Maserati’s first SUV wasn’t entirely convincing when it debuted with a diesel engine. Can a Ferrari-built twin-turbo petrol V6 transform the high-riding Italian?
It would be unfair to suggest the world’s obsession with SUVs meant the Maserati Levante could have launched in 2017 with any old engine.
Yet despite a relatively unsexy turbo diesel short on performance and shared with a humble Jeep Grand Cherokee, the Levante has proceeded to dominate the brand’s sales mix.
Models such as the GranTurismo coupe and Quattroporte sedan might be thinking it’s time to pack up and head home now that their higher-riding stablemate is also available as an S model featuring a twin-turbocharged petrol V6. (A GTS model is coming next year, too.)
And while the petrol six-cylinder is also 3.0 litres in size and sourced from Italy, the spark-ignition engine hails from Ferrari rather than VM Motori.
Maserati Australia says the diesel is still expected to account for the majority of Levante sales, essentially because the new buyers coming across to the brand (a massive 90 per cent) are bringing along their preference for the denser fuel type. Forecasts for the petrol, though, have increased from an initial 10 per cent to a fifth of sales.
Already seen in the Ghibli and Quattroporte sedans, the petrol V6 drops 20Nm to the 600Nm diesel but brings significantly more power: 321kW versus 202kW. It also scrubs a huge 1.7 seconds from the standing-start benchmark: 0-100km/h in 5.2 seconds.
Speed carries a premium in the auto industry, of course. It’s a $30,000 leap from the base diesel to the $169,990 entry-level S.
It’s ‘just’ a $20,000 difference across the rest of the mirrored three-tier range if you’re stepping up to the $179,900 GranSport S or similarly priced $179,990 GranLusso S (more grandiose – GranDiose? – names for the former Sport and Luxury trim grades).
GranSport goodies include 12-way electric and heated front seats, electrically adjustable steering wheel, 14-speaker/900-watt Harman Kardon audio, panoramic roof, soft-close doors, rear spoiler, front and rear sensors, and 21-inch machine-polished wheels. No LED headlights, unusually (bi-xenons).
All Levante models benefit from the addition of new technology for 2018: speed-sign monitoring, blind spot warning, lane keep assistance and Highway Assist that provides semi-autonomous steering support (up to 145km/h and 200 metres) in conjunction with the adaptive cruise.
A 360-degree camera changes status from option to standard.
The active safety systems enforce a switch from hydraulic to electric steering.
Let’s get back to that twin-turbo V6, though, because it very much changes the character of the Levante – essentially because it brings the performance and sound you expect from the trident badge.
The exhaust note may not reach the highs of the GranTurismo’s normally aspirated 4.7-litre V8, but it is hugely appealing – reverberating through the cabin even before you dial up the noise by pressing the Sport button.
The Levante S gurgles and growls, and produces particularly delicious metallic raspberries on fast, paddle-flicked upshifts.
Keep the throttle pinned and the V6 compensates amply for the Levante’s 2.1-tonne mass to deliver a satisfying surge of acceleration. In both a Maserati and segment context, it’s suitably quick – if not as quick as rivals such as the new Cayenne S at 4.9 seconds and V8-powered BMW X5 M at 4.2. (The coming GTS promises 4.2 seconds, however.)
Fuel consumption inevitably climbs well above the official 10.9 litres per 100km when driving the Levante in such a manner, and it’s understandable why plenty of buyers would be attracted to the diesel (7.2L/100km) that extends the theoretical range between fills by nearly 400km (734km v 1111km).
The petrol V6 matches the diesel V6’s 2700kg braked towing capacity, though.
The Sport button, which helps eliminate most of the engine’s initial lag, needs to be pressed a second time to ask the air suspension to match the aggression of the drivetrain initiated with the first press.
It tightens body control noticeably, and as experienced with the diesel last year, showcases impressively poised chassis. The handling is aided by braking-induced torque vectoring – delivering more drive to the outer-rear wheel – and brakes that are strong and easy to modulate.
There’s a big caveat, though. As we discovered with the diesel model, the Levante needs smooth bitumen to shine. Throw some bumps or dips into the equation and the Maserati’s composure is ruffled.
Air suspension is typically renowned for providing pillowy progress, yet the Levante almost constantly fidgets in normal mode – picking up bumps and other surface anomalies around town and on the freeway that you might not have thought previously existed.
Body control deteriorates as it bounces clumsily over speed humps and across urban roads with more pronounced bumps. Sport mode, which puts the suspension in one of the lower of five ride heights, can solve that, but the trade-off is an even more agitated, harsher ride.
The one saving grace is that the Levante’s suspension doesn’t bang and crash, but, ultimately, it’s not equipped to deal with Australian roads like a Porsche Cayenne or Range Rover Sport.
The new electric steering also feels like a backward step to the previous hydraulic set-up – lacking fluidity both when self-centring at lower speeds and off-centre at higher speeds. Its weighting, though, is better around town.
There’s some ergonomic issues, too. The paddleshift levers, while having a quality, metallic feel, are shorter than those (also fixed to the column) in the GranTurismo coupe – putting them more out of reach when you’re trail braking into a corner with some lock.
Their close proximity to the steering wheel rim – itself arguably overly thick – means you occasionally knock them with your fingers when not using them.
The PRND gear selector can also be a bit of a. Even after days living with the Levante, it seemed too easy, for example, to select neutral rather than reverse when trying to park or do a three-point turn.
Even less ideal is an uncomfortably narrow footrest that struggles to fully accommodate an average-size adult foot.
The Levante GranSport cabin – accessed by frameless doors – otherwise offers plenty of luxury appeal. Super-soft roof lining, tactile internal doorhandles, and an abundance of soft plastics and stitched leather all combine to create a sufficiently premium interior experience.
Ample storage meets expectations of an SUV and includes a large, refrigerated console bin. The glovebox, while not particularly deep, cleverly features an elastic strap.
Switchgear quality, however, is no higher than what you would expect in a Jeep Grand Cherokee, while you find a more contemporary, digital-age dash designs in rivals such as the new Cayenne and Rangie Velar.
Wearing a Positive hat, you might call the Levante’s look classic; don a Negative hat and you might suggest the cabin could date quickly.
The Maserati Touch Control Plus infotainment is certainly modern. Look past the fact it’s based on FiatChrysler’s UConnect system and the touchscreen’s smart graphics and quick response don’t betray a badge that’s more upmarket than a Fiat or Jeep emblem.
It includes digital radio, Apple’s Siri assistant and CarPlay, Android Auto, with a 1200-watt, 17-speaker Bowers & Wilkins available as an extra-cost alternative to the standard Harman Kardon audio.
Rear space isn’t as palatial as might be expected of a five-metre SUV, yet a six-foot passenger isn’t in trouble of banging knees on the front seatbacks or rubbing their head on the roof-lining (despite the standard panoramic sunroof).
The bench squab’s comfort is mixed. There’s good under-thigh support but little side bolstering, and the rearmost part of the cushion could be felt on this tester’s lower back.
The middle rear seat is fine for small kids, or outer-seat passengers can pull down the wide armrest with two chrome-ringed cupholders. They’re also served well by generous item storage, ventilation, and concealed USB ports. Four-zone climate control is also among the options.
Maserati continues ticking practicality touches in the boot: ski port, tie-downs, 12-volt socket, elastic side straps, road-safety kit bag, and useful multi-compartment storage tray under the floor (under which is an inflatable space-saver).
There’s also electric tailgate operation with hands-free function, though a cross is the absence of electric release levers/buttons.
And while you wouldn’t describe the Levante’s boot as small, its 580-litre capacity is well short of the 745 litres offered by one of its most important rivals, the new Cayenne.
A wealth of personalisation options includes seven alloy wheels (five new for 2018), five interior trims, two steering wheels, four brake caliper colours, and four types of paint.
If only the Levante could be tailored for the kind of comfort expected of a $180,000 luxury-sports SUV.
Despite its suspension and ergonomic flaws, the Maserati is a likeable SUV, and it’s easy to understand its appeal. And it’s no more appealing than when equipped with the twin-turbo petrol V6 that may cost a chunk more than the diesel but provides a drivetrain experience more in keeping with the trident badge.