While the SUV may have been born of American culture, it’s not just Americans who love their SUVs. Every manufacturer from every continent and country is making them. Why? Because they sell. And at the high end, they sell at very healthy volumes for very healthy profits. BMW, Mercedes, Porsche, Audi, Lexus and Bentley all make six-figure SUVs that sell very well, thank you very much.
Now, into this crowded market steps Maserati with the new Levante. Making its North American debut at the New York Auto Show this week, I sat down with Maserati Chief Exterior Designer, Giovanni Ribotta, to get the inside story on the creation of Levante, how they expect it to be different from other SUVs in the category, and what it means for the future of the company.
At the beginning of the process, Ribotta said they took, “a GT approach to Levante. We had to keep the Maserati identity by combining SUV convenience with our sport brand heritage.” You can see that in the long hood, cab back design with its steeply angled windscreen and tapered rear end. As he said, “We tried to put more Alfieri into it.” referencing the beautiful GT that appeared at Geneva two years ago.
“It’s a design born from contrast,” he went on to say. “It’s rich versus muscular, classic versus high tech, sport versus comfort.” You can see that dichotomy everywhere you look both inside and out from the Levante. As you walk around the car this philosophy really becomes apparent. The front is aggressive, the side a little more dynamic with its flowing lines and athletic fender flairs, and the rear is elegant featuring a high belt line that runs through the taillights and dives down around the corner into the rear quarter panel.
The challenge with the design comes in the interior, where an SUV must be roomy, the Maserati exterior form made that a challenge, one that has been overcome by the clever use of space and execution of the design. In order to reinforce the Levante’s width, the design team emphasized created lines that run from the center stack outward over the instrument panel and glove box. And while the overall feel is luxurious, the seats are designed for sporty driving. “There’s a richness and thickness to everything. It’s all in the quality of materials,” Ribotta said. The cars they had in New York featured the leather interior, but Levante will be available with the Zegna silk and leather seating as well.
I haven’t had the opportunity to spend time behind the wheel yet, but with the lowest drag coefficient and center of gravity in its class, Levante is clearly designed to be one of the most roadworthy and sporty SUVs on the market. Think Porsche Cayenne or BMW X5. The difference is, that with its five-position air suspension, the Levante will also offer excellent off-road clearance and driving dynamics. Especially since it offers Maserati’s Q4 all-wheel drive system and four different drive modes: normal, I.C.E., sport and off-road.
Behind the Levante’s sharklike grille you have a choice of power outputs from the Ferrari-built 3.0 Liter V6. The base engine makes a healthy 345 horsepower. If you opt for the Levante S, you get 424 ponies that will take you from 0-60 in just 5 seconds and reach a top speed of 164 miles per hour.
Mr. Ribotta said that the intent in Levante was to make an evolutionary step to the next era of Maserati design, “Always stepping forward without forgetting our past.” Just before we finished our conversation, he added, “We tried to do something different, something special, something Maserati.” And to my eye, they succeeded.
The Maserati Levante will be available for order in April and prices for the base Levante start at a very competitive $72,000. The Levante S starts at $83,000.