Maserati determined to put on a good show for Levante in NZ


Posted by on 1 August 2016


Would you really take a $160k Maserati off-tarmac? Watch somebody do just that.

Maserati isn't just rolling out the red carpet for its first-ever SUV, the Levante, in New Zealand.

It's also laying down gleaming white tiles and importing hand-made furniture.

In preparation for the launch of Levante, every dealership in NZ and Australia (12 in total) is being renewed or upgraded to a new global design template.

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Coming to Maserati showrooms in Auckland and Christchurch this year: every detail specified by factory in Italy.

 The tiles on the floor and the leather chairs in the waiting area are ordered especially from Italy. There's studio-quality lighting to help the cars look their best and even the picture galleries and frames all conform to a factory template.

 

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Levante will be launched in NZ with a turbo diesel engine, at prices ranging from $136,990 to $155,990.

The two newest Maserati showrooms are in Melbourne; one of them is shown in the picture here. Nice? That's what you get for A$28m (NZ$29.6m) worth of refurbishment.

Similar showroom environments are being developed for Auckland and Christchurch, in time for the Levante's launch here in December/January.

If you hadn't guessed already, Maserati is very excited about Levante. SUVs now account for 50 per cent of the global luxury market (a pool of around 500,000 cars) and with the existing Maserati sedans and sports cars, Levante gives the marque 100 per cent coverage across all premium segments.

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First Kubang concept from 2003 was more wagon than SUV.

At a local level, Ateco Automotive (the Sydney-based company that distributes Maserati in NZ and Australia) sees Levante doubling its total annual sales across the two markets from the current 500 to just over the magic 1000 mark.

NZ accounts for about 10 per cent of the total, a neat per-capita figure.

Levante has been a long time coming. A Maserati five-door concept called Kubang first appeared in 2003, although that was dubbed a "GT wagon". 

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Second Kubang signalled Maserati's intention to build an SUV.

It was redeveloped in 2011 (still called Kubang) and that vehicle signalled Maserati's intention to add a proper SUV to its lineup.

Kubang-take-two introduced not only the idea of a Maserati SUV, but also the main styling themes that we've now seen emerge on the finished vehicle.

In 2015 it was confirmed that the production model would be called Levante, the name of a Mediterranean wind that can change from mild to gale force in an instant. See what they did there?

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Levante interior is full of Jeep switchgear, but the leather is exquisite. This car has optional Zegna silk upholstery.

The final car was unveiled at the Geneva Motor Show in March this year.

"Maserati has not designed an SUV," says Glen Sealey, chief operating officer of Maserati Australia, NZ and South Africa.

"First and foremost Maserati has designed a new Maserati. A new model that delivers, like all its predecessors, superlative style, performance, handling and road holding combined with unique levels of personalisation to produce a true Maserati. At the same time it adds the space and flexibility of an SUV with real off-road ability."

They are bold claims. Ateco has a display Levante in Australia that we've looked at, touched and sat in - but not driven, as it's a left-hook pre-production model with a petrol engine that is not being offered in Australasia.

The display car also gave Ateco an occasion to release local pricing and specification. So here goes: Levante will come in three guises, from the standard model at $136,990 to a choice of Levante Sport or Luxury, at $155,990.

The Luxury has features such as 20-inch wheels (standard car 19in), extra chrome, panoramic glass roof, Harman Kardon sound system and premium leather. The Luxury pack can also be optioned with the Zegna silk upholstery, first seen on the Quattroporte last year.

The Sport has even larger 21in wheels, shift paddles, sports seats, special steering wheel and red brake calipers.

All models are powered by a 3.0-litre turbo diesel engine with 202kW/600Nm, driving all four wheels through an eight-speed automatic gearbox. Levante can hit 100kmh in 6.9 seconds.

At just over five metres long, Levante is a full-sized SUV. It's based on the modular platform architecture of Ghibli and Quattroporte (early Kubang-era intentions to base it on Jeep underpinnings were quickly dropped). Air suspension is standard across the range, allowing the car to offer a choice of five ride heights (plus a super-low parking setting) to mix and match with the four drive modes.

From the standard ride height, Levante can raise itself by up to 40mm (in the so-called Offroad 2 setting) or drop by up to 45mm from normal in the Parking mode.

The drivetrain is heavily biased towards the rear: 80-90 per cent depending on the drive mode chosen. But the torque split can change to 50/50 in an instant and the car features both torque vectoring by braking and a no-nonsense mechanical locking differential at the rear.

Driver-assistance and active safety features include adaptive cruise control with stop/go, forward collision warning, autonomous braking, lane departure and blind-spot warnings, rear cross-traffic alert and 360-degree cameras. That's a more comprehensive package than even the flagship Quattroporte, which will step up to a similar level of technology for the 2017 model year. Expect the Ghibli to follow in short order.

What you think of the interior will be determined by your expectations. Because it's a big SUV, it's easy to think of Levante as a top-of-the-range Maserati. In fact, it's more entry-level for the Italian brand, a family wagon whose pricing starts about where Jaguar's new F-Pace finishes. Not exactly populist, but far from exotic.

The leather upholstery in the sample car was gorgeous and of course Maserati offers a bewildering array of personalisation opportunities. There's a clean look to the cabin but there's still a high quotient of very obvious Chrysler/Jeep switchgear. The comprehensive infotainment system is new to Maserati - but that's a Fiat Chrysler Automobiles group system as well.

Sealey has a well-practised response to these issues: "It's great to be part of a group and because Maserati doesn't have to spend a lot of money on incidentals like these, it can concentrate more on the things that really matter".

He makes a good point. But for a brand that prides itself on exclusivity and luxury, borrowing the bits you touch in the cabin the most from mainstream cars could be perceived as a problem. The same is true of many other high-end brands that are part of larger automotive families.

But make no mistake, that exclusivity is a crucial part of the Levante's appeal. It's a Maserati, it's the only luxury SUV on the market designed and built in Italy and it may well be the only premium off-roader with frameless windows. Annual production of 30,000 cars per year may account for more than half of Maserati's output, but it's still tiny in the big picture.

Even at total production of 50,000 cars per year across its range, Maserati is still "fundamentally exclusive" says Sealey. "That represents just 0.075 per cent of the global car market. And remember, Maserati has no plan to build anything smaller than Levante or Ghibli.

According to Sealey, Maserati has also instigated a production cap of 75,000 per year, to help keep the marque "exclusive" as opposed to merely "premium" like Audi, BMW and Mercedes-Benz.

Never say never of course, but for now the company insists that number is written in stone. Or perhaps expensive white tile.

 

 

 

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