might bother some: you can see right through to the fins.
From the rear, as with all luxury SUVs, the effect is more utilitarian. A giant hatch is hard to make sensual.
There's a nice rise and curve to the rear haunches. The Levante's center of gravity is purposefully low and although the vehicle has a strong road presence, it doesn't seem tall.
The Levante name originally belonged to a 'warm wind' that could 'change from gentle to a gale force in an instant,' according to Maserati. Can you guess what they had in mind by picking that moniker? (The Ghibli sedan, by the way, is also named after a wind.)
Serious calipers and serious ventilated rotors will provide ample stopping power. The 0-60 mph time is a Maserati-claimed 5 seconds with the 424-horsepower engine option. It also has a top speed of 164 mph (the 345hp motor will do it in 5.8 and top out at 156 mph).
The powerplant: a 3.0-litre, twin-turbocharged V6, built by Maserati's illustrious stablemate, Ferrari. I have to say that they could have done a better job dressing up the plastic cowling.
The steering is hydraulic -- old-school, not electric as on so many luxury SUVs these days. The wheel itself has a great feel, and on the road the steering tightens up and gets heavier as you pick up speed. Oh, and a word about those paddle shifters: superb. Only Ferrari's feel better. Shifting with them is crisp and quick.
Apple CarPlay in the house. Android Auto, as well. We wound up defaulting to CarPlay, as the learning curve on Maserati's improved infotainment system was too steep for a short media drive.
CarPlay made for some interesting tunes. Not my iPhone! But I'd forgotten that I kinda like Howard Jones.
The sounds were piped through a Harman/Kardon audio setup. Some trim levels of the Levante, which starts at $72,000 and can be optioned up north of $100,000, will get a Bowers & Wilkins premium system. The Harman sounded pretty sweet, though.
The front seats get some nice contrast stitching and are are quite comfortable, yet adequately bolstered for spirited driving. You can get a Zegna Luxury Package which brings some snazzy silk to the leather seats. We experienced it in the Quattroporte and decided that it was the best interior offering in the auto business at the moment, so it's good to see it available on Levante.
The shifter is a tad annoying, but I got used to it. We kept the Levante in Sport mode for the most part, but it does have a Normal cruising mode; something called 'ICE,' which serves up better fuel-economy at the expense of performance; and and Off-Road setting. The SUV can also be raised or lowered to five levels (and it will do so itself based on speed). The knobs control the infotainment screen, which also has touch functionality.
There's a very snappy eight-speed transmission -- we've had some issues with these gearboxes, but in this case, there's was no detectable confusion in shift programming, although I couldn't get the Levante to downshift with the paddles when I wanted it to a couple of times. We also couldn't get the slowpoke in the pickup to get out of the way!
I didn't drive the car for long, but when I was driving it, I thought it was brilliant. This is easily the best luxury performance crossover SUV to hit the market this year and worthy competition for the Cayenne. Maserati set a tall order for itself with that one, but they appear to have pulled it off.
I drove the 424-horsepower-engined Levante and when I kicked it into Sport mode, the engine made growling, joyful, and at-times sorta nasty music. The all-wheel-drive system can interpret your driving style and keep most of the traction on the rear wheels or move some grip farther forward, if you need some help. I was used to this from the Ghibli, and it continues to do a fine job with the Levante.
The suspension is taut without being overly stiff, and bodyroll is limited in the corners, which the Levante gobbles up smoothly for a vehicle that tips the scale at over 4,500 lbs. In a straight line, the SUV from Modena flat-out cooks. That dropped center of gravity and the 50-50 weight split gives you more control than you're probably accustomed to, if you've been piloting traditional SUVs. It might give you more control than you get from some sports cars!
I like the way I feel in a Maserati, and the Levante did not fail to make me feel those feelings. I'm really, really, really looking forward to a slightly longer date with this budding masterpiece of Italian SUV-ness.
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