Car reviews - Maserati - Levante - range
Pillarless doors and unique seating position, roomy rear seat, strong diesel when extended, excellent smooth-road handling
Room for improvement
Expensive options, lack of active safety equipment, jittery country-road ride on 21-inch wheels, vague steering at low speed
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7 Feb 2017
IN MANY ways the Maserati Levante is as much a balancing act between profitability and volume as it is – and this is shared with all premium rivals – between sports and utility. For an Italian brand renowned for producing exotic-sounding, low-slung sportscars, ‘challenging’ is in multiple senses the word for this diesel-engined, high-riding SUV.
Approach the Levante from the front and the widely spaced vertical slats between the sharp points of the hexagonal grille are imposing, the narrow and sinewy headlight treatment confirming this is a Maserati, just in case the supersized Trident badges on the grille and rear flanks had gone unnoticed.
Besides the trio of square vents adorning the front guards, however, the side reveals a generic SUV shape and there are even hints of Cayenne in the softer, more rounded rump. Maserati points out it is the only vehicle in the class with pillarless doors, while a lower and sportier driving position than most contenders flies in the face of buyers who love the SUV for its lofty seat height.
The cabin’s design treatment is similar to that of the Ghibli and Quattroporte, clean and ergonomic, topped by an analogue clock and especially enhanced with the (optional) stitched leather-trimmed dashboard.
Although the 8.0-inch colour touchscreen and Maserati Touch Control Plus software borrows from other Fiat and Chrysler models, the high-resolution graphics are decently impressive and a bounty of connectivity features including satellite navigation, Apple CarPlay/Android Auto smartphone mirroring technology and digital radio are standard.
Whether choosing a $107,855 Cayenne Diesel or $149,000 Cayenne S Diesel, by comparison, CarPlay/AA costs an additional $590 while digital radio is bundled with a television tuner for a hefty $3390.
The 80 per cent of buyers who upgrade to the $159,990 Levante Sport or Luxury – with sales split 40 per cent each – also enjoy a 900-watt, 14-speaker Harman Kardon audio system as standard.
Every Porsche interior control feels eminently tight and tactile, but the same cannot be said for every Maserati. The Levante’s gearlever feels plasticky and undamped, while the rotary console dial, which presents as an infotainment alternative to using the touchscreen, is toy-like in the hands.
The starter button and even steering wheel-mounted audio and cruise controls do not quite have the premium touch to match Maserati’s vast, high-quality trim selection, the pinnacle of which it spruiks are lovely silk coverings designed by Ermenegildo Zegna for the brand.
A slight drop in premium finish fails to take the shine off an otherwise impressive design and roomy cabin, however. The vast options list does to an extent, though the Levante might not have the cheapest starting price in the segment, but it should then offer more equipment as standard.
Extra-cost items that are not even standard on the Sport and Luxury include a blind-spot monitor, adaptive headlights, adaptive cruise control, forward collision warning, lane-departure warning, panoramic sunroof and four-zone climate control air-conditioning.
Front and rear cameras and parking sensors are included, but autonomous emergency braking (AEB) is not even available as an option which is especially disappointing for a family vehicle.
Maserati has, at least, gone to great lengths – literally – to create a roomy family car. The rear seat is as comfortable as the electrically adjustable and heated front pews, standard with a multi-tier backrest but without the sliding bench of its Cayenne rival.
A high loading lip affects boot space, which may be a decent 580 litres but considering the size of the vehicle is not particularly enormous. A standard 12-volt outlet and 60:40 split-fold rear seat with centre porthole should suit the owners of a ski lodge perfectly, though.
So the balancing act between sport and utility continues offroad utility included.
Part of the reason for that high loading lip is the breadth of ability of the Levante’s Q4 system. Although it typically sends all drive to the rear wheels, it can skew the split 50:50 front/rear and has an offroad mode that automatically can lock the rear differential.
The air suspension can be raised 40mm in offroad mode, and on the Levante’s standard 256mm-wide, 50-aspect 19-inch tyres we can confirm it provides tentacle-like control over the rough dirt mounds we tested it over, while a fine balance between control and compliance was kept inside.
At the other end of the ability spectrum, however, the suspension can lower itself by 20mm above 100km/h and by 35mm above 170km/h – or by 40mm at standstill when parking.
Press the Sport button once and it readies the eight-speed automatic transmission for more enthusiastic driving while sharpening the throttle response to increase engagement with the 3.0-litre turbo-diesel V6 engine.
Press it twice and it stiffens the damping over the standard setting.
Maserati claims that in Sport mode the Levante offers the lowest centre of gravity in the class, while the Ghibli-derived multi-link front and rear suspension is matched by the same 50:50 weight distribution of that sedan to achieve dynamics that match the brand image.
This SUV’s superb on-road handling makes its offroad performance even more remarkable. In the smooth racetrack-like conditions of Maserati’s private test facility, the Levante demonstrated its outstanding grip, agility and adjustability.
The lower driving position helps offset some bodyroll, but the way this Italian points its nose into a corner then permits throttle early while feeling noticeably rear-wheel-driven, is tantalisingly good. Quick changes of direction are shrugged off, the SUV even pivoting on its front axle following a throttle lift as it edged into understeer. Its neutral balance is car-like and Maserati-esque.
Again the balancing act comes to the fore, however, because on bumpy country roads the Levante Sport on 21-inch wheels proved far too jiggly and harsh even in the suspension’s standard setting. The Levante Luxury on 20-inch wheels proved slightly superior, but both suffered from vague low-speed steering response that was not evident during hard driving, where crisp connection is found.
Each proved impressively quiet despite the large tyres, however, while the 3.0-litre turbo-diesel V6 likewise became silken once above a slightly gritty low-rev zone where more vibration filters through to the cabin at idle than expected.
The auto (with paddleshifters in Levante Sport) places the 202kW/600Nm to good use, although with a kerb weight of 2205kg it can struggle when caught in the lower reaches of its rev range, and only feels as brisk as its claimed 6.9-second 0-100km/h when decently extended.
Arguably, the weight is reflected in the ability to fit five adults in comfort, while loping offroad, racing through corners and purring on the freeway, all of which the Levante balances up well.
Just like its weight distribution, the pros and cons of this premium large SUV are evenly matched, but a more convincing luxury and active safety kit list would largely tip it in the Maserati’s favour. The Levante otherwise offers an impressive breadth of ability, while disguising the compromises of its type rather well.
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