The windscreen is absolutely covered in sand and the exhaust is spitting out a cracking note as we climb a massive sand dune. The car’s outside thermometer is reading 49 degrees Celsius and we’re in the middle of an Arabian desert. This is the last place on earth you’d expect to find a Maserati Levante.
But, it was the sand dunes around an hour outside of Dubai in the United Arab Emirates where Maserati engineers were prompted to bring the Levante prototype — which was a high-riding Ghibli fitted with Levante running gear. Now, it’s also one of the places we had the chance to thoroughly put the Maserati Levante S through its paces.
Up until a few weeks ago, the petrol Levante and more powerful petrol Levante S were never destined for right-hand drive markets. Feedback from Australia and interest from the UK and South Africa, however, prompted Maserati to approve the business case for it to be offered in right-hand drive.
From the end of this year, buyers will have the chance to buy this, the Maserati of SUVs, the twin-turbocharged V6 petrol Levante S.
Powered by an engine unique to Maserati and built by Ferrari, the Levante S boasts a 3.0-litre twin-turbocharged V6 that produces 316kW of power and 570Nm of torque – just short of the diesel’s 600Nm. It’s mated to an eight-speed automatic ZF Sachs transmission that’s controlled either automatically by the car or by static paddle-shifters.
We flew to Dubai to drive the Levante S across a range of roads – including highways, a spirited run up the UAE’s highest peak, Jabal Jais, and across an endless sea of sand dunes in the middle of the desert.
Before we get into how it drives, I really need to be honest – I never really liked the design of the Levante. It’s a departure from the ‘norm’ and I thought it always looked a bit out of proportion. But, it’s a totally different story in the flesh. The car has some serious character and turns heads. And being a Maserati, it never really could be just another SUV, it needed its own style and character.
And, if you’re not impressed with how it looks, the sound will win you over. Slam down the throttle and the exhaust erupts with fury belting through gears while popping, crackling and making an almighty racket. Best of all, it can be heard inside the cabin too, but it’s a noise best experienced from the outside.
At this end of the market, style is a huge part of an SUVs appeal. And the Levante delivers in droves. Exterior highlights include that gaping grille, cross drilled rotors, chrome highlights and pillarless door frames.
But, it’s the interior where Maserati really steps up the game. Both cars we drove were fitted with a beautiful red interior that was mixed with black hide and wood veneer. Elements of the interior, such as the metallic paddle-shifters and dash mounted analogue clock really lend to its prestige.
We’ve mentioned previously it feels a little naff that Maserati shares components and switchgear with its FCA stablemates. Things like the infotainment system and some switchgear are shared with Jeep products, for example. But, when you put that into context, you realise Bentley borrows switchgear from Volkswagen products and even Rolls-Royce uses an infotainment system shared with a BMW 1 Series.
When you’re in the correct frame of mind, it becomes clear it’s quite a good infotainment system. It features Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, voice recognition, a big 8.0-inch colour touchscreen that’s ultra-high resolution, along with a host of other connectivity and app features.
There’s also plenty of room inside with comfortable accommodation for four people and 580 litres of luggage capacity. Four-zone climate control and ventilated seats also work a treat in this climate.
The interior feels very well built and quite sturdy. The Maserati's emblematic Trident is proudly worn on the steering wheel and emblazoned on the headrests.
Maserati developed a brand new, bespoke seat material created from high-end silk. Zegna, styled by Italian fashion house Ermenegildo Zegna, is a seat material that has the internal properties of silk, but is hard wearing. It offers a distinct visual and aesthetic character that you won’t find in any other SUVs in this segment. It takes over nine metres of silk to fashion the car’s interior and it requires painstaking accuracy to ensure the material is consistent and fits within the seat trim.
Like most vehicles in this price bracket, you can option things like custom colours, a high-end sound system and interior colours to meet your own style requirements.
Our first day began with an hour-and-a-half drive to the base of Jabal Jais. It’s the highest peak in the UAE and is a perfect, empty, three-lane mountain climb.
Last time we had the chance to drive up Jabal Jais, it was a kilometre shorter than it is today and it was in a McLaren 650S. Straddling the border with Oman, Jabal Jais will one day boast a hotel and tourist activities. But, until it does, it’s the automotive equivalent of an empty race track.
Reasonable speed limits mean you can have a proper crack and the Levante S didn’t disappoint. Hitting the Sport button activates the gearbox’s sport mode and increases damper firmness to reduce body roll.
The engine’s raucous note bounces off mountain walls as the car belts around corners. The chassis communicates everything that’s happening underneath and offers plenty of feedback through the wheel. The hydraulic steering rack is good but doesn’t offer as much communication once lock is fed on or adjusted mid-corner.
Braking is taken care of with ease thanks to the big 380mm rotors at the front, featuring cross-drilling and six-piston monobloc aluminium calipers. Despite being hammered up and down the mountain, the brakes held strong and didn’t show any signs of fade.
An intelligent Sport driving mode ensures the gearbox is always in the correct gear to deliver optimum torque. The all-wheel drive system can change from 100 per cent of torque to the rear axle to a 50:50 split within 150ms, making it quite effective when getting on the throttle out of corners.
The only time the Levante S shows signs of understeer is when the tyres start to lose their sticking ability. It's always ready to tuck the nose in when the throttle is grabbed on corner exit. And, given enough room, it’s also happy to slip the tail out as it barrels through tight corners.
Arguably the best part of the package is the driving position. It leaves you feeling like you’re in a sports car. It’s comfortable and sporty at the same time, making the car even easier to drive faster.
When you’re ready to settle down and trek toward the dunes, two driving modes allow you to soak up the bumps and maximise the damping ability of the air suspension. These modes settle the ride and switch the active exhaust off until it reaches a high rev band.
We weren’t a huge fan of the economy driving mode, which removes a great deal of throttle response and makes the car feel far slower than it needs to be. It’s likely there to hunt fuel efficiency — not really a big deal in this part of the world.
And, while the engine is fantastic, it takes a bit of time to wind up from low revs. That means you need to get really stuck into it early and keep it at the top of its rev band to extract the most from the engine.
We drove MY17 vehicles, but Australia will receive MY18 cars, which will come with an electrically assisted steering rack, plus extra safety features – a departure from the hydraulic unit in the MY17 cars.
Our next day on the road was spent traversing a stack of sand dunes. I’ve driven on sand plenty of times before, but it has always been in diesel four-wheel drives with differential locks and low-range gearboxes.
I was genuinely dubious about how far the Levante S would go, given our vehicles were sitting on road tyres and the temperature was heading towards 50 degrees Celsius. Sand driving puts a great deal of load on the engine and cooling becomes harder due to comparative lack of air flow at slower speeds.
At first, when we didn’t lower tyre pressures, I thought our sand drive would be limited to some very flat roads with a light dusting of sand. It was at that point I was just picturing the headline in my head – Maserati goes to sand dunes near Dubai and leaves without driving over a single dune!
That all changed when we pulled over to lower tyre pressures to around 1 bar or 14psi. That’s when the dunes began and the Levante began to shine. To be honest, in any other situation I’d be wanting quite a seasoned four-wheel drive to tackle the dunes we were driving towards.
In its off-road setting, the Levante’s suspension increases by 25mm to 202mm. An extra nudge of the ride height button increases the vehicle’s clearance by 45mm to 247mm. The off-road mode also automatically adjusts throttle, gearbox mapping and traction control to cater for sand driving. This was all absorbed by the engineering teams when they first hit the dunes in Lavente prototypes.
At one point, each car needed to attack a dune crest at an angle, which caused one of the rear wheels to reach full extension and clear the ground by almost a full metre — it was a terrifying experience behind the wheel.
Just before stopping for lunch it was time for us to have a play in the dunes. That’s when the fun really started. A sideways climb that needs to be attacked at full throttle has the Levante screaming from all four exhaust pipes. It sounds awesome and we are beside ourselves watching these vehicles climb dunes wearing Pirelli PZero road tyres.
What is even more surprising is that engine temperatures remain normal despite the cars constantly being driven at high revs in the searing desert heat. But, the dune expedition isn't without its issues.
Both Levante S vehicles threw up several errors relating to suspension, dampers and the ESP system. Both vehicles were fine after being switched off for five minutes. It probably came down to the extremely fine sand confusing or blocking sensors critical to the suspension and stability control.
We also found that the plastic lip at the front of the vehicle wasn’t fixed as well as it could be. The sand on steeper descents would push the plastic guard forward out of its clip causing it to rub against the tyres.
Again – the terrain we were driving on would be difficult for most proper four-wheel drives, let alone a luxury SUV that’s never likely to go off-road – let alone be driven on sand dunes like these.
As we arrived back to our hotel at the Burj Khalifa after our drive, we had to sit down at the bar to reflect on the past couple of days. The Levante S really is an impressive machine. It’s not like other luxury SUVs. It’s an SUV that straddles the line perfectly between sports car and SUV.
It stirs emotion when driven hard and defies physics off-road through sand dunes. People will buy this car for the brand, but will come away with a new extension to their personality. It’s a boisterous car that’s Italian to the core. We can’t wait to have a drive on Australian soil to see whether it stacks up against our unique conditions.