WELCOME to the SUV party Maserati. Climb on in, the water's very warm.
And it seems the sporting Italian marque is a welcome guest with its new Levante five-seat large SUV. Even the harshest of "betraying your roots!" critics must acknowledge Maserati needs this car to boost growth, and today there's no better way to do so than in the burgeoning premium SUV segment.
The five-metre long Levante was shown in Australia for the first time this week at an elegant Sydney event: the sole model on show a left-hand-drive example featuring a petrol motor we won't receive - right hand drive markets use only a 3.0-litre turbo diesel for now.
Sadly, we had no chance to drive the SUV just yet either as Australian cars won't arrive until very late this year.
This took nothing away from the visual clout of the Maserati. It's an imposingly beautiful coupe-style design that stays true to the elegant sportiness seen in the brand's current car range: no easy job with such a large car, and a striking alternative to other large luxury SUVs.
Thing is, Maserati has sharply priced the Levante to make it a viable alternative for the fortunates shopping in this segment. Starting at $139,990 before on-roads (identical to the Ghibli sedan) it looks good value indeed, meaning Porsche and Range Rover will be looking over their established shoulders.
Spec up your BMW X5, Audi Q7 or Mercedes GLE and it's all similar coin. And doesn't saying you own a Maserati sound that bit more exotic?
So what's on offer? Three models from launch: the Levante, Levante Sport and Levante Luxury, the latter two costing $159,990. All come with Maserati's 202kW/600Nm V6 diesel motor: not the most emotive of powerplants but with 89% of Australian luxury SUV sales being diesel, it makes the best business case.
A 100kmh sprint time of 6.9-seconds is ample if not stunning, but Maserati claims the Levante will have 50:50 weight distribution, the lowest centre of gravity and lowest drag coefficient in its class, plus the quietest cabin.
You get air suspension offering six different ride heights, electronic shock absorbers, a mechanical limited-slip differential and Q4 AWD system with standard torque vectoring. On paper, it should make for a talented thing on and off road.
Maserati Australia expects the new SUV to make up over 50% of its sales, at the same time pushing its total annual sales to 1000 units (it shifted 519 last year). Levante pre-sales are already in triple digits six months before deliveries begin, so expectations are high.
There's a level of sumptuousness inside that feels higher than luxury SUV rivals. Maybe the bewitching Maserati badge influenced my opinion, but there's no question there's leathery loveliness everywhere.
Contoured seats front and rear feel supportive and look very classy, as does the trident-badged steering wheel. Fit and finish looks top notch and the dash and centre console design is clean and unfussy with a central 8.4-inch touchscreen.
Rear seating for three adults is possible with decent head and leg space, and if kids are your main cargo they'll enjoy the extra air space over the likes of a Ghibli sedan alternative.
What do you get?
All Levantes do well on the spec front, highlights including rear parking camera, decent active safety kit (like adaptive cruise and blind sport alert), 19-inch alloys, dual zone climate, navigation, leather upholstery, power tailgate and 12-way power front seats.
Those seeking more pampering can drop an extra $20k on the Luxury and enjoy Alcantara roof lining, power steering column, panorama glass sunroof, 20-inch alloys, more premium leather and Harman Kardon sounds.
The Levante Sport gets the same H/K sound system and power adjustable steering, gear shift paddles (which should really be standard across the range - it's a Maserati!), 21-inch alloys, sportier seats, steering wheel and pedals, plus a Sport spoiler and red brake callipers.
There are five rather than seven seats as you'll find in some large SUVs, so the Levante's no use to avid breeders, while a seats-up boot space of 580-litres trails the 670-litres of a Porsche Cayenne and vast 784-litres of the Range Rover Sport.
Keyless entry and power tailgate are expected but appreciated inclusions, while the cabin centre console has two storage bins (one nicely deep for your phone, wallet and glasses), plus a smidge more under the leathery centre armrest.
We can lament the fact there's no snorting and tuneful petrol engine (the aural treat has always been a huge Maserati drawcard), but positively that diesel motor returns a more frugal 7.2-litres/100km.
Maserati says its Levante rivals are the $100,000+ large luxury SUVs with 3.0-litres or more under their bonnet. Chief is the Range Rover Sport - the SDV6 HSE is close at $130,100 - while Porsche's Cayenne offers serious diesel clout with its 4.2-litre S Diesel model for $144,400.
Not as exclusive but still damn fine alternatives are the Audi Q7 at $103,900 or Jaguar F-Pace 30d First Edition for $117,210. But arguably, none of the above can rival dropping a set of Maserati keys on the cocktail bar table.
Maserati expects a huge boost to its sales with the new Levante and it has every reason to. The right car at the right time for the exotic Italian marque which is priced sharply, has the correct (if not sexy) engine in the 3.0-litre diesel and looks dazzling: in this image-conscious segment that counts for plenty.
Those who'd never considered a Maserati before will be tempted in, and early signs suggest many will open their wallets.
Model: Maserati Levante.
Details: Five-door five-seat all-wheel-drive large luxury SUV.
Engine: 3.0-litre V6 turbodiesel generating maximum power of 202kW @ 4000rpm and peak torque of 600Nm @ 2000rpm.
Transmission: Eight speed automatic.
Consumption: 7.2-litres/100km (combined).
Performance: 0-100kmh in 6.9-seconds, top speed of 230kmh.
Towing capacity: 2700kg (braked).
Bottom line plus on-roads: $139,990 (Levante), $159,990 (Levante Sport and Levante Luxury).
What matters most
What we liked: Striking and elegant styling, cabin luxury and clean layout, impressive off-road kit and tech, attainable entry price considering it's a Maserati.
What we'd like to see: A petrol version (V8 twin turbo would be grand, thanks), some spec like steering wheel paddles and power adjustable steering column should be standard across the range.
Warranty and servicing: Three-year/unlimited kilometre warranty. Servicing is every 20,000km.
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