The Maserati Levante’s Chief Designer Sells Us a Maserati Levante

Don't worry: The Italians designed the thing to look great at any of its five ride heights.

Maserati Levante

Yesterday, with a Mediterranean flourish, two women clad in surprisingly-comprehensive dresses pulled a satin sheet from a windswept lump and revealed the new Maserati Levante. It is, as Maserati will tell you, the Maserati of SUVs, though that designation is equal parts meaningful and tautology. The “Maserati” of something—vacuums, lawnmowers, what have you—might be the most graceful and sensuous of its type; were Maserati to paste a trident on a Jeep Cherokee, that too would be a Maserati SUV. With the Levante, Maserati is making a hard case for the former.

Denuded, the new Levante evokes the shape of much more pedestrian fare: Infiniti's QX60, another wagonoid. That isn’t unfortunate, just a testament to the fact that there are only so many ways to shape a sport utility. (The new Jaguar F-Pace beautifully apes the first-generation BMW X5.) With eyes stolen from Maserati’s Afieri Concept, the Levante harbors as much squinty menace as its Quattroporte and Ghibli siblings and the typical Maserati cues, trident-inspired wheels, scalloped grill and fender portholes work together handsomely. Still, the Levante in person suffers some of what has undermined the Ghibli: a lack of presence. It’s striking but a little stubby, like Peter Dinklage.

Dynamically, the Levante is bound to be athletic. In the U.S., it will come in two guises: The base model, at $72,000, with a 345-horsepower version of the Maserati 3-liter, twin-turbo V-6, and the S, priced around $83,000, with a 424-horsepower version of that same engine. The de rigeur 8-speed ZF transmission will be seamless; adaptive dampers and what Maserati says is the SUV world’s lowest center of gravity will keep things nice and planted, like a ball of burrata dropped on a tile floor. Perfect 50:50 front-rear weight distribution is nice, and gives future owners an excuse to demand passengers take odd seats to maintain balance, like a stewardess on a small regional turbo-prop.

I’m ambivalent. Unlike the aforementioned F-Pace, or Lincoln’s exuberant Navigator Concept, I didn’t immediately love the Levante. Then again, I had my fingers crossed for a run of original, 1967 Ghiblis suspended over monster-truck tires, which is called “setting yourself up for disappointment.” To muster up some appropriately passionate love for Maserati’s new truck, I talked to Giovanni Ribotta, Maserati’s Chief Exterior Designer. No one can better convince you of a child’s charms that its father. Here are four.

Aerodynamic Skidplates

The front of the Levante embodies the on-road/off-road duality Maserati wanted for its first truck. A dark, carbon fiber-effect skidplate juts out a touch beyond the bumper, almost like the spoiler of a racing car. According to Ribotta, the skid-plate is self-consciously “off-road, but integrated into a dynamic front.” As far as hammer-screwdrivers go, it’s a cute one.

Headlamps to Serve Two Masters

This is the first instance we’ve heard of designing a car for each of its ride heights. With the air suspension, the Levante is able to hold itself in five positions, from a high-speed crouch to an off-road tip-toe. Ribotta says his team designed a two-tiered headlamp cluster to mitigate any sense of unwieldiness at the top height. At low settings, the upper, headlights project racy intent; at high settings, the lower pair of round lights comes into view, adding visual heft to the Levante’s front bumper and evoking the spotlights one might use for a true offroad excursion. (Picture any custom Jeep Wrangler.)

Classic Bones

Ribotta pointed out that, absent bumpers and a couple other modern affectations, the Levante is working in the same design framework as some of Maserati’s most famous coupes. In his words: “The Levante shape is defined by a strong center spine and the four fenders—as a racing car, from the past. Like the Birdcage or a Type 61.” Does the Mercedes GLC bear the footprint of a 300SL Gullwing? We have yet to hear that case made.

Sexy, Sexy Roofracks

When asked if he might be offended when future Levante owners adorned his streamlined design with awkward racks, rails and boxes, as SUV owners are wont to do, Ribotta smiled graciously. “We did our roof rails. We designed every accessory that will go on the car. With the engineering team, we tried to make the rails as slender as possible. And as beautiful. We aren’t angry.” If you do buy a Levante and take the thing to Vail, you won't enjoy the transgressive thrill of spoiling a the Levante's slick design. Settle instead for a drive in Maserati's handsome stab at market share—it should be a good one.