Levant's air suspension system allows for six adjustable ride heights.
Levant's air suspension system allows for six adjustable ride heights.

Maserati has done what Porsche did in 2003, Jaguar and Bentley did last year, and what Rolls-Royce and Alfa Romeo will do soon – cross over into SUV territory.

SUVs are where the money’s at right now, and whether it’s a micro-hatch donning plastic fender flares and taller springs, or a luxury carmaker delving deep into a segment once owned by Range Rover, the fact is it has to be done. The market is hungry for ride height, and if brands like Maserati, famous for fast coupés, convertibles and sedans, don’t make the move they’ll be missing out on a sizeable chunk of lucrative market share. It’s the future.

With that, here’s the new Levante. Launched in South Africa this week, this is Maserati’s take on the sporty side of the Sport Utility Vehicle segment where rivals such as Jaguar’s F-Pace and Porsche’s Macan play. Yes, those two vehicles are cheaper than the Maserati, but they’re spot on in terms of size, performance and appeal. If we take cost into account it’s difficult to find a direct Levante competitor, but we’ll get to money in a minute.

Overseas the Levante comes in three forms – two turbopetrol V6s and one turbodiesel. In South Africa we get the diesel only but that could change in the future when Maserati starts production of the petrols in right-hand drive. Our model, known simply as the Levante Diesel, gets a 3-litre single turbo V6 with 202kW and 570Nm (600 on overboost) paired with an 8-speed auto gearbox. Performance is claimed at 6.9 seconds for 0-100km/h and a top speed of 230km/h, and for those Reva speedboat or race horse owners, max towing capacity is rated at 2700kg.

Chrysler DNA is evident

Though Maserati has gone to great lengths to claim this engine as its own, we know it’s in fact closely related to that in a Jeep Grand Cherokee. No problem really. It’s wonderfully torquey thing, and its gruff exhaust note suits this type of high-performance high-rider nicely.

And while we’re on the Jeep note I must add that the Levante does NOT ride on the same platform as the Grand Cherokee. When Maserati first revealed the Kubang concept for this vehicle in 2011 it was said that Chrysler would supply the Levante’s chassis, but the decision was changed later on. Underpinning the Levante is a derivation of the Ghibli/Quattroporte sedan chassis, with SUV-appropriate suspension adjustments.

There are, however, some strong ties to the Chrysler mothership inside. Interior materials come from a mixed basket, and while much of it comprises seriously high quality materials (there’s a R68 275 option for Zegna upholstery with mulberry silk and premium leather) stitched together in typically beautiful Italian fashion, it’s also easy to spot some Chrysler-sourced components, including the 21.3cm colour touchscreen.

Overall though, the Levante disguises its American family relations well and pulls off a level of premium feel expected from the trident badge.

High quality feel

On the road it feels like a vehicle of substance. The steering is weighted perfectly, and is hydraulically assisted (thank you Maserati!) so it delivers that delicious feedback we often miss in electrically-steered cars. Our Gauteng-based launch route didn’t really test handling limits, but did demonstrate the Italian SUV’s dead-steady composure at highway speeds and on some crummy side roads in and around the Cradle.

The cabin is sealed off from the outside world in a way you’d expect from a super-luxury marque, with wind, road and tyre noise almost completely muffled out even with the biggest possible 21” rims fitted (standard is 19”).

Tick options boxes for 14-speaker Harman Kardon (R24 375) or 17-speaker Bowers & Wilkins (R89 625) stereos, and the extra effort designers have put into sound deadening becomes very worthwhile.

But it’s the Levante’s suspension system which plays the biggest role in its first class on-road feel. Standard air ride, or ‘Skyhook’ technology in Maser-speak, allows this 2200kg SUV to glide like its shocks are pumped full of fluff over pretty much any surface. This air suspension can be set to one of three firmness levels, and can raise and lower between five heights. Six, if you count the lowest easy-entry parking mode.

It can do the bush thing

It’s unlikely many Levantes will see deep bush, but in its highest setting it’ll clear some fairly rocky terrain with ease. No ride heights are quoted, but from its default middle setting it can raise an extra 40mm to prevent belly scrapage. Also standard is a Q4 intelligent all-wheel drive system, which in normal conditions sends all power to the rear axle, but can apportion drive to either end in a 50/50 split when extra traction is needed.

Now the cost. Base price is R1 650 000, but a Maserati without options is a near impossibility. The two press units at launch were specced to what an average buyer would likely sign up for, and were tipped just over the R2-million mark. Thankfully Maserati SA has bundled many options into discounted packages, but it’s still possible to go overboard with carbon trim (R64 025), heated wooden steering wheels (R17 840) and alcantara headliners (R32 630) to name but a few.

IOL Motoring

IOL Motoring

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