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Maserati. Just saying it out loud makes me feel Italian. The only proviso is you’ve got to pronounce it correctly (Mazer-rarti) for the proper effect.
Growing up in the ’70s, this storied Italian car company from Bologna with Neptune’s trident as its emblem seemed more exotic than even Ferrari. Founded by the five Maserati brothers in 1914, it would go on to produce iconic Grand Prix cars like the race-winning 250F driven by the legendary Juan Manuel Fangio.
It also produced luxury grand tourers like the original Maserati Ghibli; a beautifully styled GT capable of huge speeds in its day – up to 274km/h in ‘S’ tune and an exhaust note to rival its race cars.
I know that because my old man was in Italy on a business trip back in the ’70s and going hell for leather in a Fiat 124 renter, when a Ghibli S passed him like he was standing still, even though he was flat to the boards. The Ghibli disappeared into the distance, until he caught up to it at a roadside bar where the owner (a US Air Force pilot) told him he was sitting on 170mph.
Other highly desirable models would follow, like the Maserati Khamsin designed by Marcello Gandini while at Italian styling studio Bertone. It was my all-time favourite because it mirrored the Ghibli up front with a V8 under the bonnet. The handsome Merak and Bora would follow before the awful ’90s came along, and with it forgettable models and shapes barely worth a mention.
How times have changed. The Ghibli is now a four-door sports sedan, and the best-selling model in the range is an SUV called the Levante. But for many, the age-old Maserati marque with its floating trident badge is still as desirable as ever.
And, as of this month, it’s also more affordable than ever with the addition of a new entry-level model called the Levante 350 (for 350hp), or simply Levante, priced from just $125,000 plus on-roads. That makes it almost $15,000 less than the old turbo-diesel entry point, and quite an attractive proposition you’d have to say.
Or is it?
You can hop into a similarly sized new-generation Porsche Cayenne for as little as $116,300 for the single-turbo 3.0-litre V6 petrol model with an eight-speed auto, which makes a perfectly credible 250kW of power and 450Nm of torque to all four wheels. Performance is decent, too, with standstill to 100km/h coming up in 6.2 seconds.
The Maserati gets more grunt from its Ferrari-designed 3.0-litre twin-turbo equivalent, which gives it the performance edge with 257kW and 500Nm for a 0–100km/h sprint time of six seconds flat.
Fair enough, I guess, as long as you’re prepared to pay the $8700 premium for the privilege of Maserati ownership over Porsche. At least that’s what the Italian marque is betting on, despite the fact that it’s still the cheapest Maserati you can buy – and by some margin should you choose to bypass the diesel option.
Next rung up in the Levante line-up is the ‘S’ using a twin-turbo 3.0-litre V6 pumping out 321kW and 580Nm, and good for a benchmark 0–100km/h sprint of just 5.2 seconds, but at a cost of $169,990 plus on-roads.
That’s when the new starting point in the Levante range starts to make real sense. It goes well enough and still gets its fair share of luxury kit, such as adaptive air suspension, dual-mode sports exhaust, hand-stitched leather upholstery and dual-zone climate control.
So, it’s definitely not a pricepointed stripper given it also gets 12-way electrically adjustable front seats (and heated), and a reasonably good infotainment system that includes satellite navigation, digital radio, and Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, with a good degree of clarity on a larger screen than the previous model.
The newest Levante also picks up the latest in active safety tech, too, with systems across the model range like front and rear parking sensors with reversing camera, blind-spot alert and radar cruise control.
There are a few tell-tale signs of FCA parts sharing, like that new infotainment screen we mentioned earlier – lifted straight from the latest Jeep Grand Cherokee. Elsewhere, though, the budget-price Levante feels decidedly premium with heavenly seats and soft-touch materials everywhere you look.
There are also plenty of metallic-look accents along with the marque’s trident emblem, just to remind you you’re driving a Maserati. And we still like the tastefully shaped analogue clock too. It’s as much a showpiece as it is a practical timepiece.
Loads of space too, with good rear seat leg space for passengers and the like. No trouble loading larger items into the boot either, with a more than respectable 580L with the seatbacks up, expanding to 1625L when folded.
However, none of that really separates the Levante from any of its luxury rivals. Entry-level it might be, but this is still very much a Maserati at heart with plenty of head-turning from its twin-turbo V6.
It’s a rorty growl that manages to keep things interesting, even at lower speeds (in Sport), thanks to an exhaust system controlled by pneumatic valves that produces the now-signature Maserati sound we all like.
You’ll appreciate the driving position too – low set, but still with good all-round visibility despite the seemingly compromised rear screen.
There’s no hiding its substantial bulk, though. The Levante is a big unit measuring just over 5m in length and tipping the scales at 2109kg (96kg less than its Levante turbo-diesel).
Giving it some proper hurry-up along undulating terrain outside of Bathurst, and despite its heft this is still a very well-composed SUV that doesn’t mind being hustled along the twisties at a decidedly enthusiastic clip. Its 'Q4' all-wheel-drive system is rear-biased, and you can feel that driving the Levante out of corners, but there's still heaps of grip available.
Equipped with an eight-speed ZF auto with Ferrari-esque paddle shifters (you’re going to want to use those), it brings a level of refinement and involvement to the Levante 350 that is a welcome surprise to this tester. The shifts are crisp and deliberate – faster than we anticipated, yet still with a built-in level of finesse.
Not only is it fun to drive, it’s also exceptionally comfortable as a grand tourer. The standard air suspension does a superb job of ironing out all the bumps (even big ones) while keeping the vehicle settled. I found myself deliberately seeking out shattered edges and busted-up tarmac, and each time was surprised by how calm the vehicle behaved and how cushioned the ride was.
It can’t match the Cayenne for sharpness or chassis rigidity through the corners, but we’d say the Levante has got the ride/handling balance pretty well sorted. The steering feedback certainly gives the driver loads of confidence, should he or she really want to enjoy it on less-travelled roads like those on the launch program.
The lower price point certainly makes the latest Maserati Levante a more appealing proposition than ever before, and from where I sit it’s the sweet spot in the range. There just isn’t a lot to whinge about with this vehicle.
The fact that you’ll pay $10,000 less for the entry Porsche Cayenne will certainly swing some buyers, but for many the Maserati badge has special appeal and is rightly deserving of the premium price tag, not to mention the generous level of kit on board.