Road test: Maserati Levante

The company that built the 250F, arguably the most elegant Grand Prix car of all time, has just launched its first off-roader

Slithering down the muddy slope, feet off pedals, feeling sensors issuing instructions to brake calipers to snatch and grab at discs so that our constant 3mph pace might be maintained, it struck me that this might be the least likely way in which anyone ever enjoyed driving a Maserati.

What next? A Range Rover that breaks the Nordschleife lap record? A Ferrari with third-row seating? A Rolls-Royce city car? I’ll confess here and now that despite being an essentially straightforward machine, at first the new Maserati Levante left me mightily confused.

For me as a both a student of the history of motor racing and a child of the 1970s, Maserati is about Meraks and Boras, Khamsins and Kyalamis. It’s Fangio’s 250F with its nose stoved in drifting down the hill at Rouen, Stirling dusting the field at the Nürburgring in a Birdcage and even Pedro’s improbable win in South Africa with a Maserati V12 in the back of his Cooper. It is absolutely not a 2.2-tonne, diesel-powered SUV at walking pace on a farm track.

But I guess we’re going to have to get used to it, for soon we will have to adapt ourselves to the idea of a Lamborghini SUV, an Aston Martin SUV and even a Rolls-Royce SUV. After that little lot, the Maserati Levante is likely to feel really rather normal.

Which is anything but what it feels like at the moment. Because to the professional me, Maserati is something else altogether: it is a generation of coupés and convertibles that have always promised the world yet rarely delivered much more than a small village outside Modena. I’ve only consistently liked the flawed but always charming Quattroporte saloons. I can remember years back doing a group test in which a Maserati rather predictably came fourth and last. When the call from the head of the importer duly came, I held the telephone some distance from my head, expecting a torrent of invective. In fact he’d rung to thank me: “Unless people like you write stuff like that, things are never going to change. They don’t listen to me…”

Well, changed the Levante most certainly is. At its heart lie elements of the platform of the reasonably well received Ghibli, a car I quite liked despite its manifest failings. But it’s obviously higher and, less obviously, structurally stiffer too. Drive is essentially through the rear wheels, half the car’s torque being sent to the front only when slip is detected. It has hill descent control, four different ride height settings and a mechanical limited-slip differential at the back.

At the front nestles a VM-built 3-litre V6 diesel (more entertaining petrol units are available in Europe, but as yet there’s no date for their arrival in the UK). Its bore, stroke and cubic capacity are sufficiently similar – in other words identical – to those of an old Mercedes unit to suggest it may be a hangover from the days when Daimler owned Chrysler which, like Maserati, is now owned by Fiat. But like the rest of the car, it’s built in Italy, allowing Maserati to claim credibly that the Levante is essentially home-grown.

I have to say it’s alarmingly normal inside. The driving position is excellent, the ergonomics entirely sane. The sat-nav is not close to the finest German systems, but is the best of any I’ve seen in a car from anywhere else in mainland Europe. You don’t even need to wade through an impenetrable and largely counter-intuitive handbook to see how it works. You fire it up and off you go.

The car’s least pleasing aspect is evident at once. The ride is fair at best, poor at worst and no more than adequate most of the time. Maserati is predictably keen to assert that the Levante is the best-handling SUV, but you won’t be out of the car park before spotting the price paid for that. In fairness it smooths out with speed and offers lovely body control on fast, sweeping country roads, but around towns and villages it’s just lumpy.

And while the Levante handles well for this kind of car, I’d point out that this is not necessarily saying very much. Nor is it the best: in my estimation, a Porsche Cayenne is its superior in this regard and the cheaper, quicker Macan considerably so, as is a Jaguar F-Pace. The engine’s not going to be winning any prizes, either. Its 272bhp output is competitive but, once you’ve nailed it into a car heavier than those previously mentioned, performance and fuel consumption are going to suffer. So while it dips, just, under the 7sec barrier for the 0-62mph run, it’s alone among these competitors in failing to achieve 40mpg in official tests. Which means 30mpg in normal driving if you’re lucky.

Of course it is capable off-road though, in all honesty, the course Maserati mapped out for us could have been negotiated safely by any car with four-wheel drive and the requisite ground clearance. And at £54,000 it’s expensive to buy, let alone run thanks to a CO2 output the same to within a single gramme per kilometre of a 431bhp Audi SQ7 with sub-5sec 0-62mph time.

And on such slender indications of ability it would be easy to cast the Levante onto the pile of past Maseratis that have tried hard to master their craft but, for one reason or a whole handful of reasons, failed.

Oddly however, that’s not the way I feel about it. I like the Levante. I enjoyed driving it. I hope to do so again. And coming from someone who has their admiration for novelty SUVs on a very tight lead indeed, that is saying something.

Beyond its good looks and enticing badge, the Levante offers a very pleasant place to pass the time. Its performance may not be great, but it is deft thanks to the quiet engine and slick operation of its eight-speed automatic gearbox. In a car like this that’s probably the more important consideration. The Levante appears to be well built and from rather lovely materials too. It’s quiet and, despite the average ride, offers a comfortable perch thanks to its excellent seats. There’s plenty of space in the back and the boot is sensibly shaped and quite capacious.

All of which places me in the curious position of liking a Maserati for all those things about it that are farthest removed from those I’d crave. There’s no snarling exhaust note, no savage thrust, no new standard in mid-corner feel or poise. But it gets the job done.

So if the looks and trident attract you to the Levante, all well and good. I think Maserati still has a positive image relative to many with which it will contend and that can only count in its favour. Just don’t fall for the line that says this is ‘the Maserati of SUVs’. On the contrary, it is the SUV of Maseratis and that is a very different thing indeed. As much to my surprise as it will be to yours, it’s none the worse for that.