Et tu, Maserati?

Has Maserati betrayed its sporting heritage by joining the luxury SUV brigade? Mike Duff drives the new diesel-powered Levante both on and off the bitumen to find out

Mike Duff

F YOUíRE a physicist who has just cracked time travel, hold off on the predictable ideas for a first spin in your new machine. Donít head backwards to a betting shop, or dial up the future to see how your grandkids turn out. Consider instead the amusement to be had in dispatching the new Levante 20 years into the past and then driving it to a meeting of the Maserati faithful, revealing that the future of the brand would turn out to be a diesel-powered SUV.

Mind you, the response might not entirely be spluttering indignation; the brandís faithful would just as likely be delighted to learn Maserati would make it into the 21st century. Two decades ago the company was struggling to push global sales into four figures; these days itís aiming at 75,000, and the new Levante is the critical component of that strategy. Itís no exaggeration to say this is one of the most important cars the brand has ever launched.

The company deserves credit for resisting the most obvious shortcut. Or, more precisely, fighting its imposition from on high. Maseratiís place in the Fiat-Chrysler alliance meant building its SUV on a Jeep platform wouldíve made the most sense from a cost point of view. Indeed, 2011ís Kubang concept was essentially a rebodied Grand Cherokee that, we were told, was set to be built in Michigan.

Mercifully, that didnít happen. Instead, the production Levante has been spun from the same architecture as Ghibli and Quattroporte, will be made in Turin, and powered by developed versions of the same turbocharged V6s used elsewhere in the Maserati range.

Which leads us to the bad news Ė only one of these engines is coming to Australia, and itís not the best one.

The plan is that all right-hook Levantes will be fitted with a 202kW/600Nm VM Motori diesel V6, a decision we can blame squarely on the UKís insatiable appetite for compression-ignition skewing the business case.

All versions use a ZF eight-speed auto and send drive to all four corners, but using an all-wheel-drive system that is predominantly rear-biased, with 90 percent of torque heading aft under regular use. Air suspension is also standard, which turns out to be an important advantage on a launch route in northern Italy consisting almost entirely of roads that seem to have been built by the lowest bidderís second cousin.

Styling follows Maseratiís tradition of being distinctive rather than unambiguously handsome, although to my eyes the Levante looks far better in the soft sunlight of Emilia-Romagna than it did under the g g harsh lights of Maserís stand at the Geneva motor show, with well-managed proportions doing a good job of disguising its five-metre length.

THE LEVANTE LOOKS FAR BETTER IN SOFT SUNLIGHT THAN UNDER THE HARSH LIGHTS OF THE GENEVA SHOW

WEIGHT, THEREíS MORE

Despite a fair mix of lightweight materials, the diesel Levante is still heavier than the competition. Bonnet, door skins and tailgate are all made from aluminium, as are the front suspension towers. The diesel model tips the scales at 2205kg while the V6 petrol is 96kg lighter.

PLENTY OF SPACE

Boot capacity is a healthy 550 litres and, although the aggressive rake of the tailgate limits depth, the cargo area is flat, wide and easily accessed. Rear seat space is comfortably adult-sized, although the centre rear headrest limits mirror visibility through the small rear window.

DRIVING ON AIR

There are five driving modes, selected by buttons next to the gear selector: Off-road lifts the air suspension 25mm (or 40mm in Off-road2, only available at up to 40km/h), then thereís Normal, Sport, Sport Plus and I.C.E. (a combined low-grip and eco mode).

THE ONE WE REALLY WANT

We begged for a drive in the 316kW/580Nm Levante S petrol (not available in RHD from launch) and can report that itís an absolute peach Ė punchy and responsive, with a snarling soundtrack that makes it feel far more excited than the muted diesel. The good news is that right-handdrive markets, including Australia, have already started lobbying for it and a senior Maserati manager admitted in Italy that ďitís more likely than notĒ. A V8 Levante is also being considered, the company admitting it is already testing a prototype.

THEREíS SOLID URGE FROM LOW REVS AND A MUTED YET MUSCULAR BURBLE WHEN IT STARTS TO WORK HARDER

The interior feels predictably similar to that of the surface leather or carbonfibre trim. Thereís plenty of space for both front and rear passengers, and a long but shallow load space at the back.

The diesel engine performs adequately, although without the ability to deliver any kind of adrenaline spike. Thereís solid urge from low revs and a muted yet muscular induction burble when it starts to work harder. Acceleration tails off markedly during attempts at higher-speed progress on the Italian Autostrada, velocities well above what anyone would attempt in Oz.

The eight-speed auto shifts cleanly and Ė along with the throttle response Ė sharpens its reactions in the more aggressive Sport mode, which also gives the switchable dampers a noticeably firmer edge.

The chassis is the star feature, with the decision to Ghibli, with pretty much every non-transparent surfac in the fully laden car we drove covered in either offer standard air springs responsible in large part for its remarkable combination of talents. Body control is outstanding, the Levante staying composed over the sort of roads that feel like they should be tackled by a car wearing a full sump guard and a co-driver shouting instructions. Yet itís smooth and impressively quiet when asked to cope with high-speed cruising, with ride height automatically lowering by up to 35mm at speed.

Manually selecting off-road mode pumps up the springs to lift the body by up to 40mm and, while owners are unlikely to want to test Maseratiís claims of maximum 250mm body clearance over anything too sharp, the car did a good job driving up and down some steeply graded gravel tracks on its road-spec Pirelli P Zeros.

Under hard cornering thereís still bodyroll, and the effect is exacerbated by the high seating position, but grip levels are high and, impressively, thereís very little understeer as the clever all-wheel-drive system does its thing while trying to send as much power as possible rearwards. Sport mode slackens off the stability control slightly, but adhesion levels are high enough to mean thereís little sense of slip or movement in the chassis, even under high lateral loadings.

The steering deserves praise as well Ė the Levante will be one of the last new cars to be launched with hydraulic rather than electrical assistance Ė giving excellent feel and weighting.

Pricing hasnít been confirmed yet, but the steer from Maserati Australia is that weíll be looking at about $150,000 when the Levante Diesel goes on sale here at the end of this year, meaning a premium over its obvious rivals in return for the exclusivity of a Maserati badge. The Australian importer is already battling for an increased allocation, and for a nondiesel powerplant option as well.