We drive a Ferrari SUV! ***
Words by: Adam Allen
So what’s with the multiple asterisks?
OK, we’ll come clean- we didn’t test a Ferrari. The engine- which is the centrepiece of this car- was screwed together by the good people at Ferrari HQ in Maranello. That’s right folks- the people responsible for building the most intoxicating and highly sought-after sports cars in the world have their fingerprints all over the heart of the Levante GTS. The fratello and sorella that build this engine deserve a snifter of Grappa- it is a triumph. Belligerently loud when you want it to be, demure and reserved when the conditions dictate, it’s a masterpiece. In 20 years when people ask us about the Levante GTS, we’ll first fondly remember the engine. But this is not a one trick pony by any stretch of the imagination- the Levante GTS is a thoroughly realized, excellent entry into the ultra high-performance SUV realm.
Maserati has experienced their share of ups and downs.
Since their inception in 1914, Maserati has experienced the highs and lows of an enduring automotive brand. They won the Indy 500 in back to back years of 1939 and 1940, the only Italian manufacturer to do so. Juan-Manuel Fangio took the checkered flag in many Formula 1 races, and his success culminated most notably with the World Championship in 1961. But then came the company’s dark ages, exemplified by a peak of wretchedness exemplified by the Bi-Turbo of the 1980’s. After joining parent company Fiat’s portfolio in 2010, fans were cautiously optimistic that the storied history of the brand would be put to good use. After a rather limp wristed fifth generation Quattroporte bowed in 2003 (hobbled by a dogs breakfast of a single clutch automated manual gearbox) followed by the Ghibli (meant to attract customers of more modest means) which failed to capture the hearts and wallets of buyers. Maserati knew they’d need to up their game and that meant building an SUV, something that might have bordered on the unthinkable years ago. But that’s what the public wants, and so Maserati answered with the Levante SUV models- with a choice of mild to wild V6 engines- and an opportunity was seen to crank up the output in an attempt to bring some of the buyers thinking of Porsche Cayenne Turbo and Range Rover Sport buyers into the brand’s showrooms.
The six cylinder variants are good, but a V8 is better.
To be fair, Maserati V6 engines were not lacking for power and personality. They produce between 345 to 424 horsepower and you could never consider them slow. But as the old adage goes, there’s no replacement for displacement (especially when you add two more cylinders to the equation) so the V8 cribbed from the Quattroporte sedan is especially welcome. In GTS trim, it makes a staggering 524 horsepower and an equally impressive 538 pounds feet of torque. Blessed with this next level kind of output, the Levante GTS can hurl itself from naught to highway speeds in under 4 seconds, an undeniably scorching sprint for an SUV. There’s a Trofeo model which can summon up even more maniacal levels of power, but that’s only because its ECU has additional lines of code commanding the turbos to puff harder to give it the extra power- so it stands to reason those who ‘settled’ with the GTS can crank up the output to levels through the series of 1’s and 0’s of code they see fit with a little help from the aftermarket.
Italians are never going to craft an interior that you’d consider ‘blanda’.
No, the interior of any Maserati would never be labeled as bland. The reputation of Italian design bringing thought provoking colors and textures is not threatened here. Every single surface and touch point are covered in buttery leather, or other top shelf materials like genuine carbon fibre, the kind of stuff befitting a car of the price tag the Levanted carries. We found the seats- upholstered in supple Italian leather- to be very comfortable, although some staffers noted intrusive cushioning in the shoulder area. All functions are controlled by a reskinned version of FCA’s Uconnect which is a relief because the system works terrifically well. Some of our colleagues have companied that the Levante’s use of secondary switchgear from more plebeian offerings from the FCA portfolio- like the power window switches, for example- have no right to be in a car with such a lofty price tag. We aren’t buying that for two reasons: one, the secondary switchgear happens to work OK, and two, the demographic of folks who will purchase the Levante GTS have likely never been inside a Pacifica or a 300 anyway.
Just a guess, but it’s probably hard not to have fun in something with the Levante GTS’s numbers.
We must circle back to that engine. Although it can’t muster the spine-tingling shriek of its Maranello brethren, it does make a sound that you will never tire of, and it’s backed up by fearsome thrust. Pretty much every time we set off, we’d select Sport mode because the exhaust becomes noticeably louder. Usually, that’s kind a catch 22 because while you do enjoy increased aural satisfaction, the car can feel too nervous and overcaffeinated, exactly the kind of character traits you don’t want on your commute. Maserati has hit a home run with their Sport mode calibration. Sure, it wakes everything up properly, but it never feels too eager or jittery. It’s so good that we think it should be the default mode. The engines formidable output is channeled to the tarmac through all four wheels via ZF’s increasingly ubiquitous but no less excellent 8-speed automatic. Another triumph for the Levante GTS- The oversized, carbon fibre shift paddles fitted to the steering column are the best we’ve encountered in ages, not only for their design but the lovely tactile click they emit when you tug on them for an upshift or downshift. All this rides on a chassis that is devoid of any squishiness and one that knows how to get down when the mood strikes. It isn’t well suited for off-road duty, although the excellent SkyHook air suspension will raise itself should you find yourself on a gnarlier than expected access road to some luxurious off the grid accommodation. The biggest achievement the Levante GTS has working in its favor? It nails the elusive combination of a sporting car that excels during the 95 percent of the time when real world driving and then can willingly embrace its inner hooligan the other 5 percent.
What might go wrong?
Even before we turned a wheel in the Levante GTS, a cursory glance at the spec sheet confirmed that it would be a blast to drive. It’s the same story with the Alfa Romeo Quadrofoglio we drove previously- all goes blissfully well until the instrument panel starts showing you all kinds of disconcerting notifications with a Check Engine light or two thrown in for good measure. We are happy to report that the Levante gave us zero aggravation on that front, performing flawlessly over the week it spent in the Carpages Garage. We can’t ignore the elephant in the room, however, and that is how well will the Levante hold up as the weeks turn into months and years? Other than that, there really wasn’t much that we found complaint worthy. The shifter lacks any tactile feel so you find yourself waiting through the short pause until the gear selection is confirmed on the instrument panel. Sometimes you can catch the UConenct system snoozing after executing a command, and the volume control located on the console felt a bit flinty. We won’t touch on the prodigious thirst of the 3.8 litre turbo V8 because it likely would have been more economical if we were capable of showing more restraint in soaking up its sound and fury, which of course we are not.
Should I buy a Levante GTS?
There’s a healthy amount of choice in the overpowered SUV marketplace- probably more than there needs to be- but you can’t deny that watching one of these things fling themselves towards the horizon isn’t irresistibly cool. You could have a Mercedes Benz GLE 63, but that isn’t as happy as the Levante GTS on twisty tarmac. The Range Rover Sport is always part of this conversation, and while its superior to anything else off the grid its on-road performance cannot match the finesse of the Levante’s moves. There’s the Porsche Cayenne Turbo, which is thoroughly excellent in every way but lacks the pizzazz and character of the GTS. And that’s a big part of the uber-Levante’s allure- its chock full of personality and there isn’t a lot of them in the wild, so you get the exclusivity factor too, a nice offshoot to your cheque for $153,620. We suggest taking a test drive to see what we mean.
2019 Maserati Levante GTS- Specifications
- Price as tested: $153,620
- Body Type: 5-door, 5 passenger SUV
- Powertrain Layout: Front engine/all-wheel drive
- Engine: 3.8-litre twin turbo V8, DOHC, 32 valves
- Horsepower: 524 @ 6,250 rpm
- Torque (lb-ft.): 538 @ 2,500 rpm
- Transmission: 8-speed automatic
- Curb weight, manual transmission: 2,342 kg (5,163 lbs)
- Observed Fuel Consumption: 16.2L/100 km (14.5 mpg)