After 1,000 km of beautiful French roads, we learned why 2019 will be a vintage year for Maserati.
The Levante arrived in 2016 dubbed "the Maserati of SUVs." More than just a trite tagline, the carmaker was boldly claiming that the essence of the storied marque had infused its latest creation. But what is that essence and can it indeed be found across the Italian's range?
In the few short years in which the Ghibli and Levante have been on the market, incremental, significant changes have translated to a huge leap forward for the models. The exterior and interior styling has evolved, a new transmission, electronic steering, and adaptable air suspension have been introduced, there's a new infotainment system, wheel designs, front and rear fasciae, and personalization options. The latest iteration of the Quattroporte also benefits from these upgrades.
I have driven previous iterations of the Ghibli, Quattroporte, and Levante individually, discovering more about Maserati's philosophy with each drive, but it took two days covering 650 miles of beautiful French roads in the 2019 MY fleet, to identify its soul.
Our first taste of Maserati 2019 was a Ghibli finished in a new shade of Rosso Potente. Standing out among the models parked proudly in front of the majestic Peninsula Paris hotel, the Ghibli wears the striking new Ferrari-inspired color with confidence, a nod to the Maranello-designed V6 that sits up front.
After creeping out of the congested French capital in comfort mode, we headed southeast on the relatively unoccupied A7 towards Dijon with the exhausts fully opened in Sport.
Last year, the Ghibli was refreshed with enhanced performance, electric power steering, and a new Integrated Vehicle Control (IVC) traction system. With 424 hp and 428 lb-ft of torque, coupled with its optional Q4 Intelligent AWD system, 0-62 mph is a 4.7-second rush of blood to the head. Getting up to highway speed from rest stops and after exiting tollways made for regular reminders of the Maserati's capability.
All of the engine torque is at the rear wheels most of the time, but can be split 50:50 to the front and rear axles imperceptibly when conditions require via the electronically-controlled multi-plate wet clutch. The AWD system also measures a range of dynamic parameters, from wheel speed to driving style, catering a specific grip profile for each wheel. This combined with a mechanical limited-slip diff, and the IVC function means you can drive on the edge, pushing the Ghibli hard around corners, knowing the car is looking after you.
By predicting driving situations and making the necessary adjustments to speed and brakes, the IVC works to prevent loss of control, not correct it. However, as you don't feel intervening, it's hard to know how well it works. But Maserati says it has helped to improve racetrack lap times.
On the highway, the Ghibli possesses ample passing power while Brembo brakes keep it honest. The dampers are nicely tuned for perfect French roads and while the beautifully weighted chassis (50:50 in Ghibli and Ghibli S, 51:49 in the S Q4) feels solid enough, we'd love to see a new Ghibli ride on the magnificent Giorgio platform that underpins the Giulia QV.
In GranSport trim, it has the performance looks to match. Last year, Maserati made the welcome move to offer its models in two distinct flavors: GranSport and GranLusso, giving buyers the choice of sporty and luxury trims distinguished by subtle styling differences.
For 2019, these fundamental characteristics of the brand have been further enhanced with new front and rear bumper designs and a selection of new wheels, including 20-inch Teseo. Inside, upgrades include new soft-touch Pieno Fiore natural leather, wood and carbon-fiber trims, an elegantly redesigned transmission lever, and vastly improved graphics on the 8.4-inch infotainment touchscreen.
After stocking up on a year's worth of extra forte Dijon mustard in the Burgundy capital, the final 50 km before our first stop at the Chateau de Pommard was through country lanes, which is where the Ghibli is in its element.
The new electronic steering system is communicative, nimble and precise, and a decent throttle response combined with the quick-shifting ZF eight-speed automatic make it a rewarding car to drive. The aluminum paddle shifters feel wonderful to the touch too, and allow you to push the Ghibli close to its 8,000 rpm redline, filling the French air with rousing Italian music.
The privately owned chateau is an exclusive winery. Centuries-old buildings surrounded by vineyards producing high-quality Burgundy, the Maseratis felt right at home.
Lead Exterior Designer Pablo D'Agostino was on hand to provide a closer look at the latest styling upgrades, which was followed by a brief tour of the chateau and a sample of the Clos Marey-Monge family of Pommard wines produced on the estate. Flowering went well this summer and expectations are for 2018 to be a great vintage.
Sliding into the front seat of the Levante for the next leg of the drive, I sensed Maserati should hold similar aspirations for its 2019 range.
Elegantly styled yet imposing on the road, the Levante has its own unique soundtrack despite using the same twin-turbo V6 as the Ghibli. Downshifts are met with a bark, upshifts with a growl, the intoxicating exhaust notes a treat for the ears as we sped along the serpentine roads through Burgundy that lead to the A6 south towards Lyon.
Sporting the same super precise steering as the Ghibli, while riding on a complex Air Spring suspension system that offers six different height levels (ranging from +40mm for offroad to -35 mm for high-speed driving), the Levante was easy to place and soaked up the less than stellar country lanes like a giant sponge.
The seating position in the Ghibli is almost perfect, and the Levante doesn't disappoint either. Visibility is great, and while conscious of riding high, supreme steering feel and feedback helped me stay connected to the road.
The Levante cruises down the highway in style, and it's easy to see why this has become the marque's biggest seller. In fact it makes up 55% of global volume for the brand, which is why Maserati has gone all in on the model, unveiling the V8 equipped GTS at Goodwood in the summer and the Trofeo in New York earlier this year. Available in the US now, the hi-po variants of the big SUV won't arrive in Europe until next year. Unless you really must have a V8, the V6 in the Levante and Levante S is more than sufficient.
Like the Ghibli, the 2019 Levante comes with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto support, an optional 17-speaker Bowers & Wilkins sound system with a suite of safety features including Highway Assist, Lane Keeping Assist, Blind Spot Assist, and Traffic Sign Recognition. There's a new set of 19-inch Zefiro alloys, and the Maserati Touch Control Plus (MTC +) infotainment system is one of the best I've ever used.
Lyon is France's second biggest city, so rush hour traffic was to be expected as we arrived in the early evening. The Levante plodded along at low speed nicely, filling the narrow roads with its wide, but beautifully crafted, rear end and navigating the tight corners with ease as we made our way up the Fourviere hill to Villa Maia, a five-star hotel offering stunning views of the city below.
Chateau La Coste, is where wine, food, art and architecture meet in the most unexpected way. Our final stop before reaching Monaco, you can spend hours exploring this magical slice of Provence. So we hit the highway early to do just that.
A Ghibli finished in another fabulous new shade of Blu Nobile, inspired by the blue bottle of Chanel perfume, was our morning chariot, providing enough evidence that the Italian sedan is one that grows on you the more time you spend with it.
A product briefing under the magnificent Pavillon de Muique created by Frank Gehry (and which inspired the equally stunning Louis Vuitton Foundation in Paris) was followed by lunch at the acclaimed Mallmann for some much needed Michelin-star nourishment ahead of the final leg to Monte Carlo.
Now in its sixth generation, the Quattroporte was the original luxury sports sedan – the fastest in the world back in 1963, in fact. While the super sedan segment has exploded in recent years, Maserati's offering remains somewhat of an enigma. You just don't see many of them on the road any more. Which is a real shame as not many cars exude the level of elegance as the Italian four door.
With 530 horsepower on tap from a Ferrari-built 3.8-liter V8 in GTS trim, the sprint to 62 mph matches the 4.7 seconds of the Ghibli S, yet does so from a more comfortable pew.
At the other end of the scale is the 3.0-liter V6 diesel, which thanks to its 275 hp and 443 lb-ft of torque propelled the model we were driving ably enough down the highway, but lacked the drama of the petrol-fed car when slicing down the Corniche mountain pass as we approached Monte Carlo.
Here, traffic comes to a crawl. Engine sizes are instantly superseded by style, something the Maserati oozed from every pore as we pulled up to the Yacht Club Monaco for some celebratory drinks to mark the end of the tour.
When you think of exotic Italian cars, style is exactly what comes to mind. Maserati is a glamour brand, steeped in tradition and racing heritage. All three models (as well as the GranTurismo and GranCabrio sports cars) are 100% made in Italy. Not many brands, even Italian brands, can say that.
That's not to say the cars are perfect. In fact, when compared to similarly priced offerings in the market, you may wonder why someone would buy a Ghibli over an E-Class. The short answer is they wouldn't. Because comparing Maserati with Mercedes is like comparing a fine wine with a premium pilsner. And you don't come to a dinner party with a bottle of beer.
Sportiness, sophistication, elegance, and beauty. People don't smile at you when you step out of a BMW. They don't wave as you drive by in an Audi. But they do in a Maserati. Its cars have a charming effect on all that behold them. Without quite knowing why they feel as if they're in the presence of something special.
Exotic Italian sedans are in short supply, in fact the Ghibli is in a class of its own here. Apart from the Quattroporte (and arguably the Alfa Romeo Giulia), it has no piers. The Levante, in Trofeo guise at least, now has a competitor in the shape of the Lamborghini Urus. Most other premium SUVs are copy & paste generic Germans – competent and highly capable, but not particularly eye-catching or inspiring.
Maseratis still have the power to turn heads, and with its Maranello built V6 and V8 engines, have thrilling soundtracks to match.
The accumulative effect of hundreds of moments - firing up the Rosso Red Ghibli outside The Peninsula Paris; meandering the narrow country lanes of Burgundy wine country in a Levante; soaking up the sunkissed coastline cruising down the Moyenne Corniche in a Quattroporte; sipping on a bottle of Blonde of Saint Tropez, the gleaming roofs of the Maseratis parked up below as we overlooked yachts the size of football stadiums – left an indelible impression. Maserati is a brand that's a class apart, a true Italian exotic.
You'll have to spend a weekend with your bodystyle of choice to discover what that really means.