The sports utility vehicle (SUV) is taking over and it’s taking no prisoners. The days when the traditional three-box sedan ruled the automotive world are no more. In Europe, SUVs and crossovers are now the biggest part of the market. Look around and you will probably think it is the same in SA, although we add bakkies into the equation, too.
So it will come as no surprise that manufacturers are turning their attention to SUVs more than ever before. BMW will end production of the 3 Series at its Rosslyn plant and switch to the X3. Jaguar has its first SUV in the form of the F-Pace, which you can read about elsewhere in this issue, and Audi is producing SUVs and crossovers like there is no tomorrow.
The genre is not lost on the upper end of the market either. Bentley, Porsche, Rolls-Royce, Lamborghini and others are either in the segment or have plans to join the fray. It is an SUV world out there.
Fiat Chrysler Automobiles has technically been in the market for decades, courtesy of the Jeep brand, which it now owns. Later in 2017 it will add the Alfa Romeo Stelvio to its SUV arsenal. It also owns Maserati; the famous Trident-wearing brand from Modena offers all its traditional luxury and sporty credentials in a vehicle with a commanding driving position and a dose of off-road ability.
Originally unveiled as the concept Kubang, the company ditched the awkward name and launched its contender wearing the Levante badge. Lerato drove it in Italy in 2016 and came back with a good first impression. Now we have driven it on home soil.
The Levante is going to stand out more for its rarity than for its unique looks. In many respects the designers have followed the rule books. It is a great-looking vehicle with a number of hallmark Maserati design cues, including the grille and those air vents in the flanks behind the front wheel arches. Even some of the chrome detailing stands out as pure Maser.
The front takes the notion of aggressive looks to another level, with a wide grille and air ducts that look like they are full of sharpened teeth. Like the F-Pace, this is a vehicle that aims to emphasise the sports in SUV and it has the looks to match.
Inside is all about that handcrafted tradition, which, together with the precision engineering, aims to justify the price tag of R1 650 000. The sumptuous and sporty leather seats are a work of art on their own, particularly if you opt for extrovert red. Leather adorns the dashboard, door trims and steering wheel and there is no chance that you will not feel as if you are ensconced in pure luxury.
Look beyond the handcrafted luxury and you will find a few elements from across the pond. Many of the switchgear items, including the gearstick, are straight from the Jeep stable. In these days of platform sharing and group collaboration, it comes as no surprise. Even the touchscreen infotainment system will be familiar to anyone trading up from a Grand Cherokee, but Maserati designers have put their own touches to it.
Group parts aside, the team in Modena have gone to great lengths to make sure this is a real Maserati. Under the bonnet sits a 3.0-litre turbodiesel that is unique to the brand. It pushes out 202kW at 4000rpm and 600Nm between 2000 and 2600rpm. This is pushed through a familiar eight-speed ZF automatic transmission to all four wheels and translates into a claimed 0-100km/h time of 6.9 seconds and a top speed of 230km/h.
The figures are hardly in real sports car territory, of course, and you aren’t going to be winning any red-light launches against a Golf GTi. If you want to do that then you need the petrol models, but sadly the company is making those only in left-hand drive.
The Levante showed superb road manners, although our short drive did not give us much of a chance to truly test how dynamic its soul is. After a slight lag the engine provided smooth take-off, particularly when overtaking, and it never really wanted for power. The ride is comfortable and the cabin is extremely well insulated from the outside world.
Like anything at this end of the market, you are going to want to add options — and there are lots of them although some will surprise you. It has air suspension as standard, but an alarm system is an option. We found that a little odd.
You can opt for packages such as the Premium Pack (R41 835) or the Driver Assistance Pack (R50 200). Go more upmarket and there is the Luxury Pack at R140 560 or the Luxury Zegna Pack at R180 720. Put it this way: spec a Levante the way you want it and you are probably going to find yourself on the other side of two bar.
What you do get though is the name. While other fancy SUV owners are swanning around the streets of Joburg or Cape Town, few get to say they own a Maserati. Yes there might be some Jeep and Alfa bits in there, but someone hand-stitched the leather on the dashboard. It won’t be enough for some, but to others all that history, pedigree and Italian craftsmanship will be worth every single cent. – Mark Smyth