In 2017, Maserati’s Levante arrived in South Africa to a lukewarm reception. It was okay and cool, but it was maybe not quite great, most punters said.
And the three-litre turbodiesel engine from the Fiat parts bin was not the soul stirrer it should have been. Now the Maserati Levante S has landed, with a 320kW V6 twin-turbo Ferrari petrol engine.
It was 2016.
We were on a highway near Turin, Italy, for the international launch of the Fiat Fullback bakkie.
The next moment, three blacked-out Maserati Levantes blasted past our bakkie at the speed of light. At that time, details on the new SUV’s engine or engines were sketchy. But we were pretty convinced it was the howl of a V6 petrol engine that accompanied the speeding Masers. It was a soul-stirring moment.
And so the Levante arrived in South Africa amidst much hype and anticipation. And the company revealed that it will only be importing a turbodiesel version. It was a sad day for the petrolheads among us.
We’ve got nothing personal against diesel. It’s a perfectly adequate fossil fuel for powering normal SUVs, bakkies, hatches and cars. But when it comes to delivering a ‘sporty’ driving experience, well, a diesel is just not a petrol.
There are two reasons for this. Firstly, there’s a lack of noise, and the associated visceral pleasures that go with that noise. The second reason is a distinct lack of revs in an oilburner.
Sound effects play a huge role in perceived performance. Petrolheads just love chasing the rev counter needle all the way around the dial to the red zone. In a diesel, that red zone starts at around 4 500r/min. In a petrol-powered vehicle, you still have about 3 000r/min left to play with.
The Levante diesel just didn’t live up to our petrolhead expectations. Yes, it’s a fancy,luxurious, powerful, refined, exclusive and spacious SUV. But it didn’t manage to stir the soul, as you’d expect an Italian sports car should.
A sports car should be like a little devil on your shoulder, egging you on to push a little harder, a little faster, plastering a smile on your face. The Levante diesel was just a bit too refined, too clinical. In essence, it lacked a sense of driving ocassion.
A new age dawns?
More recently the phone rang. The new Maserati Levante S has arrived, said the voice on the phone. With a twin-turbo petrol engine. Would we like to take it for a spin?
Now imagine a choir of angels, a dark, cloudy sky making way for a burst of sunlight breaking through… this was the moment we had been dreaming about since that day in Turin, when those three test units came blasting past. The Levante S had been delivered!
All about the style
An Italian car without any style would be like a boerewors roll with a vienna – it’s just not on. Look at other famous Italian car brands, too: The latest Alfa Guilia makes every other luxury saloon look monotonous, while the Fiat 500 owns the small car market in terms of style.
Maserati has a rich history of building grand tourers, stunning sedans and breathtaking concepts, but nothing a designer could update and mould into something utilitarian. Yet somehow they came up with an SUV body that incorporates Maserati’s unmistakable design language.
You have a large, gaping grill with an oversize trident sitting proudly at the bottom of an attractively slanted bonnet. The curvaceous sides are also nice to look at. The tail? We’re not so sure about that. It borders on being generic despite the presence of four fat exhaust pipes (but then again, a Hyundai Tucson Sport also has four tailpipes).
The interior can be whatever you want it to be. Opt for a more pragmatic colour for the leather and you’ll have a car that’s dapper and elegant. Or you could go the gangster route and specify rosso.
Retailing at just under R2 million, a lack of standard features was never going to be a problem. You get an advanced instrument cluster with a digital display, touchscreen interface, electric everything and a sound system that’s nearly as loud as the exhaust.
There is one problem though: the Levante shares a number of parts with the Jeep Grand Cherokee in an obvious bid to save development costs. A Grand Cherokee owner will be able to spot a lot of familiarities in the cabin. Thing is, if we have to pay nearly R2 million for a vehicle, a fair dollop of exclusivity would rank as one of the basic requirements.
Of course, Maserati is not the only company that shares its parts bin among a few models. But a Maserati is supposed to be all about emotion, unique style, engagement, a bespoke design. And this cabin falls short in that sense.
Yes baby! Make some noise!
But let’s get to the really important bit: the 320kW/580Nm twin-turbo V6 petrol engine. It’s the main event of this performance, the one component that might elevate the Levante from being a cool and exclusive SUV to an absolutely spectacular driving machine (that also happens to be a cool and exclusive SUV).
While Maserati tucked into the parent’s company parts bin to source the same VM Motori turbodiesel mill that powers the Jeep Grand Cherokee, the V6 petrol is a different game altogether. It hails from an Italian company in Maranello called Ferrari. You know, the one famous for their expensive red cars.
Press the starter button and the Levante S’ new V6 emits a glorious rasp, which settles down to a nice burble. A heavily congested Johannesburg is hardly perfect for exploiting the merits of this Ferrari-made V6 engine, but it idled along nicely without scaring or irritating other road users.
Driving it normally requires no more than a slight throttle input. It burbles along nicely, all refined and BMW X5 like.
Once the road ahead was clear, sport mode was engaged. Valves in the exhaust system opened and the symphony of noise I had heard on a highway in Italy finally came to fruition.
Boy, does the Levante S sound spectacular!
It’s a beautiful noise. It starts low, deep and… mechanical, almost. As the revolutions rise, the raspy, guttural growl morphs into a crescendo of six frenzied cylinders, spinning to 7 000r/min, with the whoosh from the twin turbochargers also in the game.
This is what a Maserati is all about. This is a… Maserati!
Power is transferred to all four wheels via an eight-speed automatic gearbox with handy paddle shifters behind the beautifully crafted steering wheel. The All Wheel Drive system’s active transfer case (ATC) allows for a split of up to 50/50 between the front and rear axles, as traction demands.
And the drive?
Although noise plays a big role, it’s not the absolute be-all and end-all of performance motoring.
Fortunately, the Levante has everything going for it in the handling department. It’s about 100kg lighter than the diesel, and while that may not seem like much in an SUV weighing two tons, one has to consider the location from where the fat has been trimmed.
Because there’s less weight on the front axle, the ‘S’ turns in more aggressively. It just feels more nimble, more eager to tackle some twisties than the diesel version.
The 0–100km/h dash is completed in a claimed 5.2 seconds, and the Levante S will reach a top speed of nearly 270km/h. The eight-speed auto, as mentioned before, does a great job of managing the gears all by itself. But, when the mood arrives, manual changes is the way to go… mostly only because then you can control the engine noise better.
The engine is a masterpiece. There is virtually no turbo lag to speak of. The only negative aspect about it is that we think Maserati were too conservative with the power output. There is another 200 horsepower hiding in there, we reckon.
But maybe Maserati has even bigger plans for the Levante. Like the rumoured Trofeo model, which some reckon will be powered by the Ferrari 458 V8 engine. With more than 400kW.
Oh, and what about fuel consumption for the Levante S? Well, it’s more than the diesel. But frankly, if you pay R2 million for this machine, will you really care whether it drinks an average of 10 litres/100km or 15 litres/100km? We think not.
How about the competition?
Unfortunately, this is where it starts to get difficult to argue the case for the Maserati.
R2 million is a lot of money. There’s the Range Rover Sport SVR, BMW X5/X6M and Mercedes GLE 63 AMG on the menu. And let’s not forget the Porsche Cayenne Turbo… Yes, all of them are around R100 000 more expensive, but what’s a few thousand worth in this segment anyway?
We also can’t help but ponder what combo deals are available for the same amount of money. An All-new Land Rover Discovery diesel is around R1 million, which leaves you with another million to buy an actual sports car.
And perhaps the best deal of all: a standard Porsche Cayenne with a V6 turbocharged petrol for R1 131 000 and a new Cayman/Boxster for those days you’re feeling a bit fruity. These two cars together cost roughly the same as this one Maserati.
Unless you’re big into Italian style, cars and exclusivity, the Levante is a tough sell. And it might even become a tougher sell once the high performance Alfa Romeo Stelvio (which is powered by the same V6 engine) arrives here.
The Levante S is a sensational vehicle. But it’s not the best performance SUV you can buy for around R2 million. Yet somehow, illogically, we find ourselves drawn to it like a moth to a flame. Maybe it’s that unique Italian style and charm that got to us?
Famous Italian star Sophia Loren, who knows about stylish matters, summed it up succinctly: “A woman’s dress should be like a barbed-wire fence: serving its purpose without obstructing the view.”
Ditto with the Levante S. All that SUV metal barely manages to cover up the sports car that lives underneath. As originally promised.
We rest our case.
MASERATI LEVANTE S
Engine: V6 twin-turbo petrol
Displacement: 2 979cc
Power: 316kW @ 5 750r/min
Torque: 580Nm @ 4 500r/min
Transmission: Eight-speed automatic
Ground clearance (claimed): 190mm
Consumption (claimed): 10.9 litres/100km (combined cycle)
Fuel tank capacity: 80 litres
Maintenance plan (limited): Five-year/100 000km
Price (standard): R1 950 000