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Maserati's first SUV promises to be the luxury maker's most popular model when it hits showrooms, writes John Carey.
Yesterday's shapes don't make tomorrow's profits. While sexy sedans, curvy coupes and sleek sports cars laid the foundations of Maserati's reputation, its future prosperity rides on a high and heavy SUV. The new Levante, due to reach Australia late this year, is the first ever SUV from the century-old Italian car maker.
Maserati management expect the Levante to instantly become the brand's most popular model. Through 2017, its first full year in production, sales of the SUV should easily exceed every other car in its line-up.
In Australia, Levante will be more richly equipped than in Europe, promises Maserati Australia chief Glen Sealey. Some items in the optional Sports and Luxury packs there will be standard here, he says, including sunroof, paddle shifters, electric steering column adjust, rear camera and full electric front seats. Expect larger wheels than Europe's standard 18-inchers, and better leather upholstery, too.
Sealey says the aim is to launch the Levante at a price "around $150,000".
The Levante can park itself in a new niche in the luxury car hierarchy.
But Levante won't come to Australia with the loud and lively, Ferrari-manufactured twin-turbo 3.0-litre V6 petrol engine used in the Ghibli and Quattroporte. The reason? Right-hand drive Levantes come only with the 202kW 3.0-litre V6 turbo diesel. For now …
Despite the diesel-only disadvantage, Sealey believes the Levante can park itself in a new niche in the luxury car hierarchy — below exotic brands like Bentley and Ferrari, yet above premium brands like Porsche and Jaguar.
So, in the case of the Levante, does the hardware live up to the hype? Mostly, yes.
Maserati's engineers say the Ghibli provided the starting point for the SUV and the two are near identical in length (5 metres) and wheelbase (three metres). Levante's effective all-wheel-drive system is the same as Maserati installs in some left-hand-drive versions of the Ghibli and Quattroporte. For help with development and testing of the system in the Levante, Maserati went to Jeep. Both brands are part of the FCA (Fiat Chrysler Automobiles) family.
But the Levante does get an all-new suspension set-up, to provide the ground-clearance and wheel-travel needed by an SUV. What's more, Maserati's engineers added air springs and adaptive dampers.
The Levante has four different driver-selectable driving modes, all of which affect the vehicle's ride height. Lower for sporty driving and speed, higher for off-road work.
The Levante's suspension is outstanding, with grippy handling in Sport mode and excellent comfort in Normal. For something weighing well over two tonnes, its agility on winding Italian backroads was truly astonishing. Later, pumped up in Off-Road mode, it showed it has more capability than any customer is ever likely to need.
The exhaust sounds better than any other turbo diesel on the market.
In comparison, the diesel engine isn't so brilliant. Performance is brisk enough, without being thrilling. And while the exhaust sounds better than any other turbo diesel on the market, the Levante's very effective soundproofing turns down the volume a notch too far, even in louder Sport mode.
Maserati's first SUV is also the first model it has made with a number of driver-assist and safety technologies. The trident badge in the grille is actually a cover for the Levante's forward-facing radar that's required for its active cruise control and autonomous emergency braking systems. Such tech has been commonplace in premium Germans for years.
The Italians grudgingly admit that active safety is these days expected by customers.
But you don't find an interior like the Levante's in anything from Germany. It has a livelier feel and looser look.
This is a pleasant change from the dark, precise and sternly technical ambience the Germans so love.
The Maserati's interior is also spacious, at least for four. Front and rear seats are fine, both for comfort and room. Behind is a broad but high-floored cargo compartment that can hold a useful 680 litres.
There's no doubt the Maserati has real presence on the road, especially seen from the front. Nor does it look like any other luxury SUV. It's sleeker than, say, a Porsche Cayenne. And it's not as stupidly compromised as a BMW X6.
You can count on Maserati producing the Levante with a V8 engine
Not that this is likely to put off the status-conscious and SUV-hungry types the Levante aims to attract.
Diesel rules... for now
Maserati executives say they're looking hard at the case for producing the Levante with more powerful 3.0-litre V6 twin-turbo petrol engines in right-hand-drive. Problem is the sales potential is not great, as diesel dominates in luxury SUVs.
But you can count on Maserati producing the Levante with a V8 engine, the same barking-mad 390kW Ferrari-manufactured 3.8-litre twin-turbo used in the Quattroporte GTS. Engineers confirm a prototype has already been built.
There's a higher likelihood of this engine being produced in right-hand-drive than the V6.
At a glance
Price from: $150,000 (est)
Warranty: 3 years/unlimited km
Safety: Not yet rated
Engine: 3.0-litre V6 turbo diesel; 202kW/600Nm
Transmission: 8-speed auto; AWD
Dimensions: 5003mm (L), 1968mm (W), 1679mm (H), 3004mm (WB)
0-100km/h: 6.9 secs