Johannesburg - Maserati launched its first SUV in the form of a diesel model in 2017, but the recent introduction of the Levante S petrol version was far more appropriate to this Italian marque’s sporty heritage.

As torquey and fuel-efficient as diesels are, they just don’t conjure the same emotion and charisma as a powerful petrol engine - and charisma is high on the list when it comes to driving this trident-badged SUV, courtesy of the Ferrari twin-turbo three-litre petrol V6 under the bonnet.

It flexes 320kW and 580Nm muscles for a claimed top speed of 264km/h and a 0-100km/h blast in just 5.2 seconds. That’s plenty fast, if not class-leading for the price; there are several BMW X5s, Mercedes GLEs, Porsche Cayennes, and Range Rover Sports that will run away from it in a straight line.

An even more powerful turbo V8 Levante is on the way either later this year or early in 2019 to take on the top performers in the sports SUV league, but for now the V6 Levante S is swift without being brutal, with a quick throttle response and very little turbo lag.

Channelling it all is an eight-speed ZF auto transmission that’s as smooth as well-aged whisky and does a very effective job in auto mode, but yanking gears manually becomes routine as those metal paddle shifters feel so great to the touch.

Leading this vehicle’s charm offensive is the sound it makes. It’s not a particularly high-revving engine, with a redline set at just under 6500rpm, that V6 blurts a hard-rock roar that aurally intensifies the whole experience, especially with sports mode selected to make the exhaust even raspier.

The big Levante accelerates with great gusto for its size and the same applies to cornering, where it very effectively masks its 2.1 ton weight. This is one of the more athletic SUVs on the market and sweeps through curves with an agility that belies a high-riding SUV. It changes direction without feeling wallowy, and the steering is exceptionally sharp for a high-riding adventure vehicle.

The rear-biased all-wheel drive directs all the torque rearwards in regular driving, but diverts up to 50 percent to the front wheels when driving conditions dictate. A mechanical limited-slip rear differential enhances traction, particularly accelerating out of tight corners.

Like the diesel version the Levante S rides on adaptive air suspension that can be set to one of three firmness levels, and can be raised or lowered to different heights to better suit the tar or turf.

The focus is clearly on tarmac-based agility, but the Levante S can also handle gravel. The air suspension is pleasantly absorbent in its softest setting, even though the optional low-profile 21 inch tyres on our test vehicle caused some jarring on the rough stuff. The standard 20 inch rubber will be more suited to adventure driving.

Though Maserati’s owned by Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, which also includes Jeep, the Levante is no Jeep in drag and it’s built on the same platform as the Maserati Ghibli and Quattroporte.

The colour touchscreen of the infotainment system, taken from the Jeep Grand Cherokee, was the only family sharing I noticed in the otherwise all-Maserati, smartly-appointed interior. And I don’t mind the sharing when the system’s this good. It’s an intuitive infotainment setup that makes it easy to find your way around the navigation, climate control and driver-assist features.

Space inside the smart cabin is roomy enough for five adults, and the large boot - with an electrically folding tailgate - puts good family practicality on this sporty SUV’s menu.

The cabin’s lurid red upholstery and carbon fibre trimmings were well suited to the Levante’s powerful charisma, just a pity they weren’t standard. Driver-assist features such as lane-keeping assist and radar cruise control will also cost extra money, as will the 21 inch wheels and panoramic sunroof.

And that brings us to the elephant in the room: at just under R2-million without options, this Maserati’s one of the most expensive vehicles in the luxury SUV segment.

It has that turbocharged Ferrari engine, of course, which makes a great roar and swift progress, but there are other, and notably less expensive SUVs that are faster and sound just as good.

One might argue that you can’t put a price on esoteric factors such as emotion and badge appeal, but a similarly-powered Porsche Cayenne S sells for nearly 700 grand less and also has no shortage of brand prestige.

VERDICT

I don’t know whether the Levante’s Italian flair is objectively enough to justify its higher price against its rivals, some of them a lot more powerful. It all depends how much the trident badge on that toothy grille resonates with you.

FACTS

Maserati Levante S

Engine: 3.0-litre, V6, turbopetrol
Gearbox: 8-speed automatic
Power: 320kW @ 5750rpm
Torque: 580Nm @ 4500-5000rpm
0-100km/h (claimed): 5.2 seconds
Top speed (claimed): 264km/h
Price: R1 950 000
Warranty: 3-year/unlimited km
Maintenance plan: 5-year/100 000km

ALTERNATIVES

BMW X5 xDrivei 4.4 turbo 330kW/650Nm R1 348 956
BMW X5 M  423kW/750Nm R1 994 732
Mercedes-AMG GLE63 5.5 turbo 410kW/700Nm R2 006 184
Range Rover Sport HSE Dynamic 5.0 Supercharged 386kW/625Nm R1 684 660
Porsche Cayenne S 2.9 turbo 324kW/550Nm R1 272 000
Porsche Cayenne Turbo 4.0 turbo 404kW/770Nm R2 064 000
Volvo XC90 T8 Twin Engine AWD Excellence 300kW/640Nm R1 580 000

Drive360

Follow Denis Droppa on Twitter @DenisDroppa