The Maserati Levante S Q4 Is a Luxury SUV That Flips the Script
Modena's first utility vehicle should have been boring crossover gussied up with contrived Italian drama. Instead, it's the best car Maserati has made in decades.
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Finally, belatedly, I'm forced to admit that the crossover-ification of America is a fait accompli. An overwhelming number of drivers want ride height and the safe, superior feeling it contrives, even without meaningful benefit to passenger- or cargo-hauling ability and invariably at the expense of performance, aesthetic, and character. If you build it tall, they will come, and woe be to the manufacturer that ignores the potential for market share. There's no room anymore for a carmaker that only builds sports cars; specialization is simply a recipe for extinction.
But the move to crossovers (or as they’re increasingly mischaracterized, “SUVs”) favors some niche manufacturers more than others. If you’re Rolls-Royce or Bentley, with a more-is-more customer base expecting imperial conveyance, cubic yards of luxury, and express-train acceleration, bigger vehicles provide more canvas on which to paint. If you're Lamborghini or Aston Martin? Well, we'll soon find out.
Can the Incongruous Levante Actually Solve Maserati's Identity Crisis?
And if you’re Maserati? It’s a tougher question, in large part because the brand’s ordained direction has been opaque for so long. The best of Modena’s current lineup suggests a return to Maserati’s post-racing production heyday, from the late 1950s to late '60s, making unmistakably Italian—that is, beautiful and unfailingly dramatic—grand touring cars. But missteps like the economy-plus cabin in the resurrected Ghibli ominously recall the ensuing decades when Maserati was a kicked-around acquisition badge meant to add the proper noises and pedigree to brands like Citroën and De Tomaso.
But the 2017 Maserati Levante S Q4 is a definitive and surprising answer. Far less compromised than the Ghibli on which it’s based, the Levante acquits itself as more than just a very good crossover—it is in fact an exceptional Maserati.
In Sport mode with the bypass valves fully open the Levante screams a raw, guttural song full of snorts and cracks and roars—a lust-mad bull crashing through the forest while singing opera.
The second-generation Porsche Cayenne showed that even utility vehicles could properly express sporting DNA, but from that model's debut in 2003 it immediately proved two more salient points: first, a luxury sports-car badge pinned to an SUV uniform can be a license to print money; second, that rising tide of cash can lift the brand's core models to new heights. That's a strategy Maserati needs to follow, and that seems to be the plan: despite selling 32,517 vehicles globally in 2015, the goal is to move nearly the same number (30,000) of Levantes during the model's first year of sales. At first blush that seems like an unrealistic goal, but after several stints behind the wheel, and given overall demand in the segment, I've come to believe that if enough of the right people get a hint of how good the Levante is, that might not be a problem.
The Benefit, and Cost, of Italian-Made Drama
You park a Maserati in the driveway for the same reason you marry an Italian: you want passion and drama on demand, and you don't care about the financial or emotional cost. The Levante's theatrics come primarily from it's twin-turbo, 3.0-liter V6, available in base ristretto (345 horsepower, 369 lb-ft torque) and S Q4-trim doppio (424 hp, 428 lb-ft). In either tune, in Sport mode with the bypass valves fully open it screams a raw, guttural song full of snorts and cracks and roars—a lust-mad bull crashing through the forest while singing opera. Like the engine note from the Jaguar F-Type it can be made melodramatic to the point of silliness, but if you don't find histrionics charming, you're probably not in the market for a Maserati.
Sport mode pulls off the trick of simultaneously being the Levante's most impressive and annoying feature. Annoying because the hydraulically-assisted steering, communicative if not informative in normal driving modes, becomes sensitive to the point of twitchiness in Sport; throttle response likewise resets with a hair trigger that's impossible to modulate smoothly. The end result on public roads is a tall, overeager truck that jitterbugs between lane lines.
And yet, what else would one expect from a "sport" mode? I had that thought shortly after getting annoyed and switching back to normal driving mode—in other words, exactly the setting in which any car belongs on a highway—and finding a plush, mannered, and quiet ride. And that's the impressive bit: Maserati fulfilled a product brief with the conflicting requirements of "feel like a sports car" and "be a crossover" by prioritizing the latter while letting you opt into the former. It was the right move: Sport mode is like having a button that transports you into a different car entirely. And it's not just fast steering and immediate tip-in that make the Levante feel like an on-demand track-devourer; the Levante boasts 50-50 weight distribution (elusive even for actual sports cars), a body-in-white that's 330 pounds lighter and 20 percent stiffer than the Ghibli's, a five-link rear suspension and double A-arms up front, and an AWD system that can shuffle as much as 50 percent of the power to the rear-wheel-biased Levante's front wheels, as necessary. So it's balanced, it's rigid, it grips, and it can be made to slide—not how you'd typically describe a luxury crossover. (It's also not without fault in the motivated-driving regard: it's easy to catch the twin-turbo mill off-boost, resulting in significant lag, and the column-mounted paddles that let you manually negotiate the ZF eight-speed gearbox produce somewhat lazy throws.)
So, sure, a Cayenne would almost surely best it around a racetrack. But the Levante is not meant to be a Porsche, is it? It's meant to be a Maserati, and nowhere is that more apparent than the swooping, elongated grand-tourer hood and massive grille. The severely raked rear glass and huge wheel arches add yet another dose of exaggerated fashion, but the overall effect is thankfully less "luxury truck" and much more "tall, sporty hatchback." (That feeling translates inside, too, since the tapering greenhouse and upright seating position makes the interior airspace feel like that of a large sedan at most.)
A Tall-Riding Hatchback With a Grand Tourer's Soul
But whereas the exterior is amplified machismo, the interior layout is understated refinement, an elegant expanse of leather with wood veneer details and just the right amount of character lines; it's addition by way of subtraction. And while much of the automotive press has noted that some of the switchgear and all of the infotainment is recognizably donated by Fiat-Chrysler siblings, the more important detail is that the overall design of those components is inherently handsome and elegant and fits perfectly inside the Levante. (Also, and this is no small detail talking about Maserati, it functions without hiccups.) If you don't jump into a different press car every week or have a Jeep Grand Cherokee parked next to it—and if you're buying a Maserati crossover, you wouldn't—it's not something you'd notice. Like the best grand tourers, it's pampering on an hours-long road trip; more importantly, it has the "wow" factor—especially with the optional Zegna-sourced silk inserts on the doors and seats—necessary to impress passengers familiar with the trident logo on the grille and absolutely imperative when the base price for the top S Q4 starts north of $84,000.
The very nature of the crossover means it's actually kind of hard to make an objectively bad one. When the car is by definition a compromise, it’s tricky to fault it for not excelling in any given area. The judgment therefore comes down to the overall package, almost independent of the sum of its parts—a feeling, more than anything. The Levante feels like the best car Maserati has produced in recent memory, because that's what it is. It is, in a way, shocking: a vehicle borne of demand for pragmatic compromise that doesn’t feel like an equivocation. More than that, the Levante feels like an announcement.