When Maserati introduced the Levante last year it changed the course of the brand’s history.
Once famed for sporty coupes, convertibles and powerful luxury sedans, the Italian sportscar maker suddenly found itself in a carpark long-joined by rivals like Porsche, Mercedes-Benz, BMW, and Audi.
The result was a big boost in sales. Purists may condemn SUVs, but their profit-generating ability is hard to question.
The problem with Levante was its diesel-only specification. Italian sportscars and diesel engines simply do not go together, which is where the twin turbo V6 engine of the Levante S steps in.
Vehicle Style: Prestige large SUV
Price: $169,990 plus on-road costs
Engine/trans: 316kW/580Nm 3.0-litre 6cyl turbo petrol | 8spd automatic
Fuel Economy Claimed: 10.9 l/100km
Maserati gave the Levante range a shiny new halo for 2018 in the form of the S model, one which brings a more performance-oriented spin to the previously diesel-only model.
The 3.0-litre twin turbo petrol V6 S engine is shared with Maserati’s Ghibli and Quattroporte sedans, and built by Ferrari to Maserati’s specification, giving it an impressive lineage.
The Levante range also catches up to competitors with new advanced safety systems like lane keeping assist, active blind spot detection, and highway assist semi-autonomous functionality - systems made possible thanks to a new electric power steering system.
Also new for 2018 are the addition of GranLusso and GranSport trims to accompany both the regular Levante and Levante S, growing the range from one single model to six variants.
Pricing for the Levante S starts from $169,990 with either the GranSport or Gran Lusso specification (primarily cosmetic upgrades like bigger wheels and different interior and exterior trims) adding $10,000 before factoring in extensive options.
- Standard Equipment: Leather trim, dual-zone climate control, keyless entry and start, power-adjustable front seats with seat heating, power-adjustable steering column, panoramic sunroof, illuminated door sill plates, self-dimming mirrors, powered tailgate, 20-inch alloy wheels
- Infotainment: 8.4-inch touchscreen, AM/FM/DAB+ radio, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto connectivity, Bluetooth, eight-speaker audio (std) or 14-speaker Harman Kardon premium audio (GranSport and GranLusso)
- Cargo Volume: 580 litres to rear seats
Maserati proudly boasts that the Levante is all Italian, a reference to the fact its engines, interiors, and body construction all take place within Italian borders, while taking a shot at an increasingly global industry.
The interior certainly carries an Italian flavour with sumptuous leather trim covering not just the seats but also the dash and door cards, plus huge real-aluminium shift paddles behind the steering wheel in lieu of the tacky plastic pull-tabs of rivals.
There are some concessions to the all-Italian claim, with switchgear and infotainment provided by Maserati parent company Fiat Chrysler, but those systems blend in much better than previous attempts and look well integrated.
Though the Levante is hardly what you’d call compact at an imposing five metres in length, the interior doesn’t make the very best use of available space, particularly in the rear seat which is certainly livable but not quite limo-like in its spaciousness.
Move to GranSport or GranLusso specification and the interior comes trimmed in higher-grade leather with Ermenegildo Zegna silk inserts and comfort seats on the GranLusso or full leather with sports seats, steering wheel, and pedals for the Gran Sport.
Both upscale trims also bring larger 21-inch alloy wheels, adding body-colour panels on the lower body. A gloss black grille and skid plates, and red brake calipers feature of GranSport while GranLusso brings a chrome grille, silver skid plates, and black calipers for a more traditional look.
ON THE ROAD
- Engine: 3.0-litre twin turbo V6 petrol, 316kW @ 5750rpm, 580Nm @ 5000rpm
- Transmission: Eight-speed automatic, all wheel drive
- Suspension: Double wishbone front, multilink rear, height adjustable air springs
- Brakes: 380mm ventilated front discs with six-piston Brembo calipers, 330mm ventilated rear discs
- Steering: Electric power steering
- Towing Capacity: 2700kg braked, 750kg unbraked, 135kg towball load
While the exterior and interior might be similar to the ‘regular’ Levante, the difference is immediately obvious once you prod the starter button.
The F160 engine under the bonnet of the Levante S produces 316kW of power (Maserati alternatively claims 316 or 321kW, we’ll stick with the more conservative figure for ease of reference) and 580Nm or torque. Next to the Levante diesel that’s a handy 114kW more, but 20Nm down.
The difference isn’t just in the figures though (although a 5.2-second 0-100 km/h time is a handy stat when compared to the 6.9-second diesel) rather it’s in the way the Levante S drives, which represents a complete change of character.
With the ability to rev more freely, the Levante S instantly feels lively, even with a circa 2.1-tonne weight behind it. Backed with an excellent ZF eight-speed automatic, the S drives with an eager fluidity.
Multiple drive modes allow cover the usual efficiency, normal and off-road modes but the Sport setting is the one to choose. Every time.
Thumb the button once for a sharper throttle response, more active transmission, heavier steering, and open valves in the bi-modal exhaust. Tap it twice and the suspension joins the party, firming up for reduced roll and greater control.
The noise is addictive; growling and sinister at low engine rpm, rising to a full-throated bellow punctuated by sharp crackling upshifts as the pace picks up. Although this engine draws tenuous links to Chrysler’s Pentastar V6, there’s no way you’d ever confuse the two.
The all wheel drive system is also skewed toward performance. Rather than outright all-road versatility the Levante’s ‘Q4’ system will keep as much torque at the back wheels as possible, switching only to the fronts when grip drops.
Changes have also been made to the chassis, with the S equipped with a unique tune for the Skyhook air suspension to give it a more dynamic feel compared to the diesel model.
Perhaps most importantly, Maserati’s move away from a ‘traditional’ hydraulic power steering system could be troubling news, but the fine adjustability, firm feel, and decent feedback though the wheel signal a successful move to the new system.
It’s this change that also allows Maserati to come to the party with a range of safety systems that can help avoid trouble like lane keeping assist and active blind-spot monitoring, both of which will steer you away from trouble when able plus a new multi-lane cruise control system that adds a small degree of semi-autonomy on compatible roads.
ANCAP Rating: The Maserati Ghibli has yet to be rated by ANCAP.
Safety Features: Six airbags (dual front, front seat side, full-length curtain), electronic stability and traction control, surround-view camera, adaptive cruise control, active blind spot monitoring, lane keeping assist and lane departure warning, traffic sign recognition, and forward collision warning.
WARRANTY AND SERVICING
Warranty: Three years/100,000km
Servicing: Maserati offers pre-paid maintenance programs to cover the cost of scheduled servicing. Your Maserati dealer can provide full details of the program.
TMR VERDICT | OVERALL
Although the Levante diesel is expected to continue to account for the majority of sales in Australia, the Levante S is the model to strive for.
Admittedly, at $30,000 more than a diesel in base trim, or an extra $20,000 for a GranSport or GranLusso, that’s not a decision to make lightly. For anyone who desires to indulge in the odd spot of keen driving to go with their Italian SUV that decision should be all the easier to make.
As a luxurious, prestigious status symbol, the Levante ticks all the boxes in the way a more common Mercedes-Benz or Audi SUV can’t match.
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