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Top of the Range: Maserati's Levante SUV

Maserati drives into the muddy world of the SUV but can’t leave behind its status as a performance brand

It has a long and glorious motor racing history, a back catalogue crammed with wonderful sports cars and performance saloons and a name – Maserati – that simply sounds fast. So imagine the dilemma facing the company when it realised that the car everyone wants these days is an SUV, a large four-wheel drive vehicle that the Americans call a truck. How would such a thing fit into the Maserati cannon?

The answer turned out to be fairly simple. With a little help from friends at Ferrari they’ve produced Levante, a car they’re calling The Maserati of SUVs. In other words, performance remains at the fore.

In truth, modern SUVs are a long way from what we Europeans might consider trucks. The Porsche Cayenne was arguably the first sporting SUV but now the choice is huge. Joining established machines like the Range Rover Sport, Audi Q7 and BMW X5, are newcomers such as the compact Jaguar F-Pace and Porsche Macan and the large and luxurious Bentley Bentayga. Even Rolls-Royce is getting in on the SUV act, with Project Cullinan scheduled for release in 2018.

Faced with those market trends, Maserati simply had to produce an SUV – it is expected that Levante, named after an easterly wind that blows through the Mediterranean, will account for half the company’s annual sales, making it the most significant Maserati for many a year.

It is expected that Levante will account for half the company’s annual sales, making it the most significant Maserati for many a year 

When it arrives in the UK later this year, with prices starting at more than £54k, Levante will compete with the Porsche Cayenne as well as the SUV/coupé crossovers from BMW (X6) and Mercedes (GLE Coupe).

So here we are driving Levante, carefully, down a gravel-strewn hill in the middle of the Italian countryside rather than blasting it around a race track. The intelligent four-wheel drive system’s hill descent control is working its magic and progress is slow but sure-footed – just as it should be off-road. Even though Maserati and Jeep are both part of the same company, Maserati has not turned to its American sibling for help with the four-wheel drive package. Rather, Levante uses much of the hardware developed for the Ghibli saloon, but comes as standard with an intelligent all-wheel drive system and height adjustable air suspension – both vital elements if the car’s SUV credentials are going to be accepted.

Air suspension automatically lowers the normal ride height by 35mm at speed for better aerodynamic efficiency and raises it by as much as 40mm when off-road. Our loose surface course includes climbs and descents, muds, rocks and ruts with the occasional water splash thrown in for good measure. Levante copes admirably. In truth, it’s not the most demanding off-road course in the world, but this isn’t meant to be a sump-cracking, chassis-wrecking test of the car.

Of course, in the real world, the latest Maserati will spend most of its life on road with only the occasional foray off the beaten track. So how does it work on road? The good news is that it drives like a Maserati should. Under normal road conditions the 4x4 system sends all of the drive to the back wheels, making the car handle like a Maserati saloon. If conditions change, however, it takes only 150 milliseconds for the drive to be split in any ratio up to 50:50, front to rear. With standard air suspension, the ride is extremely comfortable in Normal mode and suitably taut in Sport mode.

In the real world, the latest Maserati will spend most of its life on road with only the occasional foray off the beaten track

It looks the part, too. Maserati has decided its SUV should be more coupé than square rigger, so it has a high-waisted side profile, powerful rear haunches and a sloping roof line. It also has frameless doors just like a sports car. The upright front, however, is a reminder that this is not a sports car – the large, toothy grille dominates. It is a car that looks better in the flesh than in pictures: Levante has real presence.

It’s pretty good inside, as well. The boot is large and the interior roomy: this is a genuinely practical Maserati that’s both sporting and luxurious at the same time. Quality leather dominates the interior and there’s even the option of a Zegna silk headlining. A raft of advanced driver systems is available, including Hill Descent Control, Land Departure Warning, Surround View Cameras and Forward Collision Warning, while the dashboard is dominated by an 8.4-inch colour touch screen that operates the latest Fiat Group infotainment system, which now incorporates Apple CarPlay.

So that only leaves performance to talk about and this is where the Ferrari connection can be revealed. The top model is the Levante S, powered by a Ferrari-built twin-turbo 3.0-litre V6 petrol engine, developing a heady 430hp. This potent power pack turns Levante into a snarling beast with an urge totally in line with the Maserati image. Performance is exceptional and accompanied by the sort of soundtrack that only a Ferrari engine and specially tuned sports exhaust can produce. Top speed is 165mph, while the 0-62mph dash takes 5.2 seconds, as the smooth shifting eight-speed automatic works its way seamlessly through the gears.

There are, of course, a couple of downsides to this engine: thirst and emissions, both of which are higher than is strictly politically correct these days. But even this can’t disguise the simple truth: Levante really is the Maserati of SUVs.