Maserati gives its premium Levante SUV the petrol engine it so richly deserves, and the resulting machine is an intriguing alternative to the Porsche Macan/Cayenne and Range Rover Sport rivals.
In the Metal:
There's nothing new (in visual terms) to give away the extra potency of the Maserati Levante S, or at least there isn't if you stick to the regular, no-trim-name 'base' model. Above that, there are now two equally priced specifications: GranLusso and GranSport. As their names suggest, GranLusso majors on luxury - offering Zegna silk seat trim, 19-inch alloys, chrome exterior detailing and black brake callipers - while the GranSport goes for black exterior garnishes, larger 20-inch alloys in front of red brake callipers and an interior with more liberal appliques of carbon fibre.
All Levantes now get soft-close doors and an improved ADAS driver assist package, offering Level 2 autonomy courtesy of the addition of active blind spot assist, lane keep assist, highway assist and traffic sign recognition, these features joining the pre-existing active cruise control and forward collision warning on the big Maserati. The larger, better-resolved 8.4-inch infotainment with satnav, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto is also a feature of the Levante's cabin.
S-specific updates, though, amount to the bigger 380mm x 34m front brake discs gripped by six-piston Brembo callipers, with 330mm x 22mm rear items with single-piston callipers, plus the adoption of a 3.0-litre, twin-turbo V6, which we've already seen in S-badged Ghibli and Quattroporte saloons. However, whereas this engine delivers 410hp/550Nm in the four-door cars, in the five-door SUV it churns out slightly more potent numbers of 430hp/580Nm, driving all four wheels via an eight-speed transmission through Maserati's Q4 four-wheel-drive system.
It's a good-looking machine, the Levante, no doubt about it, and the larger alloys of the S further greaten its appeal, although there is the continuing feeling that the design aft of the windscreen could have been a touch less SUV-generic. The interior is very impressive, though, feeling classy enough to stand comparison with most rivals in this class, if not as unremittingly solid as something you'd find in a high-end Audi, for instance. Passenger space is OK in the back, nothing more, while the boot is big and has a flat load lip, but the floor seems quite a long way off the deck.
There's no doubt this V6 is the engine the Maserati was crying out for. While the 275hp/600Nm 3.0 diesel is a fine mill in many respects, big, opulent SUVs like this need comfortably in excess of 300hp to feel rapid and the 3.0 V6 in the S is a peach. It makes a great noise up front, overlaid with metallic roar from the quad exhausts at the back, while it provides strong performance across all realistic road speeds - it'll even pull hard all the way out to almost 250km/h, something we had the chance to do on a proving ground's long uphill straight, so if you should ever find yourself on an Autobahn then the Levante S shouldn't disappoint with its potency.
The chassis is excellent too, body control impressive for a 2.1-tonne beast like this and the grip levels are of a high standard, allowing for keen turn-in and impressive cornering speeds. We'd like a bit more feel from the steering wheel, if we're honest, although we will concede that the electrically assisted set-up is at least accurate and consistent in its weighting, while the brakes are very good, biting quickly and cleanly and hauling the big Levante down from speed easily. The automatic gearbox is a peach, too, smooth of shift and controlled by lovely metal paddle shifts on this GranSport model; it never baulks at reasonable downshift requests and has a nice spread of ratios to make the most of the turbocharged 580Nm the Levante possesses.
However, the Maserati doesn't have the most comfortable ride in the world - and it becomes extremely rigid if you press the Sport button on the centre console twice, to put the dampers in their most intransigent mood - which is a shame, because wind and tyre noise are well suppressed; if it were a touch more comfortable, the Levante would be an epic long-distance tourer. As it is, it feels like it doesn't quite know whether to focus on comfort or speed first and foremost - it's neither quite plush or sharp enough to take class honours in either discipline. Buy one and you'd be very happy with it... provided you didn't try some of the dynamically more talented opposition that's in and around this sort of exalted price bracket.
What you get for your Money:
There's a great specification on the Levante, the SUV coming with a generous equipment list for its price. The problem is, we don't have a specific showroom figure for Ireland, as there are no Maserati dealers here. Imported form the UK and adjusted for Irish taxes, that would make the unadorned Levante S GranSport over €140,000, which of course puts it right in the upmarket/premium territory with the likes of Porsche, top-spec Range Rovers and big-power Mercedes-Benz SUVs.
Not cheap, then, and there's one more area for concern: the emissions/economy figures. Look at the official on-paper stats of the Maserati Levante S and they are worryingly out of sync with the rest of the vehicles of this sort of power output and performance, which can normally at least dip into VRT Band G (€1,200), if not lower; seriously, even with 430hp from a petrol-engined SUV, 25.9mpg (10.9 litres/100km) is simply not good enough.
The Maserati Levante S is a really rather likeable premium SUV and something a little bit different than the norm. It has an excellent drivetrain, a good chassis and largely excellent looks and finishing, inside and out. But (and there had to be a but, didn't there?) it's not all plain sailing for the Italian machine. Its sticking point is its price, because Maserati considers itself a cut above German brands like Audi, BMW and Mercedes (and all the other marques that challenge these three) and so the Levante S is a six-figure machine in desirable trim.
And strangely, as good and charming as it is in many departments, the Levante S just doesn't feel special enough to justify such a hefty price tag. Plus, its situation is made even tougher by the recent arrival of something from within the wider FCA Group: the Alfa Romeo Stelvio Quadrifoglio. While not quite as physically grand inside and out as the Levante, and also accepting the Stelvio has a less opulent dashboard and infotainment set-up than the Maser, in all other respects the Alfa runs multiple rings around the Levante. So we reckon the 'Trident' is going to need to look at its V8 motors to finally put the upstart Milanese arm of FCA into the shade; sadly, at the moment, the Levante S isn't quite at the top of its premium SUV game.