Back in the day, ‘real’ supercar enthusiasts criticised otherwise stunning Maseratis – like the Merak for example – for lacking the firepower required to mix it with the big boys. The biggest issue surrounded the number of cylinders – or lack thereof more specifically. Fast forward to late 2017, and the 2018 Maserati Levante S apparently drives and sounds like a Maserati should. With a V6 engine. History repeating?
I, for one, can’t reconcile the idea of sports car manufacturers spitting out SUVs with the express directive of a blatant cash grab. I am also aware, however, that without Cayenne and to a lesser extent Macan, there would be no 911 in 2018. So it is that Maserati unleashes the Levante, Lamborghini the Urus, and Ferrari flirts with the same idea. Money talks when it all boils down.
Can the Levante then, finally in S guise, deliver driving dynamics and performance befitting a legendary badge? Can it feel like a Maserati should from behind the wheel? Can it justify the price? That last question probably isn’t even an issue given the coin buyers are willing to drop on far less exotic SUVs. Can it shut up the whining about the diesel Maserati Levante not being a 'real Maserati'? Do those whiners even know what a real Maserati is or should be anyway? So many questions.
While the Levante has already been sized up in diesel form, it didn’t satisfy the fan boys and girls despite selling well. Now, though, there’s every chance you can feel right behind the wheel thanks to a snorting twin-turbo petrol V6. While the diesel is still an option, much like the aforementioned Cayenne and the Macan, performance enthusiasts will look no further than right here.
Read our pricing and specification breakdown for the full story, but the basics are: three model grades in S specification – S which starts from $169,990, S GranSport from $179,900 and S GranLusso from $179,990. We loved the Zegna silk inserts in the GranLusso seats and preferred them to the sportier seats in the, erm, GranSport, but even the basic S gets the same thumping power and torque delivery, so model grade doesn't dictate power output.
On that subject, the twin-turbo V6 piledrives out 321kW, hammers from 0–100km/h in 5.2 seconds and on to a top speed of 264km/h – utterly irrelevant in Australia. An eight-speed automatic has the unenviable task of channeling all that grunt toward the wheels, but the ZF remains one of the best gearboxes of any kind. Yes, there’s plenty of noise – no pun intended – about the V6 being manufactured by Ferrari, but I wouldn’t worry too much about that. A Proton once had suspension tuned by Lotus… This Levante needs to be a lot more than an exotic engine.
Styling for me is, to borrow an annoying sports metaphor, a tale of two halves. The front looks every bit the way a Maserati should. It’s dramatic, exclusive, beautiful and aggressive all at once. The rear, however, doesn’t really look particularly special at all. It could be any generic SUV design, and doesn’t remotely gel with the obvious care and attention that has gone into the front end. Still, buyers probably won’t care, and the Levante has enough presence that it will stand out in the shopping centre carpark.
Climb into the driver’s seat, which is where you want to be in any Maserati, and the cabin is beautifully executed, if not quite as bespoke or exotic as some buyers might want. For me, it’s luxurious, comfortable and special enough to justify the badge. Beautiful leather, elegant stitching, quality finishes, even the optional carbon-fibre trim on one of the testers, it’s all tasteful and never overdone.
If you flirt with the devil and read other road tests, you will see the usual barrage of motoring scribes whining about common switchgear with other (lesser) family members. Read: Jeep or FCA product. Sure, if you test-drive hundreds of cars a year as we do, you know that. Trying to justify the fact that a buyer would test-drive a Jeep before sauntering into a Maserati dealership is the thin edge of the wedge if you ask me. Even if a buyer did, would they care that the infotainment looks the same? I’d wager not. In fact, I reckon they’d much rather it actually works.
The cabin, while being luxurious, is also practical. There’s plenty of storage, useful storage too, a cavernous centre console bin, cupholders and bottle holders, as well as smaller recesses for wallets and phones. Its 580 litres of storage space with the second row in play is more than enough for the segment, and unless you have super-tall occupants up front, there’s room for two more adults in the second row.
Crank the engine into life and you’re met with a sonorous growl as the V6 rises from its slumber. With 321kW and 580Nm on offer, this promises to be able to punt the not especially svelte 2109kg Levante along at a rate of knots. The ADR fuel claim is 10.9L/100km, but drive it with any enthusiasm – like I did – and you’ll see a number a lot closer to 20 than 10.
Mash the throttle pedal and the S lifts its nose and thunders off the mark impressively. In either of the two ‘Sport’ modes, everything feels a little sharper and more urgent. The first level sharpens throttle, shift points and the exhaust note, but leaves the suspension at the softer normal setting. Hit the sport button again and it sharpens the suspension into the bargain. In fact, with the firmer suspension setting, we thought the Levante actually rode better because it didn’t bounce around as much as it does in normal mode.
The engine’s note is beautiful enough at idle, but screams right up to redline, ever louder as it reaches peak revs. It’s strong too, thumping hard through the mid-range, and relentlessly piling on speed until the exceptional ZF shifts into another gear. While a V6 can’t match the fire and brimstone soundtrack of a nasty V8, this is one of the better iterations of an engine that is usually smooth and strong. If you’re one of the brigade who complained about the Levante diesel, and you’re actually in the market to buy one, this engine will tick the right boxes.
There’s more than a hint of RWD about the way the Levante attacks corners too, with power only heading forward when the system decides it needs to do so. Added to the 50:50 weight distribution, that ensures much more car-like handling than SUV too – meaning you can push the Levante hard if the mood takes you. The steering feels sharp enough in the sport modes, but you will never quite forget the heft of the Levante as you power into and out of corners. It is, after all, a family SUV. The brakes are excellent too, working under duress without fade and there’s beautiful pedal feel too.
So, after a brief drive on local roads, does the Levante S do what we need a Maserati SUV to do? By every measure it most certainly does. It feels special, it’s fast, and it’s luxurious. I still don’t love sports car manufacturers building SUVs, but the Levante S will sit close to the top with the best of them all – certainly those that are remotely affordable.