A true Maserati? We test the new Levante flagship in Dubai
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The man picking me up from the airport wears an infectious grin — a rare commodity at five in the morning.
Hopping into the driver’s seat, his relatively minor frame makes the steering wheel of his Maserati Quattroporte S look enormous. The hulking dashboard — wrapped in beautiful leathers and underlined by splashes of metal — encases him, while in the back I crack into the cold water. Dubai is damn hot.
The Quattroporte is a bit old these days. The current sixth-generation model is four years old, but looks a lot like the fifth generation before it — a platform introduced in 2002.
The wind noise is strong, some of the plastics and buttons look and feel like FCA hand-me-downs, and headroom in the back is sorely lacking. But, it feels like everything you’d imagine a Maserati to be.
You sink into the rear seats like they’re made of butter, turning only to make eye contact with those driving by. Even just sitting in the back, I can tell the driver is having fun jabbing the throttle through the intermittent morning gridlock.
No wonder he is grinning.
See, this is what we’ve long loved from Maserati. For each of the blemishes and shortcomings in its cars, there’s always a nugget of motoring Nirvana gold present to save the day.
But the vibe around the Levante is different.
Reception for the manufacturer’s first SUV has been largely mixed since it launched last year. Journalists have been quick to commend its abilities as a thoroughly fun SUV, but Maserati faithful remain cynical of the company’s pandering to mainstream demand — a move underlined by its decision to offer the Levante only with a diesel engine at launch.
In particular, this globe-trotting excursion to Dubai signals a grand welcome to the new GranLusso and GranSport trims — ‘Lusso’ being Italian for luxury, and ‘Sport’ being motoring speak for ‘this one goes a bit faster and breaks your spine a bit in pot holes’. New Zealand pricing on both models, as well as the rest of the MY18 range, has yet to be confirmed.
Visual differences between the pair are thin. The GranLusso wears silver jewellery in its grill and skid plate, while the GranSport dips all of these elements in piano black. The latter also gets a rear spoiler, larger 20-inch wheels, and moody blue lighting in its trident badging.
It all sounds a bit undercooked in terms of visual changes, but these are still two of the boldest SUVs on the market. Those rear haunches. Those frowning, squinting headlights. The enormous slotted grill, held open like it’s stalking the depths of the ocean hunting for krill … More design elements are the last thing the Levante needs.
On the inside, the differences between the two models are clearer. Leather sports seats, carbon fibre, and familiar combinations of red and black earmark the GranSports testers at launch — a stark contrast to the bevy of creams, whites, and wood finishes in the GranLussos.
The GranLusso quickly establishes itself as the nicer place to sit. The lighter hues get complemented by Zegna Silk inserts, as well as the addition of soft-close doors and a Harman Kardon sound system.
It comes close to pulling off the ‘luxury’ element, but gets let down by a selection of crunchy plastics, as well as the infuriatingly dicky FCA-specification gear selector. Space in the second row is compromised, too; headroom in particular at something of a premium.
A bigger change lurks under the skin. The new electronic power-steering system replaces the hydraulic system in last year’s models. This will become the norm not only for this pair of flagship models, but also on the full MY18 Levante range. It offers plenty of immediate bite off centre and feels nice and light — though, like most other electronic systems, feedback is hard to come by.
The new steering comes paired with a new suite of Advanced Driver Assistance Systems that includes lane-keep assist, blind-spot detection, and level 2 autonomous capabilities.
But as we peer up from our starting base to the craggy peaks of Jebel Jais, Maserati’s musings about the self-driving and lane-keep technology the night before all but disappear. Instead, we focus on the driving mode buttons. Normal, Sport, and the softened I.C.E mode all exist as options, but for our day on the dunes each car is firmly locked in Off-road mode.
When activated, it raises the auto-levelling suspension and recalibrates the way power from the sumptuous Ferrari-based 316kW 3.0-litre twin-turbo V6 gets to the Continental ContiSportContact 5 rubber on each corner of each car in the fleet.
One of the few lines from our safety briefing that I’m able to revise at this point is the emphasis on not burying the right foot — especially when it feels like you’re about to get stuck. Navigating this terrain is instead all about momentum, maintaining speed, and relaxed applications of throttle and wheel work ... all things that my designated co-pilot has clearly forgotten.
Within perhaps five minutes, he has buried our GranLusso almost a foot into the sand.
Having let the revs die while trying to navigate a mild incline, his hurried reaction of panic is to bring the hills alive with the sound of the Maserati’s music at redline — a move that seals our fate and triggers a ‘tow of shame’ from the minders.
Fuelled by the desire to not procure a repeat performance, my stint of dune clobbering features less in the way of disaster.
Eager to please, our GranLusso kicks out its tail and scampers out of situations sure to flummox lesser SUVs without fuss. The sideways capers in particular showcase the complexity of the Levante’s Q4 all-wheel drive system, which one can feel labouring away underneath — sucking away power from one corner and reworking it to the next.
Sadly the fun is all over far too soon, with the long and monotonous motorway drive back to base supplying all the tools needed to reflect on the day, and on these seemingly unstoppable SUVs. On road they’re exemplary. And off-road they can tackle almost anything.
Make no mistake, they’re still thoroughbreds. A pair of real Maseratis.
MASERATI LEVANTE S GRANLUSSO/GRANSPORT
PRICE: To be announced
PROS: Surprisingly handy off-road, purrs and feels like a Maserati should
CONS: Styling isn’t for everyone, ride quality and rear space compromised