Maserati’s first crossover signals the winds of change blowing through Modena
The 2017 Maserati Levante might be the most important Italian automobile in decades. Maybe ever.
Hyperbole? Not really, if you slash to the core of the global car business. The Levante isn’t important precisely because it’s Maserati’s first SUV, or the first luxury-grade Italian SUV since the Lamborghini LM002 disappeared in 1993. It’s important because it’s the Italian auto industry’s last, best shot at relevance beyond the niche of hypercars from Ferrari, Lambo and sundry Paganis, Covinis or Fornasaris (a sexy, potentially profitable niche, but a niche nonetheless). The Levante is Italy’s last, best shot in a mainstream luxury business populated by Audis, Lexi and, soon, Hyundai’s Genesis brand.
In case you missed it, SUVs now account for nearly 50 percent — half — of global luxury auto sales. Maserati has big plans, starting with the goal of increasing sales sixfold over a six-year period ending in 2018, with “100 percent Italian” products. To succeed, Maserati needs a vehicle to compete in what amounts to half the luxury market.
Welcome, Levante. The most important Italian car debuts with Italian design, aromatic Italian leather and power-dense, sweet-sounding engines cast at the same foundry as Ferrari V8s and V12s. Its styling, according to exterior designer Giovanni Ribotta, continues a theme started with Maserati’s big Quattroporte sedan and carried through the smaller Ghibli. Maserati calls it Double Soul — striving equally for elegance and sporting athleticism.
At first glance, Levante’s Double Soul looks a bit derivative. This SUV’s profile resembles the Cheetah look introduced on the Infiniti QX. Yet two-dimensional renderings don’t do justice to Levante’s subtle curves or details, from the split, dual-beam headlights to Maserati’s familiar portholes to the polished exhaust tips. An informal survey of people who’ve seen it off an auto-show stand produced predominately thumbs up, with the fanged grille putting off most dissenters.
Whatever the photographs suggest, the Levante is big. At 197 inches long, on a 118.3-inch wheelbase, Maserati’s SUV is 8 inches longer than a midsize Mercedes GLE — and almost as long as the full-size GLS, on a longer wheelbase. By wheelbase and width, Levante surpasses both the recently introduced Bentley Bentayga and a full-size Chevy Tahoe. Yet one exterior dimension stands out. At 66.1 inches tall, the Levante’s roof sits 4 or 5 inches lower than the typical mid- or full-size SUV’s.
Product chief Davide Danesin says Levante starts on a lengthened evolution of the Ghibli sedan platform, itself an evolution of the Quattroporte platform. Its structural elements are largely cast aluminum, with a magnesium cross member for the dashboard. Doors, hood and hatch are also aluminum. The published curb weight (4,649 pounds in standard trim) puts it near the bottom of competitive behemoths and Maserati claims several bests in class. At 24 inches, its center of gravity is lowest among luxury SUVs, including the Porsche Cayenne. Thanks to active shutters behind the grille and a nearly full-flat bottom, its .31 coefficient of drag is lowest. And it’s the only SUV with precise 50/50 weight distribution.
Engines are a second-gen evolution of the Ghibli’s 3.0-liter, 60-degree, twin-turbo V6, built at the Ferrari works in Maranello. Danesin says there are subtle hardware or “optimization” differences between the standard V6 and the Levante S upgrade, but the turbos are identical. The engine makes 345 hp, 369 lb-ft in the base car and 424 hp, 428 lb-ft in the S — the highest specific output among luxury SUVs. The torque maps change from normal to sport modes — flat torque delivery in sport, rev-dependent in normal — and the exhaust track is fitted with pneumatic flaps for a more circuitous, muted flow in normal, and a straight-dump, full Maserati roar in sport.
ZF supplies the eight-speed torque convertor automatic, with wheel paddles and full manual control — no shift-up override. Maserati’s Q4 all-wheel drive is essentially the same as in its sedans: a power take-off at the end of the transmission with a multiplate clutch to shift power to the front differential. The default torque split is biased way rearward — 100 percent in sport mode — but as much as 50 percent of the engine torque can be directed to the front wheels. A mechanical limited-slip rear differential is standard, with brake vectoring on the front axle.
The Levante uses the Ghibli’s basic suspension layout, with geometry adjusted for more wheel travel and air springs in place of steel coils. The suspension pieces and sub-frames are aluminum. The springs are controlled independently at each wheel by the same ECU that manages Maserati’s Skyhook adaptive shocks. Air springs are used because they maximize both on- and off-road capability, according to Danesin, who says the Levante generates the most lateral acceleration and the least understeer of any SUV.
So equipped, Maserati’s SUV can operate at five different ride heights (plus a sixth for park), with a 3.35-inch range. There are four selectable drive modes — normal, sport, off-road and ICE — managing three basic control groups together: engine map, boost and transmission; air springs and dampers; AWD and stability control. There is no individual adjustment within the groups.
The Levante S comes with a brake upgrade — larger disks and six-piston aluminum front calipers, as opposed to two — delivering what Maserati claims is the shortest stopping distances among SUVs (60-0 mph in 113 feet). Calipers can be painted five colors, with the Maserati trident, and wheels range from 18 to 21 inches.
Inside there are six trim choices and optional silk seat inserts. The infotainment system starts with an 8.4-inch capacitive touchscreen, and the Bowers & Wilkins audio upgrade pumps 1,280 watts through 17 speakers. Passive and active safety systems run the gamut, including full stop-and-go adaptive cruise control and autonomous braking, up to anything involving steering intervention. Surprisingly, the Levante is fitted with conventional hydraulic steering assist, chosen for what Maserati considers optimum feel.
Maserati’s first SUV has been tested more extensively than any Maserati before, according to the company, starting with 1.7 million road miles on four continents and New Zealand. Levante is built on a new line at Fiat’s Mirafiori plant in Turin.
It reaches the United States by October, starting at $72,000 for Levante and $83,000 for Levante S, before a destination charge roughly equal to Ghibli’s ($1,250). Sport and Luxury packages (about $6,000) adjust wheels, seats, exterior trim and interior appointments, and the upward price limit should hit $110,000. Maserati says a Levante prototype with an updated 3.8-liter, 530-hp V8 from the Quattroporte — fitted for the first time with AWD — is testing in Italy. That’s another way of saying we’ll see a Levante V8 in a year or two.
By then, Levante should almost certainly be Maserati’s best-seller, with roughly a third of its volume going each to China, North America and rest of the world.
Maserati’s global sales grew from 12,000 in 2012 to 36,000 in 2014, largely on the strength of more Quattroporte and GT variants and the Ghibli launch. Levante opens another 50 percent of the luxury market, accounting for the bulk of growth if Maserati is to reach its targeted 70,000 sales by the end of 2018.
Levante, by the way, is not a 1970s R&B singer. It’s an easterly wind blowing across Italy, southern France and Spain — sometimes arriving with near-gale force before dissipating to a cool, calming breeze. The Levante is also known for bringing cloud cover and rain.
What’s it like to drive?
For grins, Maserati drove its first SUV up 80 or so steps at the medieval Italian castle where it held its press briefing. Not something you’d expect from a Maserati.
There are things about Levante you would expect, and still more you probably wouldn’t.
If you can drive a Bentley through muddy forests, why not a Maserati? We did, until the jewel-like deep red paint was more or less obscured. The Levante has the right electronic assistants, like hill-descent control. It performed the obligatory off-road stunts few owners will try, at least when the breakover angle isn’t too steep, and it did them with one unusual bit of kit: full-performance summer Pirellis rather than typical all-season tires.
With the right rubber underneath, off-road traction won’t likely be an issue, though sufficient ground clearance and the general lack of protection for Levante’s underpinnings would be. That said, Maserati’s SUV is almost certainly up to any “off-road” action the typical buyer might attempt. And properly equipped, the Levante can tow more than 5,000 pounds.
Levante’s steering effort falls toward the heavy side, certainly for this class, maybe another defining trait. An extra-thick steering wheel rim does not feel inappropriate in this SUV. It can make for some work through twisties, but the hydraulic steering tracks the uneven flow of pavement in a fashion the best electric systems still can’t. It puts this honking SUV exactly where you want it to go, every time, imparting confidence most SUVs do not. You might actually want to lash the Levante a bit. You’ll find it’s not inclined to plow or get light in back any more than a decently tuned sport sedan, and surprising lateral grip.
The Levante rides relatively soft in normal mode, certainly smoothly. Sport firms up the springs and reduces sway, but on rural Italian roads never felt anything like stiff. That might change on familiar byways in the good ol’ USA. Overall, the Levante is quite tight structurally, and by our ear and buttocks, among the quietest SUVs going — particularly when it comes to wind noise. That wasn’t necessarily expected. Toward the end of our drive, after the 9-mile off-road run, we did notice an annoying vibration under the floor at hard-throttle shift points, as if a heat shield had loosened or something.
In many respects Levante is the least SUV-like machine among the growing throng of larger, luxury-grade SUV/crossover things, despite the requisite nod to off-road antics. It feels most like you’re driving a sedan with a higher seating position, slightly higher ride height, and most of an SUV’s stowage/space etc. advantages. Trite phrase, but true here: The Levante is quite car-like, if car means a good, powerful (but not necessarily light) sedan or wagon. That might be what most luxury SUV buyers want to begin with.
Inside, the elegant part of Double Soul rests largely in the materials, and the sport in design or technical details. The leather dash isn’t standard, but definitely makes the interior. The Zenga package adds the silk seat inserts, though you might not recognize it as silk. It starts with silkworm cocoons but ends up feeling a lot like other, more rugged auto-upholstery textiles. The dashboard is less cluttered than many, and generally effective. Layered control menus can be manipulated by touchscreen or mouse. There are hard buttons for climate and most drive functions, including drive modes, along the edge of the console or on the steering-wheel spokes.
Packaging is good if you can live with the lower-than-typical roof. The back seat is comfortable, with ample legroom, at least at the outboard ends. The hump in the center looks much less inviting. Headroom is tighter than in the typical SUV, but not tight for people of typical heights. Yet with 19.4 cubic feet of cargo space behind the rear seat, Levante sits near the bottom of the competitive set. The space there is only 60 percent of what’s available in a Range Rover.
Thumbs which way? The Levante’s Italianess applies in the better ways, and not in any bad way. A reviewer not inclined to suffer annoyances or embrace oddities in the name of Italianess likes it much better than anticipated. In more objective terms, you could make the case it’s today’s best Maserati, comparing each vehicle Maserati builds to any obvious competitors — definitely a surprise.
Do I want it?
If you want the Maserati of SUVs, you must have it. The Levante is exactly that, beyond the hype.
Loved or hated, the most important Italian automobile in decades is distinctively Italian, stirring and mainstream competent, but not conformist. On the product alone, Maserati (and Italian luxury automobiles) have a fighting chance. Viva Italia.
Tagged: , Maserati , Levante , introduction , test , Suv , viva , italia