A lift in height should see a rise in sales, as the near mythical Maserati SUV finally arrives in the form of the Ghibli-based Levante. It's not going to trouble the best in this now mature class, but it's different and interesting enough to do exactly what Maserati hopes it will, which has nothing to with mud and ruts and everything to do with the bottom line.
In the Metal:
Given the lengthy wait for the Maserati Levante SUV to finally reach the road we're a little bit underwhelmed by its looks. While translating the styling of a brand that until now has only ever offered svelte saloons, elegant GTs and beautiful sports cars to a lofty SUV shape was always going to be tricky, the Levante does look a little generic from some angles. The nose is unmistakably Maserati, but from the windscreen back, if you pulled off the badges it could be pretty much anything, while around the rear there are echoes of Mazdas and Infinitis rather than any real hint at the Italian firm's style. Nonetheless, it's striking, thanks in no small part to its proportions, its long bonnet and slim window line at least giving a nod to its sporting heritage - the Levante borrows its structure from the Maserati Ghibli saloon.
You'll spot the Ghibli references inside, too, as the Levante's cabin shares a lot with the saloon car. That's largely fine, until you start poking around at some of the plastics, which feel sub-par in an SUV wearing a premium badge and working in a marketplace where Audi, Mercedes-Benz, BMW and Porsche all do better - significantly so. There's plenty of soft leather (depending on how wild you've gone with the options) and some questionable wood trim (we'd suggest it's worth paying for the carbon fibre trim instead), though the operation of things like the satnav and radio lacks the sort of cohesive, impeccably finished feel of the Levante's many and varied rivals - and we're including mainstream competition in that statement. That's always been true of Maseratis though, and largely forgivable given their volume aspirations, but the Levante is tasked with upping the firm's sales significantly and that larger audience is likely to have broader expectations from the brand. In summary, it's good enough, but only just; the Levante feels very much a first generation model in a marketplace where most rivals are on at least their second and often third iterations.
The Italian company claims that the Levante is the 'Maserati of SUVs', which might be apparent from the badge on its grille and slightly disappointing interior, but that statement is meant to relate to how it drives. That might be true elsewhere in the world, where petrol engines are offered, but Maserati immediately hobbles its chances by only offering it in right-hand drive with 3.0-litre turbodiesel power. Yes, we know that sales of SUVs are dominated by diesel models, but given the modest impact the Levante will make, and the type of buyers who'll likely seek it out, it's a shame that the more evocative twin-turbo V6 (offered in two outputs) or the eventual V8 flagship aren't available in this part of the world.
The V6 turbodiesel is built by Italian firm VM Motori and offers output that's respectable, with 275hp and 600Nm of torque, but it's tasked with hauling about a not insignificant 2,205kg before options. While it is brisk, it never feels sensationally quick, the 6.9 seconds it takes to reach 100km/h underlining that. There's a fairly obvious diesel clatter, too, minimising your desire to extend the engine, meaning the Levante is better sampled at a more sedate pace where its ample torque and plentiful ratios from the slick-shifting automatic make it a fine cruiser.
The relatively lacklustre performance is a bit of a shame, as the chassis shows some promise. The engine output is almost all diverted to the rear axle by default, while 50/50 weight distribution promises balance that's there. The standard air suspension offers a good, if not entirely resolved, balance of a decent ride and taut body control. There's a sometimes busy ride as it fidgets to settle down, while the steering offers some feedback, if not quite the faithful response of rivals like Porsche's Macan or the Jaguar F-Pace.
That air suspension and the 'Q4' four-wheel drive system does allow this Maserati to go further off-road than any Maserati has ever been before. It'll lift it 40mm higher in its most dedicated off-road setting, even if it's never likely to be used in this manner. So the urban jungle rather than a real one then, which is understandable, though in town the lengthy bonnet and the tiny rear window do make for poor visibility and difficult parking as a result.
What you get for your Money:
You're paying for the Maserati badge and, by definition then, differentiation. In the busy global marketplace that is premium SUVs, that matters, even if the Levante's execution isn't quite as polished as the best of its talented upmarket rivals. It's physically similar in size to cars like Porsche's Cayenne, but pricing pitches it somewhere between that and the Porsche Macan, for example. Hedging its bets, perhaps, or being seen to offer a lot for the money, it begins to look less like a bargain when you start ticking the extensive choice of options. Never mind the fact you can't buy one officially in the Republic of Ireland as yet.
Maserati has taken forever to get its SUV rival out, and while the Levante is an impressive enough first attempt, it's competing in an environment where the momentum has seen rivals build, and, crucially, finesse, their second or even third offerings. Maserati has done enough to attract some attention and sales, but a more engaging drive and smarter interior would allow it to do more still.