Love it or hate it, the Porsche Cayenne was a transformative car, or rather, a transformative SUV. To the chagrin of purists, it proved to the world that a) an SUV won’t destroy the prestige of a performance car marque, b) people will buy lots of them, and c) they have the potential to create a windfall that can raise a brand’s profile (and profits) exponentially. It was the litmus test, and it passed with flying colors. That’s why Bentley made the Bentayga, why Lamborghini is doing the Urus, and why Fiat Chrysler Automobiles is full-steam ahead with its work on the Alfa Romeo Stelvio and Maserati Levante.
The Stelvio is still largely under wraps, with FCA chief Sergio Marchionne making its name official just last week. But the Levante will be officially unveiled next month at the Geneva Motor Show, and FCA has released some photos and information well ahead of its big day. Official leaks ahead of a show may be par for the course nowadays, but this is a slightly bigger deal. This is no mere leak; the Levante has been overdue now for a very, very long time.
Maserati first signaled its intentions to jump into the SUV market in 2011 with the Kubang concept. Looking convincingly enough like a production-ready model, the Kubang looked like a formidable Cayenne-fighter that could lift the brand’s sagging sales numbers. But then very little happened (at least publicly) beyond the SUV getting the green light for production.
Five years later, Maserati finds itself in a very different position. Sales were up in 2015, but profits are down 30% due to China’s cooling economy, and customers seem to have lost interest in its entry-level Ghibli sedan. Just last year, Maserati and Alfa Romeo were seen as FCA’s new stalwarts in the luxury/performance market after Ferrari was spun off into a standalone company. Now, Alfa Romeo’s U.S. launch is floundering, Maserati is hemorrhaging cash, and the Levante could be its best best hope for success.
At first glance, the Levante doesn’t look too much different than the Kubang, and that isn’t really a bad thing. With its gaping grille and flared haunches, designers have done a nice job making the big SUV look like a Maserati. And while it originally was to be built on a Jeep Grand Cherokee platform, the Levante is all Maserati too, sharing its DNA with the Ghibli and Quattroporte sedans, and using the brand’s exclusive Q4 all-wheel drive system. According to FCA, the Levante won’t be another false start either — production has already begun at Maserati’s plant in Turin.
On top of the standard Q4 system, the Levante utilizes an air suspension á la Range Rover and Mercedes GL/GLS, and the eight-speed automatic transmission that pulls duty across the FCA lineup. Maserati hasn’t announced engine options yet, but it’s likely that it will be available with the 325- and 400-horsepower 3.0-liter V6s from the Ghibli, with Europeans likely to get a 3.0-liter diesel version too.
Last year, Maserati’s European general manager Giulio Pastore told Business Insider that in order to succeed, Maserati would need to build more affordable cars and SUVs to appeal to a new type of customer, namely people with families, and women. “Women are the biggest decision makers when it comes to buying cars,” he said about the Levante, “and this is the next step. This is the luxury car for everyday use.” From everything we know now, it looks like Maserati has a shot at success. But when the Kubang concept came out five years ago, Cayenne was the only real game in town when it came to a luxury performance SUV. Today, it will be contending with (among others) the Porsche, Range Rover Sport SVR, BMW X5M, and probably at the top end, the Bentley Bentayga and Lamborghini Urus. Maserati’s idea for a savior in the form of an SUV is now half a decade old. Only time will tell if it was worth the wait.