Maserati Levante S: the Ferrari-powered performance SUV
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You’d be forgiven for thinking there isn't much separating the Levante diesel SUV that broke new ground for Maserati last year from the newly released petrol-powered Levante S — but that's because you haven't heard it.
Visually they’re difficult to differentiate, bar a lone SQ4 badge on the boot and painted front brake callipers.
But fire up the twin-turbo V6 engine and your ears are greeted with a type of raucousness only Italian motoring executives would dare sign off.
Could the nation which gave us the supercar pull another ace out its sleeve and give the term “luxury performance SUV” real substance, and perhaps a bit of soul, too?
That's what I'm here to find out at the Australasian launch of the new Maserati Levante S, on deserted roads surrounding the Bathurst racetrack north-west of Sydney.
Three new Levante models are now arriving in New Zealand dealerships, with new colours and an array of options. The range begins with the entry-level Levante S, priced from $169,990.
Luxury and performance orientated models — the Levante S GranLusso and GranSport respectively — complete the line-up, both retailing from $174,990.
All models promise to deliver “sportscar-rivalling performance” on the road and genuine 4x4 capabilities off it due to the SUVs near-perfect 50:50 weight distribution, adjustable air spring suspension and electronically controlled shock absorbers, all of which are fitted as standard.
They could be right when you consider the Levante also boasts the lowest centre of gravity and best aerodynamic efficiency in its class, thanks in large part to the Air Spring Suspension system that can adjust ride height by as much as 85mm when shifting between park, aero and off-road driving modes.
Levante S also ushers in a range of MY18 updates, headlined by a list of safety features made possible with a shift from hydraulic to electronic power steering. MY18 Levantes now come with highway, lane-keep and active blind-spot assist.
The front-facing cameras can now recognise traffic signs, with speed limits displayed on the instrument cluster, and navigating tight spaces has been made a lot easier with the addition of a 360-degree camera displayed through a redesigned 8.4” touchscreen infotainment display on the dash.
These updates help Maserati match its SUV rivals, but the reason Driven hoped across the ditch wasn't to test safety features, (all things going well) it was to try the sports SUV on tarmac roads with the twin-turbo petrol engine we first experienced in the MY17 Quattroporte — which Maserati is quick to point out is a Ferrari-built engine.
All three Levante S models are powered by a 3-litre, twin-turbo V6 that produces a sprightly 316kW of power at 5750rpm and 580Nm of torque at 5000rpm.
The engine was designed by Maserati Powertrain and built at Ferrari’s Maranello plant, and coupled to the a lightweight exhaust system, the engine note resonates with all the crackles and pops you’d expect from a performance-orientated Maserati.
There's an old-school turbo feel to this engine once you start driving. Get caught meandering in a high gear and any depression of the accelerator will be a complete non-event.
However, once you flick into one of the two sport modes and drop down a few gears in the instantaneous ZF 8-speed gearbox, and the throttle pedal should be treated with the highest respect.
0-100km/h is dealt with in 5.1 seconds, a mere tenth slower than the Quattroporte, but the Levante’s real-world party trick is 30-100km/h in under 2.5 seconds. When you get moving there are no complaints from the chassis, either.
All Levante models are built on the same platform as the Ghibli and Quattroporte sedans, with 20 per cent more rigidity to deal with added weight and off-road stresses.
The fact the Levante’s Q4 Intelligent All-Wheel-Drive system directs most of its power to the rear axle through a mechanical Limited Slip Disc (the only car in its class to come with a LSD as standard) only adds to the SUV’s playfulness.
Powerful Brembo six-piston callipers clamping down on 380mm disks in the front and 42mm floating calipers in the rear ensure all that performance and weight can be subdued in a moment’s notice, perfect for dodging kangaroos and mudslides on my drive day.
The performance from this 2.2 tonne vehicle is stunning, and the sound out the back of the four exhaust tips urges you to push harder.
Maserati has considered neighbourly relations however, with exhaust valves able to close to keep the peace during an early-hour commute.
As a full pack, it’s little wonder that Levante, in the distributor’s words, ‘is transforming Maserati in the luxury market’.
In much the same way the Cayenne worked wonders for Porsche in the early 2000s, Levante is drawing new customers once uninterested in Maserati’s GTs or sedans.
In 2017, the Levante diesel outsold Maserati’s three other nameplates combined. The addition of Levante S is only going to accelerate that trend.
It’s a high-riding vehicle with the 580 litres of boot space that buyers in all markets desire.
Though, in the case of Levante S, that practicality, comfort and luxury come packaged in an Italian-made, Ferrari-powered performance SUV that wants to shout its lungs out and send its power to the rear axle as often as possible.
That’s a difficult package to fault.
Maserati Levante S Gransport
Engine: 3.0-litre, twin-turbo V6, 316kW, 580Nm
Price: $174,990 + ORCs
Pro: Performance and feature rivals Germany’s best
Con: No diesel trade-in offer