Our convoy of gleaming, new Maserati Levante sport models were bombing northbound along Italy’s A26 highway when we casually blew past a BMW X5 M. The driver of the Bimmer was apparently having none of it. Game on.
The affronted German floored it by us, and our group of Italian stallions immediately gave chase. Each of us summoned every one of the 424 cavallinos from the Levante’s potent twin-turbo 3.0-liter six in an effort to run down the mean-looking black M. We hung in for a while, pushing up toward the Maserati’s 164 mph top speed, until discretion became the better part of valor and we backed off. The BMW eventually disappeared, victory achieved.
But the tête-à-tête proved one thing—the first of its kind 2017 Maserati Levante can get after it out on the open road. Short of a strangely shaking hood, it felt fully connected to the ground, composed at sustained high speeds, and plenty powerful. And although it doesn’t quite have the brute force of an X5 M, the Levante should prove every bit the match of its stated bogies, the X5 and Porsche Cayenne, short of the highest-spec models.
The Levante is the first SUV in the storied 100-plus-year history of Maserati. From CEO Harald Wester on down, there was the recognition that this had to happen for the brand to thrive, whether they liked it or not. They were also keenly aware the Levante had to be right out of the gate—there are no mulligans in the cutthroat luxury-crossover market. It had to be unique, expressive, a true Maserati.
To that end, the Levante was developed completely in-house, and will be built on a dedicated line at its Mirafiori, Italy, facility. Using the bones of a Ghibli sedan as the base (same goes for its powerplant, the top spec engine got minor intake, exhaust, and ECU updates) the front and rear suspension componentry were reworked to better fit the Levante’s higher-riding body. Consisting of a double wishbone setup at the front and a five-arm, multilink out back, both ends also feature Maserati’s electronically controlled Skyhook shock damping system and anti-roll bars. Aluminum was deployed throughout the suspension and body shell to save weight and add stiffness to the 4,649-pound vehicle. Sounds heavy, but it’s in line with similar spec X5s and Cayennes.
Add to that a power-assisted hydraulic steering setup, the lowest drag coefficient in its class at 0.31 cd, a 50:50 weight distribution, and stout brakes with six-piston Brembo binders up front that can stop the top-spec Levante S in as little as 113 feet, according to Maserati, and you have a rock-solid base with which to have some serious crossover-style fun. Oh, and if you’re interested, the Levante can tow almost 6,000 pounds.
Further building on that foundation is Maserati’s Q4 all-wheel-drive system, which comes standard on the Levante and has been optimized for SUV duty. The heavily rear-biased system is coupled with a first-in-class standard mechanical limited slip rear-differential. It features a transfer case bolted onto the back of the transmission and utilizes a multiplate wet clutch to help move torque from 100 percent rear to 50:50 front/rear axle depending on the traction situation. It works in concert with a torque vectoring system that further optimizes traction to the wheel or wheels with the most grip.
But the biggest development specifically for the Levante (and the biggest challenge for Maserati’s engineers) was the addition of it all-new air suspension system. Featuring five separate ride heights, plus a parking mode designed for easier ingress/egress, the system can raise or lower the car as much as 3.4 inches depending on the setting.
There are two Off-road and two Sport mode settings with separate ride heights in addition to the normal setting. In the base sport setting, for example, the Levante lowers by 0.8 inch. Hit the button again, it lowers another 0.6 inch, and Skyhook further stiffens up the shocks. Sport mode also optimizes the transmission shift points, sharpens up the steering, and opens up the exhaust baffles for the full-throated Maserati falsetto.
Once we got off the Italian autostrada and onto Fiat Chrysler’s Balocco proving grounds, we had some time to get up close and personal with the Levante’s exterior, cabin, and amenities.
If there’s one thing you can say about the exterior of the Levante, it’s unique to the segment, at least from the front, with a massive concave grille designed to evoke Maseratis of yore. The LED and bi-xenon headlight assemblies designed to look catlike (adaptive front lighting is an option), and of course, it’s also going for a coupelike look, with large rear haunches dominating the rear quarter area. We could do without the side portholes, and the foglamp placement, but the skidplates add a touch of toughness. It’s a design that’s proven polarizing thus far, but people are talking about it, good, bad, or otherwise, and that’s probably not a bad thing. There are 13 exterior colors, three unique to the Levante, and three rim options.
Inside, there are two flavors, Sport and Luxury, the latter of which can be had with an uprated, silked-up interior styled by Maserati’s partner Zenga. The S model we drove was swathed in attractive, high-quality leather and one of several wood trim options. (Carbon fiber is an option, and a total of 28 color combos are available.)
Up front, the 12-way power seats were relatively supportive and the cockpit felt roomy enough, with a ride height that felt more sedan- than SUV-like. In the second row, 6-footers will be a little snug, but there’s just enough leg and headroom to keep from feeling claustrophobic. With the 60:40 rear seats up and the parcel shelf in place, the Levante can hold 19.4 cubic feet of cargo, with them down, it opens up to 57 cubes.
The 8.4-inch navi/infotainment touchscreen is complemented by a rotary dial setup (which seemed like a bit of an afterthought) placed just behind the BMW-style push/pull gearshift lever and to the right of the row of vehicle setting buttons. The instrument panel is attractive, as is its multi-function, color center display.
On the safety side, there are multitude of standard and available features, including a trick, full surround view camera with multiple views, lane keeping assist, adaptive cruise with a stop-and-go feature, and forward collision assist with braking.
Our interior poke and prod over, it was time for the highlight of the day—hot laps! Balocco has miles and miles of test tracks across the expansive facility, and we headed out to one of its most challenging circuits to get after it in the Levante. With a 5.0-second-to-60-mph time, the top-spec Levante S isn’t explosively fast, but once underway it proved plenty powerful. Its responsive and sharp-shifting ZF-derived eight-speed auto easily handled the cog-swapping duties.
We went hard in Normal mode for a lap, experiencing a predictable amount lean. But on succeeding laps we tapped the sport button twice and things got way more interesting, sharper, with much less roll and pitch. The Maserati peeps we spoke with were incredibly proud of the fact that the Levante’s Sport mode offers the driver a wide latitude before any nannies start to wrap your knuckles, not so subtly hinting that its competitors were more restrictive. Indeed, we never experienced any cutdown on our flying laps.
Then we got in with Maserati project engineering manager Federico Landini, who also serves as one of the brand’s resident hot shoes. Whoa. Landini absolutely shredded the track, wheeling the Levante with ferocity, doing things a 4,600-pound SUV shouldn’t be capable of doing.
After our ride on the wild side, Landini was keen to take us to another area he wanted us to experience, the off-road track. Wester and Co. freely admitted that only a tiny sliver of Levante owners will ever even sniff the dirt, but that didn’t stop Maserati from developing a fully capable system, you know, just in case. Hit the button once, and the Levante lifts an inch above its normal height. Hit it again, and it lifts another 0.6 inches.
Over a route with areas designed to get a wheel in the air as a test of its torque vectoring system, a water fording pond, rocks, ruts, and steep up- and downhill descents further aided by hill descent mode, the Levante handled its business without breaking a sweat. You’ll probably never use it, but it’s there for the sheik in Dubai looking to crest a monster dune, or a weekend warrior off to the cabin a ways down a rutted-out two-track.
We spent our entire time with the Levante S, which will start at $83,000 (Maserati wouldn’t divulge the destination charge). There will also be base model Levante for the U.S. with a detuned version of the 3.0-liter six rated at 345 horsepower, a 0-60 mph time of 5.8 seconds, top speed of 156 mph, and a braking distance of 118 feet for $72,000. Respectable numbers.
Maserati is hoping to sell around 30,000 Levantes a year worldwide (which would account for roughly half of its volume), with about 25 percent of that number estimated for the U.S. market when the Levante gets here this October. It will be interesting to see whether being the Maserati of SUVs will be enough for it to chase down the X5 and Cayenne.
2017 Maserati Levante Specifications
|Price:||$72,000/$83,000 (base/S) (est)|
|Engine:||3.0L twin-turbo 24-valve V-6/345 hp @ 5,750 rpm, 369 lb-ft @ 4,500 rpm; 3.0L twin-turbo 24-valve V-6/424 hp @ 5,750 rpm, 428 lb-ft @ 5,000 rpm|
|Layout:||4-door, 5-passenger, front-engine, AWD SUV|
|L x W x H:||197.0 x 85.0 x 66.1 in|
|0-60 MPH:||5.8/5.0 sec (base/S)|
|Top Speed:||156/164 mph (base/S)|