Y’s Alvin Thomas takes a spin in the most desirable Italian SUV money can buy.
Those hard-core gear-heads, (mostly teenagers on the Internet!) will tell you that the coolest SUV to ever hit the road was Lamborghini’s LM002 – or, perhaps, the all-new Urus. But the Levante stands out of the sparse crowd for two major reasons: one, it’s sensibly priced – and two, it’s a screamer of a vehicle to drive.
Tear down that gorgeous attire – the swanky front end with its thin headlamps and the oddly-placed yet fitting fog lamps; the curvaceous side profile, and the wide stance; the low-profile alloys; and the sleek rear end – and you’ll arguably end up with the best SUV we’ve ever tested on Omani soil. Period.
To admire – and perhaps understand – the Levante, though, you’ll need to dig deep into its core purpose; and, after spending 24 hours with the vehicle, we can safely say it’s a sports car dressed up in family-friendly attire.
Everything from the drivetrain – the 3.0-litre turbocharged V6 mated to a ‘ZF’ eight-speed automatic gearbox – to the four-wheel drive system, the steering rack, and the suspension tuning is aimed to please the four-year-old poster-collecting inner child in you.
The experience begins with the engine – which settles into a soulful hum when set into motion. It’s unlike any V6 engine we’ve tested before. Contrary to popular belief, turbocharged six-cylinder engines from Germany and Japan fail to invoke any sense of driver appeasement in their acoustics.
The soundtrack is followed by (at about 2,500 rpm)a kick of torque – 580 Nms to be exact, and 430 horses. This translates to a 0-100 kph time of about 5.2 seconds, if the shifts are done right.
Speaking of which, the ZF gearbox certainly works overtime in the Levante. The shifts are smooth, and the gear ratios are tuned to keep in line with the selected driving mode – but it’s quick to shift when the going gets tough. Mind you, we would have loved to see the SUV with a dual-clutch tranny – but for an automatic system, the cogs perform just fine.
Despite all that, it’s the steering system that exceeds expectations, as the hydraulic rack translates a great deal of feedback from the road. It’s also well-weighted for an SUV – meaning it’s neither too heavy, nor too light. It also differs from the electric systems found in newer SUVs that transgress towards the heavier side during spirited driving.
Thanks to all this, you can haul the 2,000 kgs (curb weight) heavy car around corners with ease, like you’d do in a sports car from Germany. Sure, it’s no Porsche Boxster, but the weight distribution is bang on at 50:50, and the low ride-height allows for maximum confidence in the corners.
Grip from the tyres is great, but the lack of rubber means you’ll find the ride a little harsh in the cabin. Of course, you can eliminate this by opting for cushier off-road tires.
Nevertheless, oversteer action is at your fingertips when the turbochargers kick in at full breath. Slides are easy to hold, and there’s very little in the way of body-roll. Suspension stiffness can also be adjusted based on your requirements – much like how you can set the gearbox and throttle in ‘Sport Plus’ mode.
Apparently, (and we didn’t dare test this out!) if you hit 180 kph, the Levante will crouch itself to cut drag and maintain stability. In short, the faster you go, the more stable the Levante becomes.
That said, the Levante is also a sane vehicle when you need it to be. You can quiet things down by simply switching the I.C.E system (engine management modes) to be efficient, so you can sit back and relax during your drive.
The infotainment is taken care of by a new 8.4-inch touchscreen taken straight from its parent company, Chrysler. There’s a skin that differentiates the two, but the look and feel of the systems are alike. There’s a rotary dial to take care of the controls while on the move, but (initially) it can be a bit baffling to navigate.
The seats are extremely comfortable and space inside is plentiful. The interior, as expected, is opulent: There’s acres of real leather all around the cabin, save for a couple of panels underneath the dashboard. Our tester also came fitted with real wood elements on the door panels and dashboard. Rest assured, the Corleone family would approve of the interiors.
There’s a great deal of leg and headroom upfront and in the rear. Thankfully, the interior is wide, allowing easy access for three passengers in the back. This also translates to a square-ish rear boot opening and copious amounts of cargo space.
Still, we don’t imagine you’ll be spending much time in the wilderness hauling cargo equipment with this luxurious rig.
This, actually, is the setback I see with the Levante – it’s too good a vehicle to take away from the city. Sure, it can tackle steep slopes and Oman’s wadi terrains quite easily, but it will always wear the Italian sports-car moniker it’s always donned.
It’s that great a vehicle. However, for a first attempt to take on the Germans and Americans at their game of top trumps (for cars, duh!), this Italian playmate strikes gold. Adding to that, you also get exclusivity and royalty that you just wouldn’t experience when driving around in your trusty SUV. Keep it up, Maserati.
• Engine: 3.0-litre turbocharged V6
• Transmission: 8-speed automatic
• Horsepower: 430
• Torque: 580 Nm
• Panoramic moonroof
• 54 cm alloy wheels
• 4-zone air-conditioning
• Electric seats
• Genuine wood inserts on console and door panels
• Maserati Touch Control
• Lane departure warning system
• Blind spot monitor
• Adaptive cruise control
• Traction control
• Leather-wrapped seats