Courmayeur in northern Italy is a proper little Alpine town. The houses all look like they do in the movies and you don’t get much better a picture postcard scene than having the mountain of Mont Blanc rising majestically over the village.
Fear not, this is not a lifestyle travel story, but we were in Courmayeur while that Beast from the East was forcing the UK to shut down. In the Alpine town, the residents saw it as just another Tuesday. Although at -15°C it felt anything like a regular Tuesday after leaving Joburg’s 28°C behind.
The snow stood metres high in places and while the gritters and salt trucks had cleared many of the roads, up in the mountains things were set to be a bit slipperier.
Perfect for driving a Land Rover or a Toyota Land Cruiser then? But what about a rear-wheel drive Italian with a big V8 under the bonnet pushing out 390kW and 710Nm?
We were in Italy to test the upgraded Maserati Quattroporte and the new Levante S models. Our time with the Levante was limited to some drifting action on an icy go-kart track but first we had to get there, through a narrow road in the Alps that was covered in snow and for this we were behind the wheel of the Quattroporte GTS.
First up we did some highway cruising because Maserati has introduced a number of new technical solutions to its vehicles. Although as much as Maserati wants to make a big thing about it, the tech is hardly new. According to Ennio Salvati, the man in charge of vehicle integration at the Modena company, Maserati has waited long after its rivals to introduce electric power steering (EPS).
Salvati says the delay was because they wouldn’t introduce it until the performance and feeling was right. The introduction of EPS was essential though to provide various driving assistance packages, particularly active systems.
“It’s the first step into Level 2 autonomous driving for Maserati,” he says. It has enabled lane keeping assistance, highway assist, active blind spot assist and traffic sign recognition. None of these is new, but they are new to Maserati and available as an optional package across the range this year.
On the highway they all worked really well, in fact the lane keeping assist is one of the best I have come across. There is no constant adjustment in the steering, almost as though the car is reading the road far ahead and knows where it needs to be in the lane.
Some systems operate in the moment and it can be annoying to the point where you have to switch it off. But Maser’s system is not perfect. On a number of occasions it switched itself off saying that certain parameters could not be met. Given that we were on great roads with pristine markings, it seemed odd. Possibly the regular change in light conditions going in and out of tunnels might be the reason.
Other changes include a torque vectoring by braking system, new full LED or bi-LED headlights and power upgrades on the Quattroporte S and SQ4 models. But we need to talk snow, lots and lots of snow.
No surprises that on the snow covered roads through the mountains the GTS was a bit tail happy, even when driving appropriate to the conditions and with proper Pirelli winter tyres fitted. But it kept everything in check, which was great because apart from the snow piled up on the side of the road, it was a steep drop down the side of the mountain in most places.
Hitting the Ice mode button reduced the power lower down the revs to prevent wheel- spinning out of the corners and while there was a bit of oversteer fun to be had, the most impressive thing was the complete lack of understeer under braking into the tight corners.
When the roads cleared a bit, we could wind up the V8 and generate some mountain- echoing noise.
This brings me to the Levante S. We have since driven it back in SA and a report on that will be in a future issue, but what a difference to that awful diesel version that was pulled from the Fiat Chrysler parts bin. It lacked any Maseratiness and if FCA Group boss Sergio Marchionne announces the end of diesels in the group at the company’s investor’s conference in June, we will be glad to see it dropped from the line-up in 2022.
The S, on the other hand, is superb. It makes real Maserati noise, a major characteristic of the brand. It feels dynamic and sporty as it should and yet it still has plenty of comfort. Not that we had time to focus too much on that because it was all about fun on a go-kart track with vertical snow banks on each side.
An initial drive with Corsa Pilota instructor Filippo Pensotti showed just what it was capable of, right up until he had a brain fade moment and put it into the bank. At least I was not that guy.
The bodywork clipped back in and it was my turn. On the tight track it was difficult to beat the understeer, a simple matter of not putting enough power down but when it all came together properly the back stepped out and the snow sprayed up from the rear wheels while the Q4 all-wheel drive system shuffled power to the front to pull things into line.
It was my first ice-driving track experience and the Levante S did not disappoint. Neither did the Quattroporte for that matter. Both are too expensive in SA in my opinion but as I have said before, there is something about owning a Maserati.
And now you know, when winter comes, a trip to the Lesotho Highlands will show you a very different side of the famous Modena trident. – Mark Smyth