Diesel SUVs are what we’ve come to expect from brands like Toyota and Nissan – and sure, there are those European models from Audi, BMW, Mercedes and Land Rover, too.
But this is a very different diesel SUV – this is the 2016 Maserati Levante, an all-new luxury high-rider from the brand better known for its iconic Italian-made sports cars. Why does Maserati need an SUV? Because buyers want it: sales are booming, with about 50 per cent of all luxury vehicle sales worldwide being SUVs.
The Levante model we have is the only one that will be offered in Australia at launch from early 2017, and as you may have guessed, it’s powered by a turbo-diesel engine. While the US market will get the option of two turbocharged petrol engines (both V6s), Australia will miss out on both of those. Let’s hope that if a V8 version – in petrol or diesel! – launches, we’re on the list for it…
The 3.0-litre V6 powerplant produces 202kW of power and 600Nm of torque, which is clearly decent for a vehicle of this type. But with a price tag of $150,000 expected, there are rivals with V8 turbo diesels – such as the Porsche Cayenne and Range Rover Sport – for close to that money.
It’s all-wheel-drive, as you’d expect of an SUV that's just over 5.0 metres long (5003mm to be precise). That sizing means it’s essentially a competitor to the likes of the aforementioned Porker and Rangie, as well as the BMW X5. But even though it may not look it, the Levante is actually longer than all of those cars – it’s even lengthier than a Range Rover (not the Sport, the bigger one, which is 4999mm long).
So it’s big on the outside, and being a Maserati, you’d expect it to be luxurious on the inside. And in our test car, it certainly was.
That’s because our pre-production tester had the optional Ermenegildo Zegna silk interior, a lavish cockpit trim option that will set buyers back an expected $20,000.
According to Maserati there is 300 kilometres of silk used in each car with this option, and the Italian maker’s strategic partnership with Zegna’s suit craftspeople has seen them develop a silk that is claimed to be as durable as leather, yet still remain, well, silky smooth to the touch.
The silk is on the door trims, seat inlays, roof lining and even the sun visors (and those get lovely little tags as you would see on a $10,000 Zegna suit sleeve.
Our car also had the Luxury trim line package, which means it had sumptuous leather or gorgeous suede just about everywhere that the silk wasn’t. And the adjustable foot pedals – which allow you to control how close or far the accelerator and brake pedal box is positioned from the driver’s seat using an electric toggle – is great for pilots of different sizes.
There’s a new higher-resolution touchscreen media system than the one used in the Ghibli and Quattroporte, which includes pinch and swipe usability for the maps, and Apple CarPlay and Android Auto connectivity. But weirdly, there are no knobs – the only volume controller we could find was on the back on steering wheel.
While most parts of the cabin are quite classy, then, there are still a few Fiat Chrysler Automobiles parts littered through the cabin, like the window switches, push-button starter, and the silk control stalk on the steering column. And the gear shifter is similar to the ones used in some Jeep products, and it’s without doubt one of the most annoying gear selectors on the market, with the electronic controller struggle to predict when you want P, R, N or D. Aiming for D? You’ll end up in R. Want R? You’ll get N. After a few days with the car, we didn’t get used to it, either. In fact, our dissatisfaction increased over the loan.
It may not be your traditional Maserati, but it offers a good amount of space inside, with room in the rear seat for three adults. And because boot space is important for SUV buyers, and they won’t be disappointed with the amount of space back here: with 580 litres of cargo capacity there’s easily enough room for a few suitcases.
Enough about the practical bits – you probably want to know if it can live up to Maserati’s pedigree of creating some of the most stunning sports cars in history, like the original Ghibli coupe, the Merak, the Khamsin and the Bora. Maserati has, after all, been around for 102 years.
But this is a massive departure from anything the trident-badge brand has ever attempted before. It’s also, arguably, the most important vehicle the company has ever launched. You could say the company’s future success depends on it.
Ask Maserati about its decision to build an SUV and the company will keenly point out that the Levante is first-and-foremost a Maserati. What that means is, they see this not as a traditional load-lugging SUV, but rather, as GT car with enough pace, grace and space to uphold customer expectations, and to potentially lure buyers away from the likes of the aforementioned Porsche Cayenne and Range Rover Sport.
On top of that, Maseratis have to sound, well, like a Maserati, even if it’s a diesel-powered SUV. And this one does, but only if you hit the Sport button. Do that, and there’s arguably no better engine note in the world from a 3.0-litre diesel. It sounds like a full-blown battle tank, with a lumpy, cranky exhaust note that is the result of a lot of work from Maserati’s engineers.
The pace is okay, too, once you get rolling, but it’s no bull out of the gate missile, either. There’s some lag down low in the rev range, but anywhere above 2500rpm this two-tonne five-seater accelerates with satisfying commitment.
That said, there’s real refinement to the engine, especially when high-speed cruising on Italy’s Austostradas. It’s utterly vibration free.
Still, given it’ll be priced near to V8 diesel offerings from established competitors, the brag factor could be better.
You can leave the ZF eight-speed in full auto mode, but in the twisty Italian Dolomites, you may want the satisfaction of the quick-shifting sport setting with full manual mode. Choosing that mode means you’re in total control – it won’t even upshift when it hits redline until you pull the right paddle. It’s a free-revving engine, which is somewhat uncharacteristic for an oil-burner, so you’ll need to be on your toes, or you’ll be bouncing off the rev limiter all too often.
The downshifts are accompanied by a superbly timed throttle blip, and plenty loud enough to be heard through the double-glazed windows on our loaner.
Being as big as it is, you would be forgiven for predicting a rolly-polly drive experience, where in fact the level of deft handling that we experienced on twisty mountain roads littered with switchbacks was well beyond expectation.
The Levante offers good body control and solid rigidity even under big lateral loads. It’s not perfectly flat in the bends – you turn in and it tips in slightly – but you can feel what the car is doing and there are no nasty surprises in store.
The power steering is old-school hydraulic, so there’s excellent feel and good response, but without being too sharp to really enjoy.
Further, the level of grip is remarkable for a big, hefty vehicle. The Levante gets a quality tyre (Pirelli P-Zeros wrapped around 20-inch rims for our tester – the wheels looked really small, though, and we’d expect the optional 21s will be popular), and it also has torque vectoring, so even accelerating out of hairpins with a tad too much impatience, it’s still wonderfully behaved.
That’s also down to the big SUV’s 50:50 weight distribution and active torque split that mostly sends 100 per cent to the rear, but can also push 50 per cent to the front if grip fades, which it surly can after tackling repeated switchbacks.
The Levante also claims the lowest centre of gravity in the segment and given how easy it is to muscle this thing around the twisty roads at a solid pace it’s fair to suggest that the level of poise and composure of this Maserati makes it feel special and less like an SUV than most.
The brakes showed excellent stopping power and even after a good hiding, they continued to deliver. Moreover, pedal feel is good and the braking - progressive.
The Levante rides on standard air suspension with variable settings, we’ve been in the firmer Sport mode almost all day, and even then, there’s a good degree of bump absorption, though over sharp edges, such as road joins, the front end could jar, but it never crashed.
Switch to the normal setting, and it cruises along like a proper luxury car, with a soft ride and lighter steering making it more amenable to gentle driving.
As luxurious at it might be, Maserati also claims the Levante offers some serious off-road capability. So we thought we’d take it up a decenrt size ski slope and see for ourselves.
We switched to the “off-road” mode (a simple one button trick), which raised the air suspension to offer better ground clearance and tweaked the stability control system for conditions like these. And while the tyres were clearly more focused on road use, the Maserati offered decent levels of grip and traction to scramble up the craggy hillside we drove up.
What wasn’t as impressive was the drivetrain in this mode – it almost stalled on more than one occasion, which is exactly what you don’t want when you’re nose-first up a 30-degree incline.
Still, we got to the top and back down again, and while the off-road component of our test was hardly as exhaustive as it could have been, there’s still a question over whether Aussie buyers will ever really make use of the system to its full ability, anyway.
That’s because this is, after all, a Maserati. And for a first effort in the luxury SUV space, the Levante is impressive.
And because it’s different to the established players in the market, it is guaranteed to sell. How it stacks up to those rivals is something we’re desperate to find out.
Click on the Photos tab for more 2016 Maserati Levante images by Igor Solomon and Matt Campbell.
Videography by Igor Solomon.