by Gabe Beita Kiser
The Maserati of SUVs. That's the tagline the luxury Italian carmaker has gone with to tempt SUV shoppers into its showrooms. But what does that mean exactly? We went to Israel to find out. The absurdity of Maserati building an offroader was part of a heated discussion when the Kubang concept was unveiled back in 2011 along with news that Bentley, Rolls-Royce, Jaguar et al were all planning similar models. But now, with every carmaker bar Ferrari building SUVs, it seems, well, normal.
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So to bring the silliness back, we decided to take up a very kind offer to test-drive the latest high-end crossover in the Holy Land. Politics aside, the country that's home to the world's three major religions is a good a place as any to push the Levante to its limits. From the verdant mountainous northern regions of the Hermon at the cross-section of Lebanon and Syria, through the clogged, narrow city streets of Tel Aviv to the hot, open roads of the Negev Desert, the Levante proved a worthy companion on our journey across the one of the most hotly disputed slivers of land on the planet.
A couple of months after Auto Italia extended an invitation for CarBuzz to review what it expects to be its best-selling model, we found ourselves at the high-end Ferrari and Maserati dealership in Tel Aviv. We've been enamored by the Levante's styling ever since its unveiling at the 2016 Geneva Motor Show, its aggressive front end and elegant rear combining with dramatic effect. Around the well-healed neighborhoods of Neve Tzedek and Herzliya Petuach, the Maserati turned heads more than any other SUV on the road. And at 610,000 shekels (just under $170,000) due to massive tax levies, the Levante is also the most competitively priced luxury SUV in the region, just as it is outside it.
Available with a Ferrari-built 3.0-liter turbocharged V6 gasoline with either 350 or 430 hp on tap, and a 275-hp diesel variant all mated to an eight-speed automatic, we opted for the oil-burner as we were promised a chance to test the tasty gas engine in the Ghibli and Quattroporte a few days later. With 442 lb-ft of torque, the Levante diesel manages a brisk 6.9-second 0-62 mph and returns 39 mpg. Although you'll almost never get that sort of economy given this is a Maserati and so you'll want to drive it like one. The rousing, raucous exhaust note of the gasoline V6 alone could tempt you away from the diesel, but it does offer a pleasant sounding engine soundtrack nonetheless.
While based on the Ghibli, the Levante's suspension arms have been modified for greater travel and ride on variable-height air springs and adaptive dampers. The car's center of gravity is constantly monitored and adjusted on the move, compensating for different loads. Throw in a 51:49 front-rear weight-distribution and 90 percent of the torque going to the back axle via a limited-slip rear diff, and the result is minimal understeer and supreme body control. At 2,205 kg this is no hot-hatch, yet at times it sure felt as composed as one in the corners as we carved up and down the beautiful Gilboa mountains. A strengthened body is 20 percent stiffer than the Ghibli's and the Levante feels very solid, something that's palpable at high motorway speeds.
Wind noise has been decently muted, despite the elegant frameless doors that provide plenty of light into the plush cabin as well as offering occupants a better view of the Jordan valley and the Galilee - Jesus' hometown - from their big comfortable leather seats. After being reliably informed by Eyal, Auto Italia's charming Maserati salesman, that not one single Levante buyer will take the SUV offroading, we decided to test out its offroad manners anyway. After all, it does boast adjustable ride height, a couple of offroad modes, hill-descent control and a longer wheel travel than its sedan siblings. There's also something inherently fun about taking such a prestigious marque into the mud.
Tackling some rocky paths was a doddle, and once back on the tarmac, the Levante's athletic side sprang to life via the sport mode and the use of the ice-cool aluminum paddle shifters. Even in automatic, the slick gearbox shifts up and down the eight speed accompanied by satisfying rev-blending blips. With the easily-folded rear seats down and the kick-activated tailgate opened, the Levante swallowed a mountain bike with consummate ease, and while front passengers bask in buckets of space, those in the rear won't complain either. Imposing, suave, a pleasure to pilot, and more importantly, not another German SUV, the Maserati Levante is a compelling choice for anyone looking for something different.
And if you ever find yourself in the Holy Land, head over to Auto Italia and check out its latest stock. For the record, Israel is a beautiful country, the people are friendly, the food is great and the weather is perfect. If there's trouble in the Middle East, we didn't encounter any while we were there.
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