Maserati has a glorious and often a golden history. It was founded in 1914 in Bologna by Alfieri Maserati. The cars carry the trident from its coat of arms.
Alfieri won his class in the 1926 Targa Florio and between the wars the company made exciting sports cars which now sell for fortunes. It won the Indy 500 in 1939 and 1940 – the year it moved to Modena under new ownership.
After the Second World War it picked up the programme, leading to the most beautiful single seater ever, the 250F, in which Juan Manuel Fangio won the 1957 world championship. Its first saloon car, the V8 Quattroporte, arrived in 1963 and established its reputation for luxury sports grand tourers.
From 1968 to 1975 Maserati was owned by Citroën, before being rescued by De Tomaso after Citroën went bust. Since 1993 it has been part of Fiat, alongside Alfa Romeo, Lancia and Ferrari – and more recently Chrysler and Jeep
The Merak, a pretty mid-engined 2+2 with flying buttresses between the roof and tail, the Bora and Ghibli coupés, these are exotic scraps of nostalgia. Less so, the Biturbo, the world’s first twin turbo V6 saloon which has left few happy memories.
It’s a moot point not lost on Peter Denton, a cycling-fit onetime motor bike racer who runs Maserati in the UK. He knows that many of us link Maserati to those less glorious years and have little experience of today’s cars. These are the thoroughly modern and recently facelifted Quattroporte and Ghibli, the GT and the Gran Cabrio with V6 and V8 petrol engines made to Maserati specification by Ferrari.
World sales were 6,300 in 2012, five times more at 33,500 in 2015 and predicted to more than double to 70,000 by 2018.
The game changer is the Levante, Maserati’s first SUV and arguably the sexiest of the pack. In development its role model was Porsche’s Cayenne, the car which transformed that company’s bank balance and doubled sales.
There is a similar Maserati upswing in Britain. From several hundred sales in 2010 it raced to 1,200 in 2014, added 200 for 2016, and this year will double to 2,800 thanks to the Levante. It’s still going to be exclusive – nothing like the rapid ubiquity of Jaguar’s F Pace – another strapping rival.
The launch engine is a powerful V6 diesel from VM, part of the Fiat group. Versions can be found in some Jeeps but none matching the Maserati spec. One of the marketing cries for the marque is that every model is made in Italy from Italian content. Don’t panic. Italian product is now reliable. In September there will be a 424bhp 3-litre twin turbo V6 Ferrari petrol engine, but most sales will be diesel powered.
Levante is big – several inches longer than a Cayenne, matching an Audi Q7, which could also be seen as a rival. Prices start at £54,335 and all have air suspension with adjustable ride height, giving a range of 85mm. The 4x4 system is rear wheel biased but able to share the drive 50/50. There’s an eight speed ZF automatic gearbox and three drive modes of normal, sport and sportier.
The aluminium and magnesium chassis is 20 per cent stiffer than the Ghibli and a drag factor of 0.31 is the best in the sector.
And the proof of this delicacy from Turin? Standing outside you can hear the churn of the 3-litre V6 turbo diesel. That’s to be expected. It’s a powerful lump – reaching 271bhp and 442lb ft. Top speed can be 144mph, thanks to moving vanes in the grille that reduce wind resistance, and the 0 to 62mph time is 6.9 seconds. On the road it feels slower – a mechanical illusion. Economy is rated at 39mpg overall but on our two-hour Maserati test route in mostly rural northern England its computer disagreed and said 28mpg.
The interior is smart, leather and wood or syntho carbon depending on the model and the options ticked. The general feel and look is exciting, allowing for a bit of snagging on the hinged covers over the storage on the central cover. It’s the sort of touch-feel thing which would be noticed, however, the lids on the Quattroporte were smooth closing so it should be fixable.
Full marks for the spoken warning when you are speeding, as it’s easy to cruise too quickly in this quiet car. The system is linked to the navigation mapping and so the oral warning is only as good as the mapped memory, which was often incorrect on speeds; a system which reads the signs is more reliable. The picture has Maserati’s improved resolution found on the Quattroporte and Ghibli using a touch screen or rotary selector. It’s good, but map scale adjustment takes time.
The main controls are otherwise fiddle-free and the familiar lozenge-faced clock caps it off nicely.
Verdict: Bello. I want more.