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First Drive: 2019 Maserati Levante S

An Italian outlier in the English countryside

CHICHESTER, England — How many Maserati Levantes have you seen around your town? Though your answer may be "none," Maserati says its sporty and luxurious Levante SUV is currently the brand's top seller—but that's mostly because it's the newest model in what is otherwise a rapidly aging lineup. And even the Levante has gone under the knife for 2019 in an effort to update an SUV that was launched not quite two years prior.

The changes on the 2019 Maserati Levante are, to be honest, disappointingly minor. Probably the most significant of the lot is the switch to a more conventional gear lever; the old, difficult to shift unit sent most Automobile staffers into fits. The buttons to select between various drive modes are also conveniently relocated to the center console. Besides that, if you're shopping for a V-6-powered Levante, you will have to decide whether you'd prefer the optional GranLusso or GranSport trim for $5,000 more on the 'S' trim—or $6,000 on the base Levante.

Levante GranLussos have an emphasis on luxury, as the name implies, with a smooth-mounted rear spoiler, comfort-oriented seats with special leather, Ermenegildo Zenga silk interior inserts in the leather upholstery, chrome grille and front fascia trim, and unique 20-inch wheels shod in Continental tires. Harman Kardon sound, parking sensors, and soft-close doors are also on the list. Opt for the GranSport trim and you'll get a more aggressive front fascia (borrowed from the upcoming V-8-powered Levante GTS and Trofeo), black inserts in the rear fascia, perforated leather on the steering wheel, sport pedals, sport seats with the GranLusso's plush leather, parking sensors, carbon trim, unique 21-inch wheels shod with Pirellis, double-stitched upholstery and a subtly different rear spoiler. Virtually everything else—including suspension and engine tune—remains the same between the two versions, meaning the only difference felt from behind the wheel is the slightly sharper steering response of the larger Pirellis on the GranSport.

That's not a bad thing, as we like the way the Levante drives. Maserati has carefully toed the line between sport and luxury with the Levante and created a vehicle that seats five in relative comfort and style that's also able to react sharply when asked to press on a little quicker. On the traffic-clogged motorways north of Chichester, the Levante proved comfortable and easy to drive. However, the Maserati Touch Control Plus (UConnect-based) navigation programing could be difficult to live with; the system often lead us to exactly where we'd intended to go or gave a convoluted route to get there (we blame this on shoddy European navigation software). The Levante's normal suspension setting has plenty of compliance and both throttle tip-in and automatic gearshifts are smooth. Manual shifts when just toodling around town seem to lag a little compared with shifts paired to aggressive throttle inputs.

When roads improved (read: smaller and twistier), we threw the Levante into Sport mode and the 430-hp, 3.0-liter, twin-turbo V-6 snarled and growled its way down a couple of the ZF automatic's eight gears to get back in the meat of the powerband. We suspect most Levante owners will soon tire of the barking, un-baffled exhaust in this setting. We enjoyed it, though we couldn't quite decide if the Pentastar-derived V-6 sounded "Maserati" enough. The Levante's two-mode suspension is changeable even with the car in one setting or the other, and our favorite combination for quick road driving was Sport mode with the suspension left in Normal to soak up the potholed country roads.

Driving position in the Levante remains a strong point, though the column mounted paddle shifters were a bit close to the steering wheel for a car that doesn't really inspire you to use them much. Make no mistake, this is a sporty SUV, but it's far from the type of sporty that enthuses its driver to set a personal best time on the trip to the grocery store. Leave that for the excellent Alfa Romeo Stelvio Quadrifoglio. Instead, the Levante revels in a kind of quiet confidence-you know it's quick and handles well, but you don't feel inspired to use all that capability all the time as you would in a more focused sports car. Instead, you're content to meander down roads rather than charge them, with an occasional redline blast just to wake yourself up a little.

As for the luxurious side of the Maserati, it's trimmed well and the leather and other materials are generally high quality, but the multitude of plain-looking plastic switchgear, turn signal stalks, and carbon fiber trim (the latter in the GranSport version) ensure that it never really feels more special than its German competitors, just different.

And that really seems to be the whole point behind the Levante: to drive something different. In a Levante, you won't see yourself at every mall, grocery store or restaurant parking lot as you would in a Porsche, Mercedes or Audi. In most U.S. towns, you won't see yourself at all. Even in Los Angeles, a Levante sighting is more of a monthly occurrence than a weekly one. This in a town where you'll see at least five Porsche Cayennes each and every day whether you want to or not.

All told, the 2019 model year changes are worth the $880 increase in price over the 2018 model (we'd pay that for the new gearlever alone), but the optional GranSport and GranLusso trims are more of a personal choice, escalating a mid-$80,000 vehicle into the low-$90,000 range. That's a lot of scratch, but not out of line considering Maserati's competitors.

2019 Maserati Levante S Specifications

ON SALE Fall 2018
PRICE $88,475/$93,045 (base/as tested)
ENGINE 3.0L twin-turbo DOHC 24-valve V-6/430 hp @ 5,750 rpm, 428 lb-ft @ 2,000-4,750 rpm
TRANSMISSION 8-speed automatic
LAYOUT 4-door, 5-passenger, front-engine, RWD SUV
EPA MILEAGE 14/19 mpg (city/hwy)
L x W x H 197.0 x 78.0 x 66.6 in
WHEELBASE 118.3 in
WEIGHT 4,649 lb
0-60 MPH 5.2 sec
TOP SPEED 163 mph