2017 Maserati Levante First Drive


You can argue all you want about whether or not certain companies should build crossovers. That's what the comments section is for. We'd argue that Maserati should have done it a long time ago, having shown its first crossover concept back in 2011 and only delivering on it now. Porsche blazed that trail with the Cayenne and others have followed suit since, racking up big sales. It's a little odd, then, that after waiting so long to get in the game, the Levante came together in just 22 months.

Blame nationalism. The original plan was for the Levante to be based on and built in Detroit alongside the Jeep Grand Cherokee. That changed when Sergio Marchionne decided, in his dictatorial way, that all Maseratis and Alfa Romeos would be designed, engineered, and manufactured in Italy. So the team hit reset, borrowed the Ghibli platform, and went about creating a not-quite-a-crossover, taller-than-a-wagon hatchback with air suspension. Just shy of two years later, we're driving the Levante. In Italy, naturally.

The dimensions and stance are what set the Levante apart from the abundance of luxury performance crossovers and emphasize its Italianness. It's longer, wider, and lower than a Porsche Cayenne or the Grand Cherokee it was nearly spawned from. The hood looks impossibly long in person because it is really long. The front end takes inspiration from the Alfieri concept, and there's a refreshing lack of mesh or filler between the grille's thin vertical slats. It can stand to be so open because there is a set of active grille shutters just behind to manage airflow.

What would be usable cargo space on a blockier crossover is sacrificed by a rakish hatch, which looks pretty and we're told routes air in a particularly aerodynamic-friendly fashion. Instead of building the boxy version first, Maserati took the gamble and went straight to the fashionable coupe-ish shape. That foresight paid off, as it seems the coupe-like SUV trend is here to stay.

For all the scrambling that must have gone on to produce this new model so quickly, it doesn't present like a rush job. Sure, most of the engineering was already done for the Ghibli and Quattroporte, but the Levante actually feels like a more complete effort than those cars. The attention to detail is most felt in the cabin, where the latest corporate infotainment system has been neatly integrated into familiar surroundings. Instead of tacked-on knobs flanking the center infotainment screen, as in the sedans, the Levante adds a two-level knob controller on the center console; the smaller ring adjusts volume, the larger one offers an alternative to touching the screen to make selections. Maserati Touch Control Plus uses a reskinned version of Fiat Chrysler's 8.4-inch Uconnect interface and is one of the first Fiat Chrysler models to offer Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. (We're told to expect the updated 8.4-inch Maserati Touch Control Plus system to migrate to the sedans when they are refreshed soon.)

The Levante will be offered from launch later this year with two versions of the same twin-turbo V6 engine. This is a mild evolution of one engine Ferrari builds for Maserati for use in the Ghibli and Quattroporte. (A V8 model using another Ferrari-built Maserati engine, the one found in the Quattroporte GTS, is being considered.) Base Levante models get a 345-horsepower tune, while in the Levante S the V6 makes 424 hp, 20 more than the generation-one version in the Ghibli. All-wheel drive is standard, as is an air suspension with five in-motion height settings spanning 3.0 inches of travel: two for aero at high speed, two for off-roading, and one in the middle for normal driving; there's also a super-low setting that can be activated when parked to give it that sweet stance and help avoid unstylish entry and exit. The height settings, suspension response, engine, transmission, and exhaust are all controlled through a series of drive modes, including Normal, Sport, Off-Road, and I.C.E., which is intended for slippery conditions and maximum efficiency.

This is the point where we usually say the difference between one mode and the next on a "sporty" crossover is academic. Not the case here. The first press of the Sport button wakes you and the car up, tightening the throttle response, signaling the transmission to hold gears and, most important, opening valves in the exhaust to let people three hills over know you're on the way. Press Sport again and a more aggressive suspension tune jumps into action, limiting roll as much as it can and keeping this 4,700-pound machine from porpoising as it assaults uneven pavement.

For more relaxed driving, Normal mode keeps things relatively quiet, although you still get pleasant revs on downshifts and audible turbo-exhaust interplay on upshifts. The transmission, a ZF eight-speed automatic, is very well calibrated in this application, something that can't always be said for it in other Fiat Chrysler models. It anticipates your next move well and avoids the usual flummoxing when the driver gets in and out of the throttle abruptly. The transmission also doesn't call attention to those final few gear changes that get it up into eighth on the highway. No fuel-economy numbers have been shared, but we'd expect the Levante to come in just under the Ghibli S Q4's 16 mpg city, 24 highway ratings.

While the modes make a difference, there wasn't much difference between the Levante and Levante S we drove. The S certainly accelerates more quickly, with Maserati quoting a 5.0-second 0-62-mph sprint for the more powerful model and a 5.8-second time for the 345-horse version. While you can feel that with your foot on the floor, the difference is more nuanced at saner speeds. More power is better, of course, but the base car has adequate output. We're told the $11,000 price difference between the two trim levels will account for added equipment in addition to the extra power, so the S may still be the one you want from a logical perspective.

You may have noted the discussion of systems affected by vehicle modes did not include the steering. That's because, like its Maserati brethren, the Levante uses an old-fashioned hydraulic rack. So there are no adjustments to make to the weight, response, or "feel" provided like you get with an electric-assist system. There's also a lack of advanced safety features - like lane-keeping, autonomous steering, or even self-parking - as they rely on computers being able to step in through electric power steering. The upshot is authentic analog feel and feedback from a nicely tuned steering rack. It may be an anachronism, but it's the good kind.

The hydraulic steering was most welcome on a short off-road course. Having an idea of what resistance the front wheels face is a help when maneuvering in the dirt. While our brief mud-and-rock jaunt showed that the Q4 all-wheel-drive system and air suspension provide capability beyond what a Levante owner would subject the car to, we were almost more impressed that the Pirelli P Zero tires were able to both hook up and avoid destruction. It was definitely the first and probably the last time we'd consider taking those tires over anything more challenging than a patch of grass. In the US, all-season tires will come standard and the Pirelli summer tires will be optional.

For the brand's first crossover, and one that was spit out in less time than it takes some companies to choose the paint colors, the Levante is impressive. It's genuinely fun to drive in anger, settles down to a stiff comfort on highway slogs, and manages to look different from the rest of the pack. In short, it's a real Maserati, as long as you can get past the shape. And if you can't, there's always the comments section.

  • Engine Twin-Turbo 3.0L V6
  • Power 345 or 424 HP / 369 or 428 LB-FT
  • Transmission 8-Speed Automatic
  • 0-60 Time 5.0?5.8 Seconds
  • Top Speed 156?164 MPH
  • Drivetrain All-Wheel Drive
  • Engine Placement Front
  • Curb Weight 4,649 LBS
  • Seating 2+3
  • Cargo 19.4 CU-FT
  • Base Price $73,250?$84,250

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