Preview: Maserati Levante

Preview: Maserati Levante

Maserati is hopping on the SUV bandwagon with their new Levante that launches locally in December. Thomas Falkiner went behind the scenes to see what makes it special.

There’s something about Maserati I quite like. As premium Italian car brands go this trident-wearing marque is probably at the top of my list. Whereas Ferrari is too obvious and Lamborghini too ostentatious, Maserati can usually be found lurking inoffensively in the midfield.

The sharp-edged Bora and Merak of the 1970s. The curious BiTurbo of the 1980s. And let’s not forget the unremembered MC12 of the mid-Noughties that, in my opinion, out-Enzoed the Enzo upon which it was based.

There’s always been something different about Maserati, the unofficial black sheep of the Italian automotive clans. Even the cars in their current portfolio — the Ghibli and GranTurismo for example — manage to both distance themselves and stand out from the mainstream.

Maserati Levante

Things have just become more intriguing with the launch of the new Levante: a sports utility vehicle to rival the likes of the Porsche Cayenne, Audi Q7 and BMW X5. Normally SUV is enough to send shockwaves through even the most blasé motoring enthusiasts, especially thrown in the same sentence as a premium brand such as Bentley or Porsche or Maserati. The latter seems to have got it right the first time.

Despite its five-metre length, the sizeable Levante comes across as sleek and well proportioned. According to Maserati Middle East, India and Africa marketing director Amaury La Fonta, its shape was inspired by a conceptual star of the 2014 Geneva International Motor Show.

“You’ve seen the Alfieri Concept, no?” he asks. I nod. “Then you will see that the face of Levante, particularly the front grille, has been inspired by the Alfieri.”

Compare the two cars and you’ll see that both visages are strikingly similar. Yet for all its future-forward aesthetic, the Levante still acknowledges Maserati styling cues of old — like the side vents sprouting from behind the front wheels. There’s still scope for tweaking it to suit your tastes. Wood. Carbon fibre. Open-pore. Glossy. Matte. The choice is yours.

“Customers also have the option of ordering an interior trimmed by Ermenegildo Zegna,” La Fonta beams.

For the uncultured among us, Ermenegildo Zegna is a high-street fashion house known for its mulberry silk suits. Applied to the seats, ceiling and door panels you know you’re getting something tactile and unique.

Maserati Levante

Fortunately Maserati knows beauty is skin deep, which is why it has apparently spent a lot of hours fettling what lies beneath.

The car was tested in all terrains including South Africa’s hot climate as well as in Dubai, New Zealand, Lapland and Monaco.

Similar to the Porsche Cayenne, the Levante doesn’t have a low-range transfer case but rather an eight-speed automatic gearbox that, bolstered by some clever software with four driving modes, gives it the legs to conquer most of what owners are ever likely to steer it down.

“Combined with the standard air suspension we also have the possibility to adapt the car’s ride height to suit conditions. The Q4 all-wheel drive system recognises the type of terrain you’re driving on and will alter the torque split from zero in the front, 100 at the rear to up to 50/50 in 150 milliseconds. Working together these systems give you real capability.”

In the same breath La Fonta explains that the Levante will also be a pleasure to thrash around smoother tracts of asphalt. According to him it drives like a sporting GT should.

So what about the engine then? I mean anybody who’s seen a modern Maserati scythe past them in the street will know that they sound biblically good.

Unfortunately this is one area in which this newcomer may fall short. Well, at least here in South Africa.

Maserati Levante

“Looking at the market — the right-hand drive market — the share of diesel in the luxury SUV segment is between 80 and 90%,” La Fonta points out. “So based on these surveys we have launched Levante in the right-hand drive markets with the 202kW/600Nm diesel engine only.”

I’m told not to worry though. Apparently the engineers are “composers” and “musicians” who have managed to infuse the Levante oil-burner with that characteristic Maserati warble. Still, I have my doubts. Not even a Le Mans racing car running on the Devil’s Fuel sounds particularly appealing to my ear.

Questionable sonority aside, the Levante should still turn heads of the well-moneyed elite looking for an alternative to the predictable.

“We are appealing to those people who want something different,” La Fonta concludes. “Somebody who is looking for exclusivity — not a car that you see on each and every corner of the street.”

Considering the trident badge adorning its grille, I’m expecting fireworks when I needle the subject of pricing.

“Are you sitting down?” he asks playfully. I nod again. “We have a starting price of R1650000, which includes a three-year warranty and a five-year/100000km service plan. Which I think is a very competitive price for a fully imported car to South Africa.”

Perhaps. Although when you sit down and do the cash comparisons you will see that the Levante out-prices most of its competitors. Still, for many high rollers the accompanying Maserati quirk will be worth every cent. – Thomas Falkiner

• The Maserati Levante will be launched in South Africa in December