Maserati has been in the car business for more than 100 years. That’s quite a feat in the automobile industry. Only a handful of other carmakers can claim that distinction. But Maserati’s accomplishment has a unique aspect to it: It has stayed in business all that time while only building cars.
Now Maserati, heretofore a maker of only sexy sports cars, is offering its first sports utility vehicle. What this means is that Maserati’s next 100 years holds a lot more promise than its often-difficult first century.
The SUV means volume sales – a new concept for Maserati – because every carmaker who offers an SUV finds it quickly becomes their biggest seller. The Cayenne, for instance, transformed Porsche from a niche player to a fabulously wealthy, high-volume juggernaut. Maserati is hoping for the same kind of lightning to strike.
“Hard to believe, ” a company exec told me, “that as recently as a couple of years ago, we were a company that really only offered two cars – a coupe and a sedan – and we were selling barely 3,000 units a year.”
The SUV could increase the company’s sales six-fold by 2018, he added. And of course, success like that would help Maserati raise the capital needed to expand into other models such as high-end two-seaters and even hybrids.
So the decision to offer an SUV would seem like a no-brainer. But it was a decision not lightly taken at Maserati; execs have been dithering around about it since at least 2003. That’s when Maserati first unveiled an SUV concept, the Kubang, at various auto shows; the response to it was positive, but the project was DOA from the standpoint of Maserati rank-and-file because it was designed by Giugiaro. An internally designed version of the Kubang concept finally broke cover in 2011.
The actual production model, the Levante, sprang from that.
The Levante, which is named for an Italian word for wind, starts at a modest $72,000 and tops out near $83,000; it finally goes on sale this fall. Online pre-orders, the company said, were strong. In fact, in China it only took mere seconds for online shoppers to put dibs on the initial production run.
I got a preview test drive of the Levante around Italy’s Lake Garda, an hour or so up the road from the company’s headquarters in Modena.
So, how was it?
I must say I was impressed. The car performed and handled admirably, looked great, and sounded terrific thanks to its finely tuned exhaust notes from its twin-turbo V6. It is very plush and comfortable inside. Adequate room for five.
Ermenegildo Zegna has designed and supplied materials that include Italian leather and – in what is said to be a first in an automotive interior – fine silk (like that used, for instance, in a Zegna business suit). The fabric has been fortified, however, for rugged every day use – much like the rest of the Levante.
Technically speaking, the Levante is offered with either a 345-horsepower engine, or a 424-hp upgrade. Both engines come mated to an eight speed automatic transmission, and all-wheel-drive.
The Levante immediately went to the top of Car and Driver’s ratings of luxury SUVs, just behind the Porsche Cayenne – and ahead of all the various offerings from Mercedes-Benz, BMW, Infiniti, Cadillac, Lexus, etc. That’s high praise.
Indeed, there is something captivating about the Levante. Something that could make even an SUV hater fall in love.
In that sense, the Levante has been worth waiting for.
May 19, 2016