Maserati’s Levante Is a Spicy Meatball of an SUV

Who's in the mood for Italian?

Maerati Levante

Parma, Italy - The Castle of Tabiano, an 11-century medieval beauty in Emilia-Romagna, is stronghold and starting point for the Maserati Levante. It’s a good place to mull the march of history, the feudal battle between traditional forces and the conquering barbarian known as the modern SUV.

Times change. The world’s luxury buyers have evolved, and their vehicles with them, the family wagon having morphed into the taller, fitter luxury SUV. Yet in a modern Scopes monkey trial, a cottage industry of auto writers continues to litigate, decrying evolution, denying its very existence and casting themselves as haloed defenders of the Truth – and appearing as dated and deluded as William Jennings Bryan, or that guy who insists his Blackberry beats your iPhone.

But science and the market have spoken. The big apes, many silver-backed, have won. Smaller, nimbler varieties are emerging, again in accordance with natural selection. Please, journos, enough with the purity pose. When you insist that Porsche, or Bentley, or Maserati et al, are defiling God’s automotive will by building the cars that successful people want, your argument has long since descended into self-serving cant. More pointedly, no buyer from Santa Barbara to Shanghai gives a damn about your hand-fluttering attack of the vapors: My word, Beauregard, I do believe these, these sport-utility-vehicles will be the death of me! Now, help me to my settee and fetch me a sherry.

So for the Maserati Levante, let’s dispense with the ontological questions of where it came from, how it got here, or whether Elon Musk really created the Model X in seven days, six if you count his spa day. The question is, is the Levante any good?

Fortunately, for Maserati and fans of Italian cars, the answer is affirmative. The Levante mostly fixes what ailed the Ghibli sedan and amplifies its best qualities, those being its snarling Ferrari-built V6 and driving flair. The Maserati looks and drives more like a burly Italian hot hatch or sport wagon than we had any right to expect. Though it stretches precisely five meters (196.9 inches) and weighs some 4,600 pounds, the Levante masterfully disguises its size and mass. Within minutes of our castle departure, the Maserati is slicing Italian roads like chunks of Parmigiano-Reggiano. Those include a winding 37-mile ascent of the Parma-Poggio di Berceto, where racing and car-making legends including Alfieri Maserati, Antonio Ascari and Enzo Ferrari duked it out on a historic hill-climb between 1913 and 1955.

Maserati Levante

Against this honeymoon-fantasy backdrop, or even a New Jersey parking lot, the Levante will prove the latest car – prior evidence including the Jaguar XJ and new Mustang -- to teach a valuable lesson: Passing final judgment on styling based on a perfunctory auto-show inspection is rarely wise. The Maserati isn’t remotely ugly, as many had suggested. The Levante may be no design icon a la Range Rover, but it’s plenty handsome to win converts, especially in an SUV class that’s hardly famed for beauty queens. A sex toy of a hood, Trident-capped grille and cab-rearward proportions do their part to turn heads. A new Maserati always faces a question: Does it look expensive and Italian enough? As with the Ghibli, whose largely aluminum chassis underpins the Levante, there are three answers. The front end, definitely. The sides, reasonably. The back end, not much at all. The Levante’s extruded-hatchback rear is artisanal oatmeal, blandly appealing but unmemorable.

Among the barrage of new high-end crossovers, Jaguar’s F-Pace is prettier and starts below $50,000. But the comparison ends there, because the compact Jaguar is a full size smaller than the Maserati, 10 inches shorter overall.

The Levante’s basic interior design is largely carried over from the Ghibli, but without the cost-cutting that mars the more entry-priced sedan. With the Levante starting from $73,250, the design budget clearly allowed more generosity in materials and fealty to craftsmanship; think a shopworn restaurant that’s been smartly freshened rather than fully remodeled. Even the Chrysler UConnect touchscreen infotainment system, reworked for Maserati with an added rotary console controller, is better integrated into the overall vibe. Fortunately, the 8.4-inch screen works as well as in Chrysler models, its dull Garmin-y graphics easily forgiven in light of its effortless operation.

Maserati did miss its chance to fix the Ghibli’s sorest thumb, an electronic console shift lever that looks like a Buick leftover and can turn gear selection into a crap shoot. As consolation, the Levante gets the best paddle shifters this side of a Ferrari, their supercar-style metal armatures linked to a crisp eight-speed ZF automatic transmission. Front or rear, seats are enveloping and sweetly wrapped in Italian leather. For an upcharge, seats inserts and door panels are handsomely lined in textured grey Zegna silk, the kind of Italian flourish that Maserati should amplify wherever and whenever possible in its underdog lineup.

On our drive that skirted the Apennines, Maserati offered up the obligatory off-road excursion on a series of steep, rocky and muddy trails. Boosted to off-road height, with confident approach and departure angles, the Maserati will tackle impressively nasty terrain in practice or theory; the latter suggested at the end of our torture test, when a man in galoshes was waiting, spray wand in hand, to restore our Maserati to showroom splendor. Lacking your own hose man and hardy footwear, it’s hard to see Levante owners sullying this Italian thoroughbred. But you're welcome to try.

Appropriately spiffed, the Maserati set about delivering a more telling proof of on-road talent. A 50/50 weight balance front-to-rear, a heavily rear-biased attitude for its AWD system and beautifully tuned Skyhook adaptive dampers and air springs – with six adjustable levels of ride height – deliver genuine involvement for the times when kids aren’t filling back seats with sullenness. Maserati claims the least wind noise in its class, and the Levante indeed muffles every unwanted frequency -- the better to hear the rasp and roar of its V-6, an engine that sounds like it’s gargling Barolo. Every now and again, a quick throttle stab on our pre-production test models did produce a rude aural vibration, akin to a loose exhaust manifold, something we’ve also experienced on the Ghibli.

That soul of the Levante traces to Ferrari’s factory. Straight out of Maranello, the 3.0-liter twin-turbo V6 pumps out 345 horsepower, or 424 horses in an $84,250 version. A base model manages a 60-mph scoot in 5.8 seconds, or 5 seconds flat for the top-shelf edition. The latter boasts a lofty 164-mph top speed, or 156 mpg in standard guise. Brakes are terrific, requiring a company-claimed 113 feet to halt from 60 mph.

The Maserati’s steering felt a bit slow and thick at first. But as the pace increased, the Maserati began whip-cracking its way along narrow country roads with real aplomb. Body control is tremendous in its two Sport modes, with a claim for the lowest center of gravity in its class. The steering may not be as pure as the Cayenne’s, but the Maser actually felt more sprightly and car-like overall. A back-to-back test should make an intriguing match.

Sure, you could buy a sport sedan and have “car,” rather than “car-like.” But the air of SUV inevitability clouds that argument for what’s becoming a majority of luxury buyers. If these SUVs still make you feel curmudgeonly, take heart and follow the evolutionary logic: No Cayenne, no Porsche. No F-Pace, no Jaguar. No Levante, no Maserati. Is that the kind of world you care to live in? Extinction is never guaranteed, but take it from Roberto Corradi, Maserati’s director of product development, who held the same title at Ferrari: “From a business point of view, it’s simply mandatory to have an SUV in the range. It’s the only segment that hasn’t stopped growing.”

As ever, Maserati faces an uphill climb against Porsche and, well, just about any luxury rival. But considering the almost unlimited appetite for fresh luxury SUVS, the Levante gives Maserati its best shot in ages, offering performance and practicality with a dollop of Italian spice. You know who may end up loving this car? Not just household-running women or the Maserati-curious that car guys sneer at with undisguised condescension, but ballers and night-lifers who will instantly up their game when they roll up in this semi-exotic Italian. To address an eternal, uncharitable complaint over Maserati’s national and notional standing: Not everyone wants or can afford a Ferrari, and Maserati’s overbearing cousin doesn’t make an SUV anyway. At least not yet.