How do you solve a problem like Maserati?
Great beauty on tap, but can Maserati take on the German premium grandees?
Maserati Levante: the Range Rover rival has started racking up significant sales, and now accounts for around half of all Maserati-badged sales worldwide
Date Reviewed: March 27, 2018
Generally speaking, when a brand announces that its customers, or potential customers, think that it’s more expensive than it actually is, it’s a good thing. It was precisely that – finding out what customers thought it cost and then actually charging that exorbitant amount – that kept Concorde in the air for decades longer than it should have been.
Consumers thinking that you cost more than you actually do should be a reason for celebration. For Maserati, it’s a problem.
At least that’s according to incoming head of Maserati UK, Mike Biscoe. He told The Irish Times: “The problem is that people assume we are more expensive than we are. That we’re up with Ferrari when it comes to cost. Whereas actually, if you can afford a a Mercedes S-Class, then you can afford a Maserati.”
That still means the Levante is likely to carry a price tag of €145,000 in the Republic.
You can see the problem. Maserati has to exist in the gap between the Venn diagrams of Alfa Romeo and Ferrari. It can’t build super-expensive, limited-run supercars to encourage the handing over of large cheques, but it also can’t drop down and build a high-volume, medium-sized saloon or SUV to compete with the BMW 3 Series or Porsche Macan; that’s Alfa’s job.
Maserati also can’t make hard-edged, headline-grabbing sports cars because that would tread too hard on Ferrari’s toes. It seems an uncomfortably narrow bandwith within which to be operating, but Biscoe is sanguine about the brand’s prospects.
“We don’t make sports car, we make grand tourers, GT cars, which can be applied to almost any type of car – four-door saloon, coupe, or an SUV. Given the way the luxury market has changed recently, that gives us a tremendous opportunity,” he said.
So it does. Since the famed Italian brand (better known for Fangio than for 4x4s) introduced its first SUV, the Levante, the Range Rover rival has started racking up significant sales, and now accounts for around half of all Maserati-badged sales worldwide. How many sales is that? Not that many, actually.
Maserati had a record year, last year, when it sold… 52,000 cars. That’s about a fifth of what Porsche sells, but again, there’s contentment with this figure, and Biscoe points out that it allows the brand to be far more exclusive than its mainstream German rivals, quoting the tale of one Quattroporte customer who bought into Maserati because he was sick of hotel doormen waving his hugely expensive Mercedes S-Class into the car park, assuming that he was a mere airport limo driver.
Certainly, you wouldn’t wave on any of the current Maserati range. Even the Levante, which is arguably the most generic-looking of the range, has a hulking, glowering presence, thanks to those slim lights and gaping maw of a grille, lifted almost without alteration from the Alfieri concept car.
Can it really compete, on technical terms, with Mercedes, Audi, and Range Rover, though? Well, it’s off to an improved start on the tech front this year. A mild update for 2018 brings with it electric power steering that, in turn, allows the addition of driver aids such as automated parking, lane-keeping, and active blind spot assist.
It pulls Maserati’s tech count up to comparison with its Anglo-German rivals, but simply pulling open the door and sitting inside shows where the Levante still needs a bit of boot-strap tugging. The interior looks beautiful, at first, as if a small explosion has gone off in a leather-and-carbon-fibre factory, and items such as the seats (which can be fitted with a hard-wearing silk insert from famed Italian tailors Ermenegildo Zegna) and the gorgeous little analogue clock really lift the ambience to a level that BMW and Audi simply can’t reach. On the practical front, space is good and comfort hard to beat, but there are some let-downs.
Basically, if you look at the central touchscreen (upgraded now to include Apple CarPlay and Android Auto), the digital display between the (rather lovely) main analogue dials, or fiddle with the wiper stalk, you’ll soon recognise them as being shared with much humbler models from Jeep. That wiper stalk is actually an ancient Mercedes cast-off (from when Jeep, and Chrysler, was part of the Daimler-Benz group) and while it works fine, it looks and feels out of place here. Report card marked as: must try harder.
Drive it for a while, though, and the Levante lifts its game. It comes with adjustable air suspension, and if the low-speed, urban ride is a touch too stiff (even in the Increased Comfort & Efficiency, or ICE, mode) then at bigger speeds, on open roads, it’s much better. It doesn’t have the firm body control of a BMW X5, even in Sport mode, nor the steering sharpness of a Porsche Cayenne, but it is still a deeply satisfying car to drive, with lovely, tactile responses in an age when most rivals have become digitised.
It can even off-road. And properly so, too. Many 4x4 makers are reluctant to let us test their cars on anything tougher than a mildly bumpy gravel track, but Maserati let us loose on a properly sticky and steep section of woodland, which the Levante took entirely in its stride. In fact, it felt Range Rover-effortless on the mucky stuff. It’s odd, but oddly satisfying, to return from an off-roading session and see that iconic trident badge covered in mud.
Better to keep it on the open road, though, where you can truly enjoy the Levante S’s wondrous V6 turbo engine. A 3.0-litre unit, with twin turbos and 430hp, it’s noisy enough in ICE mode, but when you push the sport button it unleashes a series of snorts and bellows that make you feel as if the entire class of a bullfighting school is about to stampede through the Zenga silk seats. It’s colossally noisy, and I mean that in the best way possible, with a gorgeous crackle and boom that echoes back to you from adjacent hedgerows. Mature? Nope. Neighbour-annoying? Yep. 20mpg? If you’re lucky, sir or madam.
I’m not sure I love the Levante, though. It’s a very competent product, a good rival to the likes of a Range Rover Sport, or BMW X5, or Porsche Cayenne, and arguably more interesting (visually and dynamically) than any of them. But it is, when all is said and done, just another big, pricey SUV in a world overly replete with such things.
I do love the Quattrporte, though. The sixth generation, sired by the 1960s original, the Quattrporte gets the same steering and infotainment upgrades as the Levante for 2018, but it is far, far more beautiful on the outside.
You’d never describe any of its German rivals as anything more than handsome, but the Quattroporte is impossibly pretty, from the low, wide, snout to the pert rump. Inside, it suffers from some of the same Jeep cast-offs as the Levante, but the cabin looks and feels even better to these fingers and eyes. You can have V6 turbo or naturally-aspirated V8 engines, but we drove the 3.0-litre turbo diesel, with 275hp and 600Nm of torque.
If recent headlines had you doubting the goodness of diesel, this is an engine to revive your faith – buttery-smooth but with a sonorous exhaust note (only an Italian company could make a diesel sound this good) and serious thrust, the Quattroporte covers ground, in lines both straight and curved, with effortless ease. It’s not as iron-fisted brilliant as an S-Class, and the ride is occasionally too firm, but it’s far more engaging, enjoyable, and even exciting, to drive than its Teutonic rivals, and always with the flash of the embroidered trident in the rear headrests when you glance in the mirror.
Plus, it’s heart-stoppingly beautiful when you park up and get out, and most definitely won’t have snooty hoteliers assuming you’re on an airport taxi run. It is Maserati’s best current product, I reckon, even more so than the bombastic V8 GranCoupe or the more affordable Ghibli.
Maserati will always be a difficult sell, for the moment. Cheaper than you might think, but still seriously expensive, and lacking the machined-from-solid rep of the Germans, there’s also no sign yet of the necessary hybrid or electric technology (although we are told such is definitely coming).
But, in a world where carmakers are increasingly talking of automation, of electrification, of the ownership morphing into permanent rental, Maserati still stands aside as a reminder that cars can yet be physically tactile, aurally dramatic, visually beautiful, and downright desirable. Faultless? No. But wonderful? Yes.
The lowdown: Maserati Levante V6 S GranSport
Price: circa €145,000 in Republic
Top speed: 264km/h.
Claimed economy: 25.9mpg (10.9 litres/100km).
CO2 emissions: 253g/km.
Motor tax: €2,350.
Verdict: Gorgeous, and multi-role capable but small cabin niggles let it down. Go for the sexier Quattroporte instead.
Our rating: 3/5