We drive Maserati's Levante in SA: Luxury R1.65-million SUV

Cape Town - It’s rare these days for a luxury automaker not to build an SUV.

Automakers such as Range Rover, Mercedes-Benz and BMW have been building premium SUVs for decades, while newcomers to the segment include Jaguar and Bentley.

While these brands are continuously aiming to improve their products and set improved standards and benchmarks, Maserati has silently been creating its own luxury SUV - the new Levante.

Its moniker is derived from a Mediterranean wind that is as imposing as it is potentially dangerous to mariners. When Maserati decided to build its first-ever SUV, it knew the vehicle had to be special and extraordinarily good.

The Levante will be built in small numbers and challenge other luxury SUVs in terms build quality, premium materials used and overall execution.

This is by no means an easy feat, considering that this SUV will tread new grounds for the automaker and venture into territories dominated by well-established rivals.

Image: Kim van Zyl

The foundation

The chassis of the SUV has been built at the company’s headquarters in Modena, Italy; exclusively for use in the Levante. Keen followers of the Levante’s progress will recall the Kubang - a concept model from a few years back that was based on the Jeep Grand Cherokee.

The Kubang, or rather the Grand Cherokee, would have formed the basis of the Levante, but Maserati’s break-away from the Fiat-Chrysler Group forced the company to build its own SUV from the ground-up.

Maserati says its conducted extensive market research on the feasibility of an SUV and that the findings showed a definite market for luxury SUVs. South Africa, it says, is one of the most favourable markets for the Levante.

READ: Here's why Maserati thinks its new Levante will be a hit in SA

Retailing from R1.65-million, the Levante needs to offer a serious dose of exclusivity if it's to have any effect on brand-loyal customers. As such, at the price, the SA-market will receive the highest spec model, with optional extras on offer.

The all-wheel drivetrain, says Maserati, is capable of undertaking off-road excursions, like sand and gravel, and that the air-suspension has five settings to either lift or drop the vehicle’s ride height. 

The Levante caters to a lifestyle market, but Maserati is quick to underline that it is not chasing volume sales. With the Levante - as with all its cars - Maserati SA is keen on maintaining its exclusivity; thereby aiming for a monthly sales’ figure of 10 units and increasing that figure to 200 units per year.

Driving experience

The Levante’s drive is an experience all of its own; managing to evoke the same emotion of other Maserati cars. Once settled in the driver’s seat, a few things immediately spring to mind. The seat does not go far back, or low, enough. Though SUVs are made for a higher than usual ride height, my 1.86m frame would’ve fit slightly more comfortably if the seat could slid backwards a few more finger widths. The upside of this is that rear passengers have a proper dose of legroom. During one of the driving stints I nestled myself in the back seat and had no gripes with the ample amount of legroom the Levante had to offer.

Another is how huge the steering wheel is. Potential Levante owners are unlikely to have a problem with this, but when spirited driving is undertaken the steering wheel does feel a bit strange between the fingers. But this is soon forgotten when the Levante gets going and then it is proper Italian passion connecting you to the SUV and the road.

READ: Maserati SA solidifies itself as independent Italian brand

Maserati SA has no plans to introduce any other engine options to the South African market other than its 3.0-litre V6 diesel. The 202kW is available at 4000rpm, but the earth shattering 600Nm is available between 2000-2600rpm. And yes, it pulls! The Levante picks up speed in an effortless manner, which makes open-road, long distance driving an adventure. However, there is a slight amount of turbo lag once you set off, but when the Levante is up and running there is no lag to talk of. The eight-speed ZF gearbox, too, is in sync with the engine and changes from the one gear to the next is always on cue. The smoothness of the ‘box is somewhat dimmed by the system’s decision to change gears when manual mode is selected. Even so, it is a very smooth gearbox that is more than comfortable changing gears automatically.

Dynamically the Levante will not stand back from a challenge. The all-wheel drive system will transfer power either 100% to the rear wheels, or split it 50/50 front and rear; all adding to the dynamism of the vehicle. On a mountain pass the SUV will catapult forward, eating up the bends. The Levante brings together all of Maserati’s expertise it's build up over the years in a package that’s a whole lot bigger than other Maserati offerings. And that bigness shows in the weight of 2205kg. Push into a corner and the Levante’s steering-feel becomes somewhat numb. Even with Sport mode engaged and the suspension in its most robust settings, more feedback from the front wheels through the steering wheel would have been appreciated. And the rear felt unsteady too when tackling a bend at full tilt. Apart from this, the Levante still requires the driver’s full attention. It is an SUV made to entertain in pure Maserati fashion and from a driver’s perspective, it does.

And the best part? The exhaust note wants to be heard, despite the Levante sporting a V6 diesel engine.

Image: Wheels24 / Charlen Raymond

Tech and features

If Maserati is to attract its targeted customers each month, then it would have to offer features that not only rival the established players, but trump them, too!

Things like heatable seats, hill descent control, adaptive cruise control, seatbelt restraint systems and blind spot alert are all available on the competition; hence Maserati is offering a few extras that are unique to its SUV.

Available to the Levante:

  - a glove box that can be locked and unlocked using a four-digit PIN;

  - The engine can be turned on/off by pressing a command on the remote control from a distance of up to 500m away;

  - Auto retracting driver’s seat for easy entry and exit;

  - Two-way electric pedal adjustment for better positioned lower limbs;

  - Signature Maserati gearshift paddles;

  - Double laminated acoustic glass for the rear windows to reduce external noises;

  - And a tow bar - a first for Maserati.

How will it fair?

It is difficult to predict how the Levante will be received by the South African motoring public, but it is certain that the SUV will bring with it an air of exclusivity. And this is what Maserati is about. That exclusivity people want to attain. The Levante could be for Maserati what the F-Pace is to Jaguar: a game changer, a portfolio enhancer, a gateway to a new client base, and the floodgate to sales success.

READ: How the F-Pace changed Jaguar's image in SA

Priced competitively against other luxury SUVs, the Levante offers a comprehensive package that will no doubt attract attention. And given that South Africans love their luxury SUVs, Maserati could just be on the cusp of a whole new era in SA.

ImageKim van Zyl

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