Thrills, no spills: life at Maserati's Ultimate Driving Experience
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If gunning the full range of Maserati sports cars around a Sydney motor racing circuit reaching speeds north of 200km/h, sounds like fun, I can confirm it is.
Throw in off-roading in a Maserati Levante SUV, lessons on how to corner quickly, and even drift the cars on a skidpan, and you have the essence of the Maserati Ultimate Driving Experience.
Maserati organises the programmes around the world to demonstrate the capabilities of the vehicles under the controlled and safe conditions of a race track.
Maserati Levante goes off-road at the Sydney Motorsport Park. Picture/Supplied
Driven was among 18 Australian and New Zealand motoring journalists invited to the Sydney Motorsport Park at Eastern Creek, last week.
On show was the entire 2019 Maserati line-up, from the large and powerful Quattroporte GTS four-door sports sedan through to the newer petrol-engined versions of Levante SUV.
The Maserati GranTurismo and GranCabrio sports cars were also available to drive, along with the Ghibli sports sedans.
The event was hosted by the chief operating officer of Maserati Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, Glen Sealey, who says attending the Maserati Ultimate Driving Experience is by invitation only.
“You can’t pay to be here — you have to be invited,” he says.
The Australian experience was the first step on the Master Maserati Driving Courses programme, which involves four track-based courses and two off-road courses, and experience in Maserati’s GT4 and MC-12 race cars. The full Italian experience is aimed at helping owners get the most out of their exotic vehicles, safely.
Our introduction involved tuition on cornering techniques (entering, identifying the apex, and powering out once the car was straight and ready to power up quickly) and driving the Levante up and down a 35-degree dirt slope. The Levante’s hill descent software holds the weighty SUV at a steady speed while it descends, and the hill hold function starts the vehicle without drama or fuss while going up hill.
Few Levante owners would be sanguine about throwing their $140,000 to $163,000 vehicles over a precipice like this, but the exercise helped prove some of the SUV’s robust off-roading capabilities.
The arrival of the Levante has helped Maserati increase its sales in this part of the world, and last year in New Zealand it sold around the same number of vehicles as one of its arch rivals, Porsche.
However few in the motor industry expect sales to increase this year, and Sealey says he will be pleased if Maserati can maintain its roughly 5 per cent of the segment in the face of the declining market.
Maserati has new management in place in Italy, and although it is part of the Fiat Chrysler group, it places great store by its exclusivity.
“Maserati is never going to produce as many cars as Porsche, Jaguar-Land Rover or Mercedes-Benz,” he says.
Sealey says Porsche produces more Cayenne SUV models than the entire production run of Maseratis across its whole range.
The core of the brand was performance, but not just the time from zero to 100 km/h.
He cites the brand’s passion for detail and its “GranTurismo Philosophy.” This plays on Maserati’s fabled sporting history, Italian roots and the firm’s belief in “travelling great distances in comfort and in distinctive Italian style”.
The GranTurismo manifesto says: “We believe in the unique note of our engines and the sound of history ... we have been a pioneer of these beliefs and the philosophy of genuine grand touring that is at the heart of every single Maserati.”
The 2019 Maserati models have new leather options, alloy wheels and carbon inserts, and the company has been steadily improving the connectivity and other features on its vehicles.
While you would expect Maserati’s sports cars to perform superbly on the track, it was brave of the company to offer the entire range, including the Levante, for hot laps during the afternoon session of the course.
The two-tonne SUV was almost as much fun to drive on the track as the lower-slung and much sleeker sports cars. Sure, it had more body roll than the sports models, but the adaptive air suspension keeps the Levante relatively steady, even under the pump. The twin-turbo 3-litre V6 petrol engine model provides a cheaper alternative to the diesel models, with the assurance of a engine that provides 257kW of power and a full 500Nm of torque.
There are two Levante petrol-engine models and one diesel option available. The Levante S accelerates from 0-100km/h in 5.2 seconds, and has a top speed of 264 km/h. The baseline petrol model accelerates from 0-100 in six seconds, almost a second faster than the diesel.
With petrol engine options now available, Sealey believes the Levante will continue to provide more than half of total Maserati sales in this part of the world. “It’s no secret SUVs are taking market share from sedans, and the Levante shows that holds true for us,” he says.
“Would we like a smaller SUV?
“Yes, but not at the expense of our brand values, so I don’t think you’ll see a Maserati with a four-cylinder engine.”
Instead he says the company will look at hybrid and electric versions to cut emissions — although Maserati customers expected their vehicles to sound and go like a prestige Italian car, so a 3-litre six cylinder model was probably the minimum.
Like other prestige manufacturers, the introduction of an SUV has increased Maserati sales above historic levels, and introduced new buyers to the brand.
“We’ve had people trade in everything from German SUVs to a Fiat 500X and Nissan X-Trail,” he says.