Maserati SUV tackles the mean streets of Toorak

Maserati SUV tackles the means streets of Toorak

WHEN an adventurous spirit is a large part of one’s DNA, any day seems a good day to road test Maserati’s all-new luxury SUV, the Levante. Doing so on day one of Melbourne’s private-school year, however, may have been a particularly brave undertaking. But if there’s one way to test a car’s capabilities, it’s to tackle the torrid flurry of Beamers, Benzes and Bentley’s that roll out en masse for that inaugural back-to-school run. 

Is it possible city traffic gets worse every year, or is everyone just buying bigger cars? A bit of both, one supposes, but certainly the latter. SUVs outsold sedans for the first time last year, which is why premium brands like Bentley, Maserati and even Lamborghini are getting in on the act. Ultra-luxury brand Rolls-Royce Motor Cars just announced the name of it new “high-sided sedan”, the Cullinan, too.

Whatever is responsible for Melbourne’s worsening traffic crush, backing out of the driveway into the Toorak fray before school is usually tricky. But it was made easier on this day because of the Levante’s excellent top-down, all-around cameras, which provided detailed pedestrian and vehicular vision to both sides of the car’s rear. Visibility from inside the spacious cabin through the back and side windows was adequate, too.  

Which was a good thing because, once Madam Wheels was out amongst it, she had to take evasive action as a Mercedes-Benz G-Wagon came bearing down on her at speed, requiring lightening reflexes to hit the accelerator for a quick getaway. 

The Levante zipped away alright, albeit with a lag. Most surprising, though, was the unpleasing buzz-box note that emanated from the diesel engine. Thankfully, all was resolved later that week when Madam Wheels swapped into the new twin-turbo petrol Levante S. Lighter, faster and more responsive on the road than its diesel predecessor, switch this baby into Sports mode (Sports Plus is even better), and the real Maserati spirit rises. You’d expected no less from a car named, like all Maseratis, after a famous world wind, this one hailing from (and often howling across) the Mediterranean Sea. But perhaps the real reason for this car’s impressive grunt and growl has more to do with the fact that the GranSport V6 engine was Ferrari-fashioned in its Maranello stable.

Inside there’s all the luxury you’d expect from a premium Italian marque, but the presence of unnecessary but clever special details set this car apart from others in its class like the BMW X6 and Mercedes-AMG GLE Coupe. The attention to these details make the Levante shine. 

Most of the smarts are accessed via a 21cm dash-mounted display controlled by touch, dial or voice, similar to BMW’s iDrive interface. The Levante’s so-called MCI+ system gives effortless access to the car’s many intuitive features, most of which can be deactivated at the touch of a button, safety stuff included. 

Madam Wheels LOVED finally finding a car which permanently disengages that annoying European-mandated Start/Stop feature. She was less enamoured with the dramatic beeping and “!BRAKE!” warning that flared across the digital dash as part of the crash-avoidance system. Then again, with Melbourne’s reputation for having the highest incidence of nose-to-tail accidents in the country, perhaps it’s a necessary evil.

Anyone familiar with the mean streets of Melbourne will be aware of Victoria Police’s penchant for parking speed cameras all over the place. And with speed limits often shifting from 60km/h to 50km/h to 40km/h and back again in quick succession, slight distractions can result in a nasty fine and licence points loss in no time. Which is why Madam Wheels also rather likes the Levante’s Traffic Sign Recognition system. This uses a digital camera mounted behind the rear-view mirror coupled with data from the navigation system to monitor speed limits, then displaying the details digitally on the instrument panel. Disappointing, though, that the car doesn’t offer Head-Up display to help keep the eyes front and focused.

Nevertheless, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are in place feeding sound systems from either Harman Kardon or Bowers & Wilkins (a $2300 upgrade). There’s keyless entry, of course, and contactless boot entry, too (for another $470). Double-glazed windows do a nice job of keeping the road noise out and preferred climatic conditions in.

The neat Highway Assistance System ($5530) is a must-have, combining adaptive cruise control and lane-keeping assist to take the pressure off drivers on the motorways. Highway Assist keeps the vehicle centred in its lane at a nominated speed and at a specified distance away from any car ahead, braking automatically - to a stop if necessary - if that car slows down, then accelerating again as it pulls away. Madam Wheels, who loves a road trip, will never buy a car without this feature again.

Most of the available assistance features had to be paid for as optional extras on top of the 2017 diesel base price, which perhaps explains why most Levante diesel buyers to date have spent an average $20,000 additionally in upgrades. Anyone thinking of picking up one of the outgoing diesels today should use that information as a negotiating point to drive down the asking price because all 2018 Levante models will have the advanced driver assistance features included. Digital radio will be part of the standard package, too.

Maserati’s Levante is subtly stylish without being over the-top, featuring restrained elegance inside and just enough curve in the body line to keep it looking on-brand Maserati. That’s until you get to the back of the car. The design team dropped the ball back here because the Levante’s rear-end looks positively Kia-esque.

On the open road, the car really comes into its own, has the lowest centre of gravity in its class reportedly, and it gets lower still in Sports mode in an attempt to reduce body-roll. The result is decent for such a heavy car. And despite its two-tonne weight, it never feels like a heavy SUV. In fact, it feels smaller to drive than it is. In the garage, however, it takes up an inordinate amount of space.

The diesel model is expected to make up most of Levante sales in Australia but the more-expensive sports performance model has to be the marque’s most complete car. It might not be the go-to sensible choice of car, but even with its $30,000 premium over the diesel variant, it would be Madam Wheel’s pick of the pack. 

If matters environmental are a priority for you, Maserati is expected to introduce its first hybrid car by 2020, possibly as a Levante. It would come with the Trident badge, but would it still really be a Maserati? That’s the big question.

Madam Wheels Verdict 

Madam Wheels worthy? An all-round impressive offering that looks great, is super-comfortable and includes all the safety features as standard (from model year 2018). 

Buy: If you want a luxury SUV that drives like a sports car and attracts attention around town.

Avoid: If you want your SUV to sound more muscly.

Likes: It’s loaded with a bunch of intelligent features, is quiet in the cabin and looks a treat.

Dislikes: The incredibly fiddly gear shift, the truly awful rear end, the large turning circle.

Bottom line: A stock-standard 2018 Maserati Levante S GranSport petrol SUV would cost $150,294 before on-roads. Upgrades included in Madam Wheels’ variant (carbon fibre inlays, metallescent paint, head-rest stitched Trident and collapsible spare wheel) plus taxes and Victorian on-roads lift the drive-away price to around $218,447. The 2017 Diesel V6 starts at $121,463. Properly optioned-up like the variant Madam Wheels was in would wear a drive price of $209,000.