The 2017 Maserati Levante SUV is an extremely hard vehicle to review. It has so much potential, some of which it lives up to with full marks, some of which it fails at miserably. The early adopters in Australia who want one, of which there are over 200 already, have already purchased it, so for those that are still contemplating the idea, let us explore the confusion.
Firstly, as pioneered by Porsche and its Cayenne in the ultra-high end segment so many years ago, SUVs from such marquees are becoming more and more common place. Jaguar, Bentley, and now Maserati are already there. Soon Lamborghini and even Rolls Royce will join the SUV party. So, if your first point is that ‘Maserati shouldn’t make an SUV’, you’re wrong. It should, and its existence as a luxury carmaker relies on it.
The Levante range starts at $139,990 plus on-roads for the base model, while the Levante Sport and the Levante Luxury are both priced at $159,990 plus on-road costs. Realistically, you can add around $20,000 to those prices for drive-away pricing. Even so, these are reasonably affordable prices for the famous Italian badge.
The Levante will likely become the best-selling Maserati of all time, but does that make it good by default?
From the outside the Maserati is very much in line with the current design language of the Italian brand. The Trident sits upon the Maserati grille proudly and there is no mistaking this as anything but special. The rear is perhaps a little less dramatic, but it still possesses a shape sure to be timeless and which will age gracefully.
Perhaps most obvious for the Levante is the length. Like any true Maserati, this is a grand car and as such, it’s longer and wider than the Porsche Cayenne, yet it sits lower so it almost looks like an extended hatchback. There is great deal of travel in the standard air suspension system which can climb from 162mm ride height to 240mm with six steps in between. This allows a rather customised look of the car depending on your mood or road requirements.
Powering the Levante is a 3.0-litre turbo diesel engine with 202kW of power and 600Nm of torque. Coupled to a ZF eight-speed automatic transmission, it will accelerate from 0-100km/h in 6.9 seconds while using 7.2L of diesel fuel on the combined city and highway cycle.
Now, you may be thinking that those figures don’t seem very fast for a Maserati, particularly given what Porsche has on offer in terms of the now rather old Cayenne S diesel which managed that dash in 5.3 seconds (8L/100km fuel consumption).
The issue here is Maserati's diesel engine. The VM Motori A 630 diesel is one which has been used in the Jeep Grand Cherokee, Chrysler 300 and of course the Ghibli and Quattroporte. It’s a Fiat-Chrysler family engine that is in its highest state of tune in the Maserati product. But, it is a Fiat-Chrysler oiler.
The good news is the engine has a lot of pull and it pulls really hard, so unless 0-100km/h bragging rights are something of a requirement at school pick-ups or family dinners, it’s more than sufficient for its intended purpose.
So that brings us to the point of the Levante. What is its intended purpose?
Of course, being an SUV means that it has to be practical – which it definitely is if you’re planning on carting four people around. It means it has to have lots of cargo space, which it does at 580L, but you don’t spend upwards of $150,000 for practicality, because there are far more logical choices.
The point of the Levante is to be a unique and stylish choice in the hyper-competitive luxury SUV segment. The point is, that with a billion Porsche Cayennes around and even more BMW X5s, there is demand for something different. Uniqueness is underrated, and the Levante has it in spades.
Maserati Australia expects to sell around 500 this year, which is about how many X5s BMW sells in 6 weeks and Porsche sells Cayennes in 10 weeks. You get the point. The problem, though, is that uniqueness can only carry you so far. There needs to be substance to back it up.
Our confusion with the Levante starts when you get inside. If you’re buying a Maserati, you expect to be wowed by the interior, but there is none of that here. It feels a generation behind the likes of the new Audi Q7 and even compared to the ageing Cayenne and X5, it struggles to surprise.
Look, there are some nice touches like double glazed windows and frameless doors, but ultimately there is just too much Jeep inside. Too much of the interior feels flimsy and cheap to touch. The switchgear, infotainment system and plenty of other materials are not feeling up to what we would expect from a Maserati. To be fair, it’s not even what we would expect from a BMW or Mercedes. We also found the front seats not to be awfully comfortable and a fair few ergonomic issues with the switchgear to top it off.
The interior is, by and large, the biggest negative with the Levante and although the brand emphasises that it's a true Maserati, with extensive use of leather here and there and everywhere, it’s not all that hard to see through it.
The active safety systems, which include forward collision detection and lane departure alert, are pretty ordinary and intrusive. We had the forward collision detection system go off multiple times despite no existence of a real threat. And the lane departure system’s beeps will drive you mad. But, at least you can turn it off.
Perhaps what annoyed us the most – not surprisingly – is also what annoys us the most in a Jeep Grand Cherokee: the gear selector. It’s simply annoying. It unnecessarily complicates the process of selecting a gear and can be so easily rectified.
In essence, pretty much everything Maserati engineers and designers have built themselves, is very good, while everything they’ve borrowed from the Fiat-Chrysler parts bin? Not so much. On the plus side, bar the negatives mentioned so far, the Levante does nearly everything else rather well.
On the open road, the Maserati Levante is very pleasant to drive. The dynamic capability of the SUV is as its Maserati badge would have you believe. It does not disappoint in this respect. The hydraulic steering system (Maserati has refused to go to electric steering in order to preserve the steering’s purity) is top notch and the suspension and the chassis work in terrific form to deliver what is without doubt a very well-balanced and capable SUV whether it’s on a race track or a normal city or suburban road. And it pleasantly surprised us even during our brief off-road test.
The air suspension is pretty good, but don’t except a soft cushy ride like you’d get in a Mercedes-Benz GLE. There’s a lot of emphasis on the ‘Sport’ in SUV for the Levante.
Speaking of sporty things, we have to mention the diesel engine note. Maserati says a ‘thrilling engine sound’ is essential and that even with this diesel, it delivers on that premise. We are not entirely sure we agree. It sounds really good from the back as it flies past you, thanks in large to the Maserati Active Sound system which uses two sound actuators (fitted near the exhaust tailpipes) that – and we quote “accentuate the engine’s most attractive tones and adjust them depending on the way the car is being driven”. Stand in front of it though, and well, it sounds like a diesel Grand Cherokee. Not ideal.
Overall, we want to love the Maserati Levante. We really do and in many ways it deserves a lot of love.
It’s unique, it’s very dynamically capable and it has the presence and boldness of a Maserati… from the outside. It’s massively let down by its bland and inexpensive feeling interior, Fiat-Chrysler borrowed powertrain, infotainment system and switchgear.
If you’re done with the Germans, looking for a unique SUV and can’t stretch to the Bentley Bentayga or Range Rover SV, the Maserati Levante is a great choice. But its beauty is not skin deep.