► New Maserati Levante sports SUV tested
► Turbocharged diesel V6, 0-62mph in 6.9sec
► On sale in the UK later this year for £54k
Thirteen years after Giugiaro’s original Kubang concept hinted at how a Maserati SUV might look, FCA has finally delivered the real thing. Has it been worth the wait?
Maserati built its reputation on sexy coupes, sports cars and race wins. Why has it thrown its lot in with the SUV crowd?
For the same reason Jaguar, Aston, Lamborghini, Bentley and everybody else is adding an SUV or crossover to its range: it’s the only segment showing real growth in the luxury car market.
Sexy two-seaters like the upcoming Alfieri are great image builders, but if you want to metal you need an SUV. Half of all luxury cars currently sold are SUVs. Plus the Ghibli saloon hasn’t been quite as successful as Maserati hoped, to the extent that boss Harald Wester had to stop production temporarily to halt oversupply.
Okay, so I get the SUV business case – but I’m waking from a terrible dream in which Maserati said it was going to build its SUV out of old bits of Jeep...
When Maserati showed its own Kubang SUV in 2011 (unrelated to Giugiaro’s own Maserati Kubang concept from 2003), it did suggest it would be some kind of Frankenstein’s monster of Maser engine and Jeep chassis.
Fortunately common sense prevailed and the production SUV, now badged Levante, is based on the Ghibli. Apart from the extra body height and all-wheel drive (not available on UK Ghiblis), the main difference is that the saloon uses conventional steel coils while all Levantes get air suspension. Maserati says the decision was taken primarily to help meet internal off-road targets, but it makes for a much better on-road car too.
So what’s it like then? Throws you back into your seat like a dominatrix and sounds like a Can Am car on a qualifying lap?
Not quite. The only model coming to the UK is a 3.0-litre diesel whose 6.9sec 0-62mph performance isn’t exactly dog slow, but certainly at the outer limit of what you might expect from a Maserati. And even with the Sport button engaged to activate the augmented sound effects, the engine noise is less gurgly than the Ghibli’s.
On the flip side, it manages almost 40mpg on the combined cycle, rides so much better than the jiggly Ghibli and the handling is surprisingly fun. At 2205kg it’s certainly not a particularly light car, but that weight is distributed perfectly evenly.
It turns into corners crisply and there’s a reassuring meatiness to the unfashionable hydraulically-assisted power steering, and because no more than 50 per cent of power is ever transferred to the front axle, it retains a traditional rear-drive poise. But with rear tyres 30mm narrower than the V6 S’s, it feels noticeably less tied down at the back when you’re really tanking through quick bends.
What’s that about a V6 S?
Some other markets don’t get a diesel model, but have the choice between a 345bhp petrol V6-powered car called simply Levante, and a Levante S with a 424bhp version of the same engine.
We tried the S and it’s definitely more in line with what you’d expect from a car with a Trident on the grille: 5.2sec to 62mph, a proper soundtrack and better-balanced handling that comes from that wider rear rubber and carrying almost 100kg less ballast.
Harald Wester dismissed talk of a more powerful Levante, claiming the market was tiny and not worth the effort, but says a hybrid version will be offered by 2018.
Is it a credible off-roader?
The Levante doesn’t have a dedicated low-ratio mode but it does have a mechanical limited-slip rear differential and height-adjustable air suspension. Select off-road mode using the console switch and the all-wheel-drive system delivers a minimum of 20 per cent of torque to the front tyres.
We took it through a wading trough, up a 53 per cent grade (Maserati says 70 per cent is possible) and over the sort of terrain owners wouldn’t dream of tackling. No Levante buyer is going to be disappointed by this car’s off-road ability but if you’re a sheep farmer in the Highlands you’re better off sticking to your Defender - the optional silk interior doesn’t look very easy to clean.
The frameless door glass is an interesting touch. Maserati worked hard to keep that feature from the saloon and allow drop-down rear seats while still maintaining the body rigidity necessary to cut it in the rough. In fact, the Levante is actually stiffer than the Ghibli. It’s also significantly roomier.
The Levante isn't perfect but it is distinctive, practical, fun to drive and a far better resolved product than the Ghibli. And at less than £55k it’s only £4-5k more than the saloon and comes with all-wheel drive as standard.
Maserati really needs the Levante to succeed and we’d be surprised if it doesn’t. But there’ll be further Ghibli sales casualties in the process.