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Somewhere on a wide, deserted German motorway, the Maserati’s big digital speedo rolls over 134mph. Then it disappears for a few seconds, replaced by the message “Aerodynamic ride height 2 achieved”. The Levante has kneeled on its air springs to its lowest setting, stabilising it by lowering the centre of gravity while also reducing drag. The threshold speed is actually 106mph, but it doesn’t begin to drop until you’ve been at 106-plus for some seconds. By which time I’ve arrived at 134mph. A few seconds later at 137mph, the autobox shifts into top.
Petrol SUV sales are so tiny in Britain that Maserati reckons it isn’t worth selling us the 430bph V6 Turbo Levante. Instead, we get this diesel V6 only, which Maserati claims is fast enough. On the basis of this showing, it’s hard to disagree. In straight line performance and, as I’ll discover later in the daily, in handling, it’s got the “sport” part of “Maserati SUV” wrapped up.
But what about the “Maserati” part? Yep, that too. It has an adapted Ghibli platform, suspension, powertrain and electronics. Question is, does it really follow Maserati’ historical inclinations to be making an SUV at all? You could say quick and luxurious SUVs are the modern GT cars – changes in roads, traffic and enforcement have made the cramped but nimble coupes of the Fifties a bit irrelevant for that task. And Maserati has always been more of a GT company than a super-sports car company. So that’s the emotional rationale for a Maserati SUV.
The commercial thinking is inescapable. There are about a million luxury car sold in the world every year. That’s posh powerful multi-cylinder vehicles in the price bracket Maserati inhabits – say £50k - £150k. Now, half of those cars are a ragbag of saloons in two sizes, coupes, roadsters, sports cars, estates and what have you. The other half million are SUVs. With just one car, the Levante, Maserati reaches a bigger pool of potential buyers than with all its other cars combined. If you're an Italian sports car sentimentalist who wants Maserati to flourish, then don't curse the Levante, but wish all success on its head.
On the stand at its Geneva show debut, it had looked unprepossessing - a baroque grille up front, some slightly baffling creases aft, on a generic rounded-off crossover volume. Where it matters, on the road, the design comes to life. It visually shrinks, for a start, which in itself skittles the very common objection to SUVs that by their sheer visual bulk they're used as tools of lunk-headed intimidation. It's quite long, which makes it seem lower, and it's all-round roomy.
There's an integrity to the structure, an absence of shudder or resonance, that give you plenty of confidence in the overall engineering. The suspension is broadly the Ghibli's, but with two crucial differences. First, the geometry is tweaked to allow it both more travel -as an off-roader needs - and more consistent wheel angles throughout that travel. Also the springing medium is air, with adaptive dampers. This is how it can do the high-speed lowering thing we saw on the autostrada, but still tackle the reasonably serious off roading course planned for this afternoon.
The diesel V6's output figures and performance are a bit better than the level of BMW's XS/X6 30d or the Cayenne Diesel, which is what it matches in price too. It's well short of the dearer (and lower-selling) BMW 40d and Porsche Diesel S. Should Maser be aiming higher? Right now, its target is the stratum most heavily populated with actual buyers.
It's an agreeable engine. It serves a wide ooze of torque, and stays quiet and smooth, melodic even. When you press the sport button, the more attractive exhaust harmonics are subtly enhanced by microphone sand amplifiers. The same button also sharpens the pedal, quickens up gearshifts, loosens the ESP and brings a by-brake torque-vectoring system into play. A second jab of the same button tautens the damper programming.
There's also an efficiency button, which puts the powertrain into a more gentle set-up and softens the dampers further. Then you can raise the suspension, effectively softening things more. That's the mode for urban potholes and speedbumps, not just off-roading. The Levante is in any case more placidrunning than any other Maserati. That's to do with a fine harmony between springs, dampers and bushes, so you don't get wobbly aftershocks lingering beyond a bump, or sharp unexpected intrusions. This makes it feel well-sorted for comfort despite being fairly tautly sprung and having anti-roll bars so stiff there's a bit of lateral rock if only one side of the car hits a bump. Besides, wind noise is excellently thwarted, despite tile frameless door glass that's been fitted to admit extra light to the cabin. So you roll along in fine comfort.
But it's meant to be sporting too. Remember, in places other than the UK, there's a 430bhp twin-turbo V6 engine, one that rasps and fizzes and booms in expressing the fact it's built for Maserati by Ferrari. And the Levante marshals even 430bhp with ease. The dampers never let the body motions get queasy, even when a dipping or cresting road does its best to upset things. You couldn't exactly call it agile, but understeer is not a bother, not even on the way into a bend. On the way out, a heap of right-foot makes you aware tile torque is mostly directed rearwards. The diesel, heavier at the nose and less powerful, is less interactive but still properly planted and reasonably engaging. Steering was never going to be especially tactile in a two-tonner. But it's sensibly weighted and geared, not just for this sort of cornering but also set up to cleave solidly between the dotted lines of a motorway.
That steering is hydraulic, which means no self-parking or autonomous direction assistance. Otherwise the tech suite is class-competitive, including surround cameras and radar cruise with stop-and-go.
Inside, it's all about Maserati's signature plush warmth. Most surfaces are wrapped in lush leather. ln an Italian-brand-association overdrive, here's even a Zegna edition with actual silk tor the seat facings and headlining. The centre-console infotainment is a solid upgrade on what Maserati or any other Italian car has offered so far. The touchscreen finally reacts nimbly to inputs, and has grown both in size and definition. There's an alternative rotary controller too if you don't fancy poking at a screen on a bumpy lane.
The Levante tackles those with no issue, as well as vertiginous slopes and drop-offs. The 20in road tyres get decent purchase in the mud too.
Maseratis, even the Ghibli, have traded on character rather than the uniform excellence of their rivals. The Levante isn't just characterful, it's better developed than the Ghibli and more widely capable. And frankly its rivals are a bit spottier. It’s a proper contender.