It's a Guy Thing

The Gladiator

Maserati Levante S

Confession time: The exasperating, tight-belted bureaucracy shackled to Maserati’s insurance means that up until this moment I’d never driven a Maserati. Not the Ghibli, Quattroporte, GranTurismo or Levante, and as a rule-of-thumb we usually turn down the corporate hobnobbing aimed more at wooing clients than giving hands-on demos to the media. So it is with a fair amount of emailing and strict ‘no racetrack’ caveat that we’re in the Levante S – currently the sportiest Levante on sale. 

The problem when you’ve never driven a particular brand is that one forms a prejudicial web of ideas which may or may not be accurate. Here’s mine: ‘Reused Chrysler’. Hardly the sort of clean jump-off point for a review, I’ll admit. But they are beguiling machines and the Levante S feels like a worthy Maserati. It pulls the correct Italian strings of a product assembled at its own plant in Turin but without the usual small-volume stumbles like baffling infotainment or haphazard ergonomics. The styling is alluring with chiseled flanks, laser-shaped LED lights, frameless doors and the instantly recognisable scowling grille with the Trident badge. Chrome door handles could definitely learn a trick from the Range Rover’s retractable units… Still, the taut 2109kg athlete carries a presence like few other luxury SUVs and whereas the interior is all calm and cossetting, the exterior photographs mutually inside a private hanger or down at the yacht club.  

The ever-present yet intangible Maserati weight, always there reminding you that your ticket to the better life is just a few feet away. Exotic provenance slowly winning me over and I wasn’t the only one – a Levante S lives in the sacrosanct space that very few SUVs enter.

The engine, built at Maranello’s headquarters, is the 3.0-litre V6. That’s a small counter-clockwise turn from the outputs in the Alfa Romeo Stelvio QV which we already know as having the best V6 on sale today. The Levante’s size blunts the fizz somewhat down in the lower rpm but the real meat lies around 4000rpm before tailing off gently. Maserati claims 5.2 seconds to reach 60mph – brisk but still a second off troubling those brands from Stuttgart or Bavaria. The others are pseudo 5-door family sportscars trapped in a motorsport prism whereas the Levante S, based on the Ghibli platform, still resonates with Maserati’s Gran Tourer essence at heart. 

The engine is only one piece of the puzzle in its revised repertoire. Uprated 380mm brakes fit snugly behind the 20-inch wheels (or optional 21-inchers like the ones here) while hydraulic steering has been eschewed for electrically-assisted – claiming to filter out any corrupted messages which might have slipped through the air suspension’s defence. The latter being able to lift the ride height by 80mm for quasi off-road ability marketed around the silky dunes in the UAE.  

Driving modes of the rear-biased all-wheel drive system might be comprehensive in finding traction but they’re not very configurable from the driver’s seat. I’m not sure pushing the button for the louder exhaust note qualifies as a driving mode but being able to have exhaust flaps open when you don’t want the stiffer dampers in Sport Mode is a tasty middle ground. And what a sound. A turbocharged V6 isn’t typically thought of as a charismatic engine – limber but smothered – so it takes Maserati’s exhaust system (not the speakers) to sharpen the edges. 

Valves open, Levante S has a sonic metallic ring when pushed hard, leaving the artificial crackling to the Germans. Whereas other SUVs may drive like a sportscar, the Levante S sounds like one. Does that matter? Engine noise is Maserati’s incredibly persuasive schtick. The brand is renowned for it, and if anything putting a Maserati badge on its first SUV was a little bit easier to digest because of it. 

What of the interior, specifically the peppering of Chrysler switchgear or otherwise? Alas, still present but in far less quantity requiring you to look behind the steering wheel or by the window and mirror operation. Personal touches exist in abundance from the 26 interior color combinations, a choice of dual color and contrast stitching. Sportier overtones can be optioned by the carbon fiber package. 

The central screen, excusing the opening Maserati logo, has all the look and iconography of a generic unit – a modular design that still needs some finessing for the suave Levante. No complaints about the actual operation though or that it’s one of the few systems that’s Apple – and Android ready. That’s the thing about this Levante, you expect delicate trinkets, milled aluminum… exotic stuff. The reality is functional systems with tech that’s not yet able to challenge the German brands’ plethora of autonomous drive.

Mind you, Maserati isn’t too far behind. With the exception of standard dials rather than customizable ones and fewer ways to input messages, the specification, once you’ve ticked the optional driver’s package, still includes active cruise control, plus general convenience and safety items like blind spot assist, collision alert, traffic sign recognition and lane-keeping assist.  

Predominantly rear-wheel-drive and with a limited slip differential added to the mix, the Levante S has ostensibly been configured for sportiness with the safety of all-wheel-drive triggered by loose surfaces. Sandwiched between that there’s a fiendish amount of torque vectoring at play with the brakes nibbling the inside wheel to sharpen turn-in. Even so, road manners are fairly inert. It doesn’t kiss every apex despite its low centre of gravity and 50:50 weight distribution yet somehow carries that Maserati-ness right the way through (a lot via the noise, admittedly) so you find yourself having fun regardless.

As a boutique brand, the Levante doesn’t need to be compared on those usual performance metrics or autonomous capabilities. It’s not quite as innovative or quick against the stopwatch to win those battles. It is wonderfully good at rousing your senses and expressing individuality away from the crowd and that counts for something. Flawed but deeply desirable, and probably the model that is going to butter Maserati’s bread. JP