PONTIAC, Michigan – When in doubt, apply more horsepower and torque. Maserati launched its first-ever sport-utility two summers ago, after 15 years of parading a crossover concept called Kubang at the world’s auto shows. The Levante, built on a gussied-up version of the Ghibli luxury sedan’s architecture, was met with polite acclaim and nonetheless managed to double the legendary, century-old Italian marque’s sales in Canada. Such is the current attraction and popularity of crossover and sport-utility vehicles.
No doubt hungry for more sales, Maserati ripped a page out of the virtual manual that made the Porsche Cayenne a roaring success in the premium, luxury/performance SUV segment and is adding a couple models powered by roaring, twin-turbocharged V-8 engines designed and developed with sister brand Ferrari for the 2019 model year. It’s not a big surprise, since all Maserati engines are developed with Ferrari and built in the world’s most revered carmaker’s plants, in Maranello. No exceptions.
Italian stallions aplenty
The Levante Trofeo, powered by a 3.8-litre, twin-turbo V-8 closely related to the multiple award-winning 3.9-litre V-8 in the Ferrari 488, was first shown at the Geneva Auto Show, last spring. Clearly aimed at Porsche’s top-dog Cayenne Turbo S, Trofeo features a black grille, more assertive front fascia, abundant carbon fibre trim and a hood with two large vents to better cool an engine that has its cylinders heads and intake manifolds painted red under a carbon fibre cover, and standard 21-inch alloy wheels and painted brake calipers, with optional 22-inch forged alloy rims.
Yet, at this ‘2019 Private Preview’ in Michigan, attended by more than 200 automotive journalists, the star was the new Levante GTS, getting its official announcement, first public showing and initial media drive all rolled into one. Under surprisingly restrained bodywork, the GTS is powered by an ever-so-slightly milder version of the same, fiery 3.8-litre V-8. The rated outputs are 590 hp for the Trofeo and 550 hp for the GTS, both peaking at 6,250 rpm, and 538 lb-ft of torque from 2,500 to 5,000 rpm for both. The Trofeo should get to 100 km/h in 3.9 seconds and the GTS about three tenths later.
These new V-8-powered Levantes started as a special “skunkworks” project secretly pursued by a group of engineers at the Maserati technical centre. The top brass liked the first hand-built prototype and approved the rapid development of the Trofeo and GTS. A year later, development prototypes roamed the planet, from the barren lands of Andalusia, South Africa and Arizona, at more than 40°C, to the frozen expanses of Lapland at -35°C, with stints on the road courses of Balocco, Nardò and Barcelona to fine-tune handling.
The GTS and Trofeo share a double-wishbone front and multilink rear suspension with adjustable air springs and Skyhook shock absorbers, identical sets of Brembo brakes with 380mm ventilated and drilled discs in front with 6-piston calipers, and 330mm rear discs with single-piston calipers. All the engine’s torque is initially sent to the rear axle and standard, mechanical limited-slip differential through a quick, sturdy and smooth ZF 8-speed automatic transmission. Sensors and computers can subsequently redirect as much as 50% of it to the front wheels, in a mere 150 milliseconds, its makers say.
Top rung handling
The GTS proved impeccably balanced, stable and agile, during the handful of laps we drove on a narrow and twisty M1 Concourse road course that was drenched by rain and covered with puddles. Traction was nonetheless excellent and all responses impeccably linear and progressive, reminding me greatly of the GTS’s cousin, the Alfa Romeo Stelvio Quadrifoglio. As usual for Maserati, the V-8 has great power and torque, with an amazing soundtrack when your right foot is down.
All of which should translate into great overall road handling and versatility. These newest Maserati SUVs will even venture off-road, if you dare, with their suspension raised and the proper driving mode selected. Better brace yourself, because the ride gets quite hard, off-pavement, with the current Levante S, powered by a 424-hp, twin-turbo V-6.
In all likelihood, the Levante GTS and its siblings will see action mostly on normal roads and streets, where driver and passengers will enjoy the rich leather trim, 8.4-inch UConnect-based interface and plethora of electronic systems and accessories. Maserati has even added a new gearshift lever with shorter travel and more precise action. And that is good news, too.