We rip up the dunes of Dubai with Maserati's new duo
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Life has two consistencies beyond death and taxes; the love for identity and tradition, and the detest for change.
The story of the Maserati Levante SUV and where it fits between those latter two concepts is a very familiar tale by now. We've seen it through the likes of Porsche and BMW, now through Maserati, and looking forward Lamborghini, Aston Martin, and Ferrari look likely to hop aboard the same non-stop freight train.
I am of course talking about the gamble of exclusivity and the financial juggernaut SUVs have become. One by one various manufacturers known for purity, focus, performance, have clambered to create a crossover for a market that's clearly thriving.
In the case of the Levante — launched last year — it's had a massive impact on Maserati's sales figures. This completely new model, a model some begrudge, currently makes up 57 per cent of Maserati sales.
And that's only going to grow with the launch of two new flagships; the Levante S GranLusso [pictured above] and GranSport [pictured below].
As implied by what it says on the tin, the GranLusso ramps up the luxury aspects of the standard car, and the GranSport the performance credentials. The pairing, as well as the Levante S itself, will land in New Zealand early next year (pricing still to be confirmed).
For the first international drive of the grand duo, Maserati beamed Driven to Dubai — more specifically to the natural off-road testing grounds in the UAE mountains near Jebel Jais. Dunes from here to the horizon, encasing stunning rock formations and sparse trees and shrubbery.
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Both SUVs retain the lovable twin-turbo Ferrari-derived V6 unit under the bonnet of the petrol Levante S. Power stays static at 316kW and 580Nm of torque. This might disappoint those hoping for more explosions and performance in the context of the GranSport in particular, but as they say; 'if it ain't broke, don't fix it.'
And this engine is anything but broke.
Putting the Levante into Sport mode with manual shifting activated via the 8-speed ZF transmission's tactile metal paddles, and any notions of the engine requiring 'more' of anything quickly dissipate.
Foot down and a beautiful howl fills the cabin. The car sits on its rear wheels and leaps forward with confidence. The 0–100km/h time of 5.2 seconds doesn't sound particularly impressive when various SUVs from AMG and M are already well into the fours, but because of the way the power gets to the wheels and the subsequent cross-pollination of sensations that assault your body, it feels fast.
Where the GranLusso and GranSport perhaps differ most from the driver's seat is in their suspension tuning. Predictably it's the former that rides more smoothly and the latter that has less body roll. Relative to their rivals, the pairing feel harsh over bumps and pot holes. But that's the trade-off for owning perhaps one of the best handling SUVs on the market.
Which brings me to one of the leading changes that the Levante S range will lead through all of the models into 2018; a new steering system.
Out with the 'old' hydraulic-based set-up and in with an electric system that Maserati says packs more steering torque and improved on-center feel. As a sucker for hydraulic steering I was skeptical, but the new system is certainly impressive. Unsurprisingly it's very precise and quick, but it's also good fun.
On the dunes, it was this steering, that engine, and the already proven Q4 all-wheel drive system that got the greatest workout.
Though these cars will rarely ever see this kind of abuse via their real-world customers, the combination of technologies is mightily impressive in this setting. Despite a weight of more than two tonnes, both new designations took on gravity-defying dunes with notable ease.
The majority of our time behind the wheel in this most unique of environments was spent on the mild stuff — 'kid courses' as my co-pilot called them. On this sandy surface most SUVs feel like boats. Everything you sense through the tyres and the steering wheel made to feel like jelly, reactions from inputs are prolonged, and the car leans from side to side.
It's chaos playing out in slow motion, but Maserati's creation puts everything at ease. Moments of opposite lock are plentiful, but dealt with comfortably with a generous flick on the steering wheel. Traction is rarely in question, so long as the meat bag in the driver's seat keeps the forward momentum going with their right foot.
But the majority of our time on these dunes is spent riding shotgun and tail gunner to Maserati's trained off-road drivers. Their knowledge of the limits of these cars results in most occupants' head clouting the headliners of their press car at least once — grins going from ear to ear as we rocket around various dust bowls at tyre-shredding speed.
Quick enough to rip the extended guards of at least a couple of them ... not that anyone cares when you're having this much fun.
Keep an eye out for Driven's full review of the Maserati Levante S GranLusso and GranSport