This is the maddest, baddest and fastest Maserati Levante SUV a (not inconsiderable) sum of money can buy.
With the thirst for high-end, high-performance off-roaders showing no sign of being slaked, it was only a matter of time before Maserati, already late to the SUV party, jumped on the bandwagon with a rival to the likes of the Porsche Cayenne Coupe Turbo and Range Rover Sport SVR.
In what promises to be one of the quickest four-by-fours around when it lobs early next year, the Levante Trofeo gets a Ferrari-built 3.8-litre twin-turbo V8 with some Maserati extras – new camshafts and valves, redesigned cylinder heads, pistons and rods, a tweaked ECU and a pair of twin-scroll turbochargers. It’s the same engine as in the Levante GTS, and it produces a healthy 441kW and 730Nm.
To cope with the extra power, the chassis gets a new ‘Aero 2’ mode for the air suspension that lowers the ride height 35mm.
There’s also a new Corsa driving mode that stiffens the springs and dampers, as well as loosening the ESP’s grip a little, sharpening the throttle and putting the eight-speed automatic gearbox on high alert.
As with the GTS, the Q4 four-wheel drive essentially runs in rear-wheel drive most of the time, only sending torque forward when it senses slip. Maximum torque split front to rear is 50/50.
Adding to the Trofeo’s credentials as a ‘proper driver’s car’ is a mechanical limited-slip differential for the rear axle.
Our test car also came with vast 22-inch forged alloy wheels wrapped in specially developed Continental rubber, 265s at the front and steamroller 295s at the rear.
Externally, the Trofeo is marked out by those huge wheels and some bonnet vents, plus a smattering of carbonfibre aerodynamic additions, while inside you’ll find a pair of high-backed sports seats and yet more carbonfibre, this time finished in a tasteful naked weave. The soft leather on the seats and dashboard is first-rate, so it’s a shame some of the plastics and switchgear aren’t quite up to the $330K price tag.
Frankly, the Levante Trofeo could handle like it had two left feet, but you would be willing to forgive it because of that Ferrari-built engine. Of course it delivers plenty of performance, but it’s the noise that really smears a grin across your face.
This is a classic Italian engine, filled to its crackle-red cam covers with character. Yes, there’s a sports exhaust with an active valve that opens in Sport mode for the full operatic effect, but even then the sound is cultured and on just the right side of noisy. It snarls and howls under load, then cracks, pops and burbles on the overrun. Its glorious tenor is never more than a right-foot flex away.
Peak torque comes in at just 2500rpm, but there’s a decent chunk below that, so the Trofeo feels easily as fast as a Porsche Cayenne Coupe Turbo. It’s the sort of effortless, lag-free urge you expect from turbocharged engines these days, but while the torque curve is flat, the V8’s performance still builds excitingly, crescendoing with a snarling rush of revs over the last 1000rpm or so.
Happily, the engine is mated to the familiar eight-speed ZF auto, which delivers smooth and crisp shifts in auto mode, yet reacts quickly to the long steering column-mounted paddles.
Even in its firmest Corsa configuration, the Levante copes well with torn and ragged tarmac. The car’s mass eventually tells, but it’s surprisingly entertaining. The algorithm-enhanced ESP imperceptibly brakes individual wheels to rotate the car into a corner and quell understeer, while adaptive dampers give the Levante the feeling it’s breathing with the road, rather than pummelling it into submission.
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Push really hard and it gets a touch floaty over big bumps and rolls onto its outside rear, but generally it simply digs in and goes. Arguably the weakest link is the steering, which feels more natural in Comfort. That’s when the Levante becomes a composed and comfortable cruiser, those air springs adding just the right amount of waft to proceedings.
The Levante continues to trail the Germans for overall quality, yet it still feels a bit special. In terms of outright ability and true premium appeal, the Trofeo is just shaded by the Cayenne Turbo – but then what isn’t in this class?
Be mindful of the car’s mass and size and you can cover ground at an alarming rate. And then there’s that glorious masterpiece of an engine, which is almost worth the price of entry alone. It may be flawed, but it has a charm and personality that’s rare in this type of car.
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2019 MASERATI LEVANTE TROFEO SPECS
Engine: 3799cc V8, DOHC, 32v, twin-turbo
Power: 441kW @ 6250rpm
Torque: 730Nm @ 2500-5000rpm
0-100km/h: 3.9sec (claimed)
Like: Ferrari V8 performance and sound; quality leather; air-spring suspension
Dislike: Cheap plastics and switchgear; artificial-feeling steering; dated infotainment
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars