Sports car manufacturers are often treacherously accused of blasphemy when they dip their hands into the pot of gold that is the mass market.
On that basis, the past decade has been a tricky one for Maserati. The only two-door sports car left in its line-up is the Gran Turismo, a product which has been on the upper shelf for nearly 12 years. To put things into perspective, the Porsche 911 has gone through four full model changes since the Italian GT was launched in 2007.
Within the same period, Maserati stayed busy and expanded its portfolio with two sedans and an SUV. The Quattroporte was forgivable given its historical lineage and the fact that it remains one of the meanest looking limousines of all time.
But to repackage the Ghibli, a coupe nameplate from 1967 to 1998, as a sedan to take on the BMW 5-Series was rather controversial. If that didn’t test the patience of the Maserati faithful, the Levante, which arrived in 2016, should have.
In right-hand drive markets like Malaysia, Maserati did itself no favours by limiting its first ever SUV to a turbodiesel powertrain. The stuff that flows out of the black pumps is still widely regarded as agricultural in many countries outside the European continent.
But Kuala Lumpur’s elite still descended upon Naza Italia’s showroom in Petaling Jaya for a glimpse of the Levante when it was first launched here in 2017 because by the unspectacular aesthetic standards set by luxury SUVs like the BMW X5 and Porsche Cayenne, the Levante is truly a thing of beauty.
I am reminded of this visual impact as I carefully navigate the brand new Levante S around the narrow roads of Langkawi – its ‘Skyhook’ air suspension keeping things nice and supple on the bumpy tarmac. The island is littered with tourists doing touristy things on foot and on rental mopeds. But instead of me looking out for them, they’re the ones who can’t cast their glance away from the Italian SUV. Even the locals are impressed, which says a lot considering Langkawi houses a sizeable portion of Malaysia’s glitziest supercars.
Despite caving into the numbers game, Maserati has done a splendid job of making the Levante look as desirable as its sportier brethren by incorporating design elements from the Alfieri concept, which looks absolutely sublime.
The signature fanged grille flanked by slim LED headlights give the front end a menacing look that’s still classy in a way befitting the brand. And the dramatised wheel arches in the back really add to the car’s overall presence – the 21-inch ‘Helios’ wheels really rise to the occasion too.
That said, the Levante’s oddly charming cosmetics aren’t something we’re not already familiar with. What’s fairly new, in our market at least, is the three-litre twin-turbo V6 manufactured in Maranello that runs on petrol.
... the towering Maserati exudes the kind of flair and bravado typically associated with much pricier SUVs such as the Bentley Bentayga and Lamborghini Urus.
Yes, we’re finally getting the Ferrari-built engine that the car should have come with from the start. And since Naza Italia is shipping in the range-topping Levante S, there’s full access to 430bhp and 580Nm of torque good for propelling the 2.1-tonne SUV to 100kph from a standstill in only 5.2 seconds. The base GranTurismo achieves the same century sprint with the help of a V8.
On the flipside, 5.2 seconds really isn’t a lofty benchmark by current SUV standards – yes, carmakers are really invested in this segment. The Mercedes-AMG GLC63, for one, will do 0-100kph in a baffling 3.8 seconds. Granted, it costs nearly a million Ringgit. But further down the food chain is the RM334k Volvo XC60 T8 that’s only 0.1 seconds off the Levante S’s pace, provided its battery is charged.
However, the Levante S blows the Volvo out of the water and gives the AMG a solid run for its money in terms of acoustics. Its speedo may not move with the urgency of a Ferrari’s, but Maserati has gotten the take-off sensation in its most practical offering to date bang on the money.
There’s snap, crackle and pop in the mix too. We’re not just talking about the kind of unhinged volume that V8 AMGs are known for. The Maranello effect is evident in how clinically the Levante’s sultry exhaust note is piped to our ears. And it’s especially obvious when the powertrain is set to Sport.
You can immediately feel the Levante S’s base heartrate increase at a push of the button which engages its raciest setting. Do this at a traffic light and you’ll draw stares from every direction, mostly out of disbelief at the SUV’s deep, idling tremolo.
On the move, the throttle and slick-shifting ZF eight-speeder are clearly more reactive, while the suspension pulls itself closer to the ground nicely in Sport. But the V6 also ups the ante with an F1-like mechanical staccato on the upshift. This is hugely entertaining at first, but the aural theatrics can get repetitive over time.
Overstay your welcome in Sport mode and the Levante S’s soundtrack might start sounding a bit artificial. But it isn’t the only thing that feels synthesised at times. The steering wheel – and boy is it a big one – can feel a little overcompensated around the bends.
A bit more weight and less freeplay would have been nice, but it’s still a largely dynamic machine for a car standing measuring 1,679mm tall: the same as a Honda CR-V. It’s also pretty good considering it’s an EPS.
Yes, steering in the Levante S is fully electronic. It’s a necessary evil to enable features like Lane Keeping Assist, which is packaged with Maserati’s Advanced Driving Assistance Systems (ADAS) along with Highway Assist, Active Blind Spot Assist and Traffic Sign Recognition. Effort has clearly been put into making the car safer and more usable to a broader audience. There’s even a driving mode called ICE (Increased Control & Efficiency), which dumbs the powertrain down so much you can almost trust your teenage child to drive it without getting into trouble. Almost.
Despite Maserati’s business relations with Chrysler, the Levante still proudly wears its Italian heart on its sleeve. This patriotism comes with a mandatory side of quirks that will stump even the most seasoned drivers, such as multimedia buttons tucked behind the steering wheel and a tailgate switch that’s placed on the frame of the boot instead of the tailgate.
Inside, the driver footwell is ridiculously narrow with little room for the left foot to rest comfortably while the AC goes all the way down to 14 degrees Celsius instead of the standard 16 – not that Malaysians would complain. And what’s an Italian car without the occasional squeak and rattle that’s impossible to isolate?
All is forgiven as I pulled up in the lobby of the Casa Del Mar along Pantai Cenang, its spotlights drawing the strong and fluid lines that shape the Levante out into sight. Even when parked with the engine shut, the towering Maserati exudes the kind of flair and bravado typically associated with much pricier SUVs such as the Bentley Bentayga and Lamborghini Urus.
But at RM789k, the Levante S costs just a fraction of their respective prices. The untrained eye will struggle to tell. I know this from tailing an Aston Martin Vantage en route to Tanjung Rhu, during which both cars seem to have gathered just as many envious looks from passers-by.
Buyers who want to amplify this superficial quality can cough up an additional RM50k for Naza Italia to spec the Levante S up in either GranSport or GranLusso trim packages. The latter is especially fascinating, as it incorporates a silk upholstery by Ermenegildo Zegna. If a name is so complex that you can’t pronounce it, it has to be fancy.
Even then, the posh SUV will still be cheaper than a Porsche Cayenne S before options. So as far as haute couture items that can take a family of five on an off-road excursion go, this one’s an absolute steal.
|Engine||2,979cc, twin-turbo, V6, 430bhp, 580Nm|
|Transmission||8-spd auto, AWD|
|Performance||0-100kph in 5.2 secs, 264kph|
|Economy||12.2L/100km, 282g/km CO2|