In the last two decades, every luxury brand decided it needed an SUV to remain relevant in a market gone bonkers for tall wagonoids. (Well, almost every one; Ferrari says there's no way it will commit to any truck that we know of, although it would almost certainly be, as the Donald says, yuge!) The influx is because buyers have shown no squeamishness toward SUVs from traditional luxury and sporting brands, and the only real trick is translating an exotic label's core values into a four-door hatchback mall-crawler.
Maserati unabashedly declares victory in that effort by calling its new Levante "the Maserati of SUVs." And now that we've pounded some of northern Italy's pavement in what is likely to be the closest thing to a Ferrari off-roader that we'll ever get, at least for a while, we're buying the sales pitch. The gleaming silvery trident has been thrust into the truck genre in a way that stays true to the Modenese boutique's strongest selling points. Taking the Ghibli sedan for its guts, the Levante both improves on that vehicle and offers character that is distinct from every SUV that has preceded it. No small accomplishment, but as Maserati CEO Harald Wester says, "It should be good, we've been working on it for 13 years," a reference to the original 2003 Maserati Kubang concept.
Less a Crossover than a Tall Wagon
It's best to think of the Levante, named for a wind in the western Mediterranean, as a Ghibli wagon in the mold of the Audi Allroad line. That means it's a primarily on-pavement, all-weather fast hauler with just enough all-wheel-drive capability and driver-selectable ride-height range to provide some decent trail abilities. Like the current crop of Maseratis, the Levante is fast, it's ferociously loud when it needs to be, and it wrings the bejeezus out of a corner, but it's even better than the Ghibli that underpins it. Call it Ghibli 2.0.
The Levante runs the Ghibli's relatively small but fiery 3.0-liter twin-turbo V-6 with two horsepower ratings to choose from: 345 in the $72,000 base Levante and 424 in the $83,000 S (not including final destination charges, which haven't been announced). The latter is a 20-hp increase from the Ghibli S's output due to changes to the Levante's intake and exhaust as well as software tweaks, and the factory puts the 60-mph sprint at 5.0 seconds (5.8 seconds for the 345-hp model). The last Ghibli S we tested did the deed in 4.7. We're told that prototype Levantes have been built using the Quattroporte's 523-hp 3.8-liter V-8, but there are no announced plans to produce it. There's also a 3.0-liter diesel version not intended for the U.S., but we're not weeping over that. Our short turn in the Levante diesel showed it to be a Maserati with its heart cut out.
Meanwhile, the throttle response in the gas V-6 has been greatly improved over the all-or-nothing Ghibli's. The engineers contrived the Levante's throttle-pedal stroke to produce vigorous initial response, the eight-speed ZF automatic quickly downshifting to pitch the revs up into a fatter torque range. The Levante S we drove was never caught flat-footed, and it surged with a thrilling lupine bark from its quad pipes as soon as we poked it.
That deep, esophageal snarl, so distinctly Italian, never gets old, and it's one thing that separates the Levante from the German luxury-crossover contingent, including the Audi SQ5 and Q7, the Porsche Cayenne, and the BMW X5. Another distinguishing characteristic is the steering. Maserati sticks with hydraulic assist in a world gone largely electric, which helps give the large, three-spoke steering wheel an organic alertness. It tugs and sags over rolling pavement in a vintage way that is now largely lost (or, at least, imperfectly simulated) in the wider industry. Nothing imparts a sense of control more than a direct connection to the front tires, and with good visibility out to the corners, the big Levante is an easy car to place precisely in a turn. When a driver can confidently clip a corner inches from a curb in a car that is more than 16 feet long, weighs about 4650 pounds, and tows nearly 6000 pounds, then Maserati has done its job.
The Levante's suspension, an evolution of the Ghibli's, employs aluminum control arms up front and five links per corner in back, with standard air springs collaborating with electronically controlled dampers; Maserati brands the system as Skyhook. A longer suspension stroke than the Ghibli's and five ride-height settings that include two off-road positions that raise the ground clearance by a maximum of 1.6 inches-as much as 9.7 inches above the ground-are among the changes.
The biggest challenge, say the engineers, was giving the Levante's suspension both a sporting stiffness and, when necessary, a taffylike squishiness for trail work, something achievable only with computer-managed springs and dampers. Even though only about one percent of owners are expected to ever go off-road, says Maserati, and most in Dubai where rich yahoos like to take their luxe SUVs out to the Empty Quarter to play in the dunes, all SUV owners like knowing that their cars can do it.
Hence, the Levante also comes standard with Q4, Maserati's permanent all-wheel drive. A computer-controlled multiplate clutch attached to the transmission engages drive to the front axle when desired; the rear axle is always engaged. At Fiat-Chrysler's old Balocco test track, we were pointed down a trail through the woods that included some fairly serious grades, a water trough, and a few suspension-twisting obstacles. Between the extra ground-clearance modes, the seamless forward torque transfer, a limited-slip rear diff, and some surprisingly generous ramp angles, the Levante acquitted itself as a decent mud puppy.
This Ain't No Lexus
On the road, the suspension is more compliant than we expected, especially on the standard 19-inch or optional 20-inch wheels on the S, which wears giant 295/40 Pirelli PZero tires in back. Even so, the chassis sucks up bad pavement better than the choppier Ghibli we tested a couple of years ago. You can firm it up with a Sport setting, but the thinking at Maserati is that SUV buyers want a bit more daily comfort. Still, the Levante is a pretty tense machine, especially on the 20s, which impart some nervousness to the ride, and doubly especially with an engine that is just waiting to leap to 4000 rpm at the slightest provocation. This ain't no Lexus, and a hearty salute to that! Although Maserati hints at a 22-mpg combined rating when the numbers are released later this year, we expect owners to find the fuel vanishing from the 21.1-gallon tank with greater alacrity. The EPA ratings cannot possibly be better than the lighter and lower-powered Ghibli S Q4, which rates 16/19 mpg city/highway.
Maserati has answered some Ghibli critics inside the Levante, as well. The redesigned seats are more comfortable both front and back, for example. The aforementioned Sport setting now has two modes, the first to wake up the throttle and transmission and to beef up the exhaust snarl, and a second that firms up the suspension. Before, the single Sport mode gave both the rigid ride and the engine changes. Also, Maserati finally gets a center control knob for the center touchscreen. It's not quite as polished as Audi's MMI, as the Maserati's control knob is simply grafted onto the old system, which was intended to be touchscreen only. Thus, if you want to zoom the map with the knob, you use the knob to move the cursor over to the plus or minus boxes on the screen, then push the button on top of the knob to change the zoom (in an Audi, it's a breezier one-step process of just turning the knob). Yes, you get used to the Maserati's fussier system, which we expect will soon filter down to Jeeps and Chryslers, and we give FCA full credit for finally (!) recognizing the appeal of this feature.
Leather and French stitching swaddle the interior. As in the Ghibli, the center-console flip-doors hiding the cupholders and a clutter bin could benefit from a less-cheap-feeling plastic. Maserati says this detail will be improved by the time cars reach the U.S. by the end of this summer. We only experienced two fairly loaded versions, the optional Sport package trim (sport seats, a gloss-black grille, 20-inch wheels, shifter paddles, a sunroof, and other extras) and the optional Zegna Edition luxury package that incorporates interior appointments from the famous Italian clothier. These include silk seat inserts and "silk jersey" on the doors and headliner that your fingers will love running over. The option pricing, when announced, will easily loft the Levante's sticker over $100,000.
With the Levante, Fiat-Chrysler is taking a risk, giving the SUV a dedicated production facility at its Mirafiori plant near Turin and counting on it for 30,000 sales per year. But the company has greatly helped its cause by doing the product right, and the Levante should help keep both Maserati and Italian car-making relevant, at least for now.
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