By Thomas Shambler
Despite being Maserati's first ever motor with utility in mind, the Levante was custom-built to be a performance car first
The Levante is Maserati's most significant launch of the last decade. According to recent statistics, SUVs now account for half of all luxury vehicle sales; a trend kicked off by Porche's Cayenne back in 2002. Since then, every luxury automaker has wanted a piece of the action. Most recently, Bentley released its four-door crossover the Bentaya; Jaguar started selling the F-Pace, and even traditional brands such as Rolls-Royce has since teased SUV concepts (the Cullinan is expected to arrive in 2019).
It should come as no surprise that Maserati wants to capitalise on the trend for high-bodied vehicles, which is why earlier this year it pulled the wraps off the Levante. It's confident the Levante will sell and sell well – Maserati expects its worldwide sales to reach 70,000 vehicles by 2018, and it projects the luxury SUV will account for 30,000 of those. Lofty goals, indeed.
But Maserati is counting on the Levante's versatility to woo future customers. Unlike other utility vehicles, this one comes with an engine assembled at the Ferrari factory in Maranello. The twin-turbocharged V6 engine comes in two sizes, a 345-horsepower base model and a beefier version with 424 horses under the hood. The name comes from Viento de Levante, an easterly wind that blows through the Strait of Gibraltar, and can change in an instant from a light breeze to gale force winds.
The body is larger than a BMW X5 but smaller than a Mercedes-Benz GLS, with a supremely styled body not unlike the carmaker's Alfieri supercar concept. It has a trio of portholes on the front fender and a triangular C-pillar that frames a Maserati badge. It's most prominent feature, however, is the shark-nose front end, with Maserati's trademark concave grill.
The Levante boasts a rigid chassis and a low centre of gravity with 50/50 weight distribution. This all contributes to improved balance and agility at speed, ensuring the car performs just as well while accelerating round corners as straights. As it nears its top speed of 260-kilometres-per-hour, the front grille's active shutters and flat underbelly kick in, reducing drag. Throw in hydraulic steering (rather than the now ubiquitous electronic rack), and the Levante produces a ride, unlike its competitors.
As expected from a motor that costs upwards of US$75,000, the interior includes leather seats with a wood and aluminium trim. The sports package upgrades the plush seats with more supportive ones, in striking red leather. But the most luxurious is naturally the Zegna model – complete with dark-gray silk inserts created by the Italian menswear designer.