It’s taken 18 months for this twin-turbo petrol V6 Maserati Levante S to reach Australia, but the wait is worth it if you want your Trident-branded SUV to sound and perform like a red-blooded Italian.
WHAT IS IT?
The belated introduction of the range-topping Maserati Levante S, featuring a twin-turbo 3.0-litre petrol V6 built by Ferrari in Maranello and a number of other upgrades spread across the entire MY18 Levante line-up.
WHY WE’RE TESTING IT?
The best Levante has always been the one we couldn’t buy in Oz, yet petrol power has finally arrived and in the most-powerful variant available – the 321kW/580Nm Levante S. Plus there’s two new trim lines – Gran Lusso and Gran Sport – intended to make this high-riding Italian a bit more special.
THE WHEELS VERDICT
Here’s the Levante we should’ve had from the get-go, despite its innumerable flaws. For a two-tonne SUV with air-sprung suspension, the Levante’s ride is pretty dismal and this twin-turbo V6 still doesn’t sound quite as fruity as we’d like it to. But it’s a better all-rounder than a Quattroporte and has plenty of sporting talent waiting to be unleashed if you don’t mind risking your licence.
PLUS: Strong-armed drivetrain; hard-driven handling ability and corner-exit thrust; frameless doors; Gran Lusso’s silk interior trim
MINUS: Agitated ride; underwhelming styling; front seats lack cornering support; handling and steering in Normal mode
THE WHEELS REVIEW
JUST 10 percent of Aussie Maserati Levante buyers are expected to shell out for this thrusty new twin-turbo V6 S version, yet this is the drivetrain the high-riding Italian has been crying out for. It’s almost a no brainer.
Built by Ferrari in its Maranello engine plant, we bypass the regular Levante’s 3.0-litre direct-injection, twin-turbo V6 for the greater boost pressure of the 321kW/580Nm Levante S, tied to ZF’s excellent eight-speed automatic ’box and Maserati’s highly effective all-wheel-drive system.
It’s predominantly a rear-drive set-up that can transfer up to 50 percent to the front treads, and features the added benefit of a mechanical rear LSD and torque vectoring. And in fast going, its operation is seamless, sending drive to the outside rear wheel in a fluid, highly entertaining fashion. Indeed, channel your inner Ricciardo and the Levante S delivers a physics-defying display of eager turn-in, encouraging grip and elegant poise.
New-for-MY18 electric power steering introduces highway and lane-keeping assist, active blind-spot assistance and traffic-sign recognition, as well as a switchable steering set-up. In Normal and Sport modes (which only tweaks the drivetrain calibration and opens the exhaust flaps), Levante’s chassis remains in the default set-up. But push the centre console’s Sport button a second time (indicated by a pair of white-lit dots near the switch, and a damper icon in the central TFT screen between Maserati’s Italian-chic instrument dials) and you get far superior control.
The Levante S’s steering instantly gains feel, the vertical movement of its suspension is mitigated and understeer dissipates into the background. Suddenly, the boosted Levante petrol drives like its Trident badge suggests it should, enhanced by a core structure that’s 20 percent stiffer than the Ghibli sedan it’s derived from.
But ride is not the Levante’s forte. Even on the Gran Lusso’s smaller 20s (wearing Continental ContiSportContact 5 rubber – 265/45ZR20 front, 295/40ZR20 rear), there’s an unsettled lumpiness that never leaves the driving experience. And on the shallower sidewalls of the Gran Sport’s 21s, it’s even more noticeable.
The engine, too, isn’t quite as luscious as we’d hoped, though its 3200-4500rpm bark zone is a tuneful place to be – best accessed by short-shifting under load via a pair of large aluminium paddles fixed to the steering column. But how many owners are going to drive it like that?
Of the two new trim levels, it’s the Gran Lusso that suits the Levante S best. With Zegna-silk seat and door inserts, mixed with the stunning red leather and anthracite headlining of our test car, it’s a proper designer look, garnished with Maserati’s best integration of shared Fiat-Chrysler multimedia and switchgear yet. But the Gran Lusso’s front seats are rather small and lack sufficient side bolstering or under-thigh adjustment given the performance and handling on offer. And without the grip of the Zegna trim inserts, the Gran Sport’s all-leather sports seats are even worse, with the additional bolstering unable to overcome the leather’s slipperiness. At least the rear seat is reasonably comfortable – even for three bodies – and Levante’s fully-trimmed 580-litre boot is usefully shaped.
The Gran Lusso’s less fussy exterior is also classier, though the Levante ultimately struggles when measured against the aesthetic purity of Maserati’s best designs. Many of the details are spot on – particularly the exotic-for-an-SUV frameless doors with new soft-close function – but the overall execution appears a little muddled. And the Levante’s rear-end looks super-bland. From a distance, it could be Korean.
Yet that won’t stop badge-conscious SUV buyers from flocking to Maserati showrooms. Ninety percent of Aussie Levante customers are new to the brand, and Ateco (Maserati’s importer) expects Levante’s share of Maserati sales to expand beyond the 59 percent it currently enjoys. But without a V8 engine and a GTS badge, or greater polish in V6 S guise, the Levante will continue to sell on the provenance of the Maserati brand, not the finesse and sporting sophistication of its driving ability.
Model: Maserati Levante S Gran Lusso
Engine: 2979cc V6 (60˚), dohc, 24v, twin-turbo
Max power: 321kW @ 5750rpm
Max torque: 580Nm @ 1750-5000rpm
Transmission: 8-speed automatic
0-100km/h: 5.2sec (claimed)
Economy: 10.9L/100km (EU)
On sale: Now