When Porsche produced the first generation of the Cayenne, the move provoked some gnashing of teeth in the automotive world. Many felt it downright scandalous that the sportiest of automakers could give in to capitalist concerns and take the “easy” route to commercial gains. The resounding success of the Cayenne did allow Porsche to rake in some serious profits, which it turned right around and used to develop new sports models. This did not go unnoticed among its luxury-car competitors: Audi, BMW, Cadillac, Jaguar, Mercedes-Benz and even Bentley now include luxury SUVs in their lineups.
Now, several years and rounds of rumours later, Maserati is joining the club. The step is a crucial one for the prestigious Italian brand, which is attempting to reclaim its corner of the spotlight after several years of struggle.
A short history
Having experienced its greatest moments of glory in the period leading up to and following World War II, notably in the high-end luxury-car domain and on the race track (cue Juan Manuel Fangio winning the Formula One championship in 1957), Maserati was felled by tragedy at the Mille Miglia road race, and decided to pull back from racing to focus on producing cars in limited runs.
Bought by Citroën in 1968, the Italian manufacturer entered a prosperous period. However, the bankruptcy of Citroën in 1973, followed by its buyout by PSA, left Maserati in liquidation. The company was then bought and relaunched by Alejandro de Tommaso, but the cars that resulted failed to impress, and it would take the integration of Maserati into the Fiat Group and FCA to bring it all the way back from the brink.
These days, Maserati is part of FCA’s Sport Group alongside Alfa Romeo and Abarth, and its ambition is to garner annual sales of 75,000 units. The objective may seem a modest one, until you remember that just five years ago the company was producing a mere 4,000 units per year. The arrival of the 2017 Maserati Levante fits into the automaker’s strategy to attain its new sales goals.
Elegant chassis, luxurious interior
There’s no denying that the Levante is an elegant creature, starting with its front grille bedecked with vertical chrome bars and featuring the famous trident icon, included on Maserati cars since the 1920s, and which is inspired by the statue of Neptune standing in downtown Bologna. As with most of its competitors, the nose of the Levante is elongated while the rear is truncated, giving the overall shape a sporty demeanour. The presence of portholes on the wings hasn’t been universally well-received, but as with Buick, they are part of the brand’s tradition.
In any event, it’s the interior that truly steals the show; it features high-quality leather, contoured seats and a dashboard dominated by a large infotainment screen bordered by vertical ventilation ducts. The indicator dials have a classic and highly elegant look to them, and are separated from each other by a really practical info screen display. The steering wheel, meanwhile, has dimensions that lend themselves to a pleasant and proper grip.
The front seats are exceedingly comfortable, while those in the rear are quite generous in terms of headroom and legroom.
Engine made by Ferrari
Any self-respecting Italian luxury car has to have a racing-minded engine under its hood. The 2017 Levante is well-served by it 3.0L V6, developed by Maserati but assembled at Ferrari’s manufacturing plan. It’s hard to imagine anyone complaining much about this set-up. In any event, the “base” model produces 345 hp, while its more-powerful sibling ups that to 424 hp, and both are wedded to an 8-speed ZF automatic transmission. By default, the all-wheel drive distributes the majority of the torque to the rear wheels, but it can transfer up to 50% of that torque to the front wheels in reduced-grip conditions.
The standard air suspension can be adjusted at different heights and in different positions. Also adjustable is its firmness, but keep in mind that the Sport mode renders the suspension of the Levante frankly too rigid for our North American roads. As well, a left-right torque vector enhances stability during cornering.
Once settled in behind the wheel, it’s easy to be spellbound by the sheer quality of the leather and by the ambience of the cabin. When it comes to such environments, no one can match the Italians for their design genius. The strength of the magic spell only increases when the ignition is turned, revealing an engine sound that is a genuine mechanical symphony. For many consumers, this moment is the one that will convince them to buy.
Once out on the road, the Levante proves itself pleasant to drive, and it’s tempting to indulge in the shifting of gears using the two paddle shifters located on the back of the steering wheel, just for the pleasure of listening to the engine. Its grip when cornering and its overall steering stability are both excellent. On the other hand, the power-assisted steering lacks feeling, while the automatic gearbox sometimes hesitates to downshift. Also noted was the slightly low-end feel of some of the elements of the interior.
A Levante soon in your driveway?
These few quibbles aside, the 2017 Maserati Levante delivers high levels of exclusivity, luxury and driving pleasure. Factor in the Ferrari-made engine and a suggested retail price of $89,600, and you end up with a product that could appeal to many a luxury-SUV buyer.