In Style + Design

Test Drive: Maserati Levante 350 SUV

Take the spine-tingling yowl of a Ferrari engine, garnish with hand-stitched hides, plump with Italian fashionista style, underpin with a state-of-the-art electronic gizmo-fest and the result is a modern Maserati. While its history conjures mental images of goggled race drivers in flying helmets and string-backed gloves, Maserati is one of the great automotive survivors.

In a fiercely aggressive global industry dominated by the self-important Germans and aristocratic Brits, it is the Happy Gilmore of the car business; prepared to take a big swing and let convention be damned.

But survival in the prestige-car game demands a key sales proposition and having near-exclusive access to engines from the hallowed halls of Ferrari, just down the autostrada at Maranello, delivers just that. Those famous horses provide the pounding heartbeat of the Maserati range, a joyful basso profundoThis tradition continues as the brand prepares to roll out its most affordable model yet in Australia, the Levante 350, and in doing so lops $15k off its best-selling model and the only Sports Utility Vehicle (SUV) in the Maserati stable, the Levante.

Importantly, it means the gilded gate now opens on Maserati ownership at $125,000 and spears the trident-badged family hauler deep into the premium SUV territory inhabited by the likes of the Range Rover Sport, Mercedes-Benz GLE and BMW X5.

The Levante 350’s price re-positioning is achieved through engineering sleight-of-hand which makes pragmatic business sense if it means pinching some sauerkraut from the generously laden plates of the bigger and well-resourced Germans.

Shaving the price is achieved by winding back the power output of the twin-turbocharged 3.0-litre V6 Ferrari engine in the pricier S model from 430 horsepower (316kW) down to 350 (260kW) and giving the package a new name (fortunately there are no 350 badges anywhere on the car so your neighbour won’t even notice).

One of the biggest surprises is that for a large SUV weighing 2.2 tonnes, the loss of 50-odd kilowatts doesn’t feel that noticeable.

Press the Sport button beside the curiously BMW-like new gear shifter, nail the throttle and the big-boned Italian launches smartly, flaps opening automatically in the exhaust to allow a marvellous muted boom to permeate the cabin between upshifts, much like distant Ferrari cannon fire. The sprint from rest to 100km/h takes just over six seconds.

You can’t help but wonder if, in that breezy Italian fashion, the engine’s “de-tuning” was not performed as rigorously as the model designation would suggest.

Only during an invigorating part of our undulating drive from Paris out to the former grand prix circuit near Reims was the reduced engine torque apparent, requiring more frequent downshifts from the eight-speed automatic.

Shifting is smooth and subtle, as is the proportioning of all-wheel drive between the front and rear axles. What’s equally evident is how supple the suspension package is, especially on the 350’s slightly smaller 19-inch alloys. The complexity of the suspension helps provide a limber, absorbent ride quality for the Levante.

Inside the cabin, the Italians typically embrace style and originality. While there’s tech aplenty in the car’s high-level safety equipment and driver-support systems, it’s artfully concealed beneath fine furnishings, classy piano-black trim and jewelled details.

Even the cheapest seats in the Maserati house are swathed in finely tooled leather and are power-adjustable 12 ways. Daring to be different is risky but there’s confidence from the Maserati designers and engineers that there’s a growing support base of customers willing to join them on the road less travelled.

And besides, there’s no more affordable way to park a Ferrari engine on your driveway.

Published 16 October, 2018