The SUV market has always been crucial in this part of the world with Toyota and Nissan leading the way with the Land Cruiser and Patrol.
Those two iconic performers are still the favourite vehicles for serious off-roaders in the UAE but performance SUVs have established their own battleground dominated with Mercedes, Audi, Porsche and BMW well established with seriously fast 4x4s.
It remains a fertile market in these challenging economic times which is why it has attracted the attention of manufacturers you wouldn’t normally associate with SUVs with Bentley pitching into battle with the Bentayga, Rolls-Royce set to follow with the Cullinan, Lamborghini revving up the Urus and Maserati introducing its own Italian style with the Levante.
Maserati say the Levante is a turning point in their history because it gives them access to the largest luxury segment in the world. When their SUV concept, the horribly named Kebang, was revealed in 2011 it looked promising but lacked any real wow factor.
Thankfully, both the name and the design has evolved with the Levante, named after a warm, Mediterranean wind that can change from mild to gale force in an instant, a characteristic Maserati say is mirrored in their first SUV, is now a vehicle with instant impact.
Maybe it was the blue colour of our test drive Levante S but this Italian stallion has got real presence, especially from the front with that absolutely gorgeous front grille and headlights, inspired by the marque’s Alfieri concept car.
Aesthetics are a matter of personal choice but the front of this Levante S is an absolute Italian masterpiece conveying dynamic style and aggression. The side profile is not so dramatic and, in comparison, the rear is pretty ordinary but overall this is one good looking piece of kit that is refreshingly distinctive from any other SUV on the road. It is five-metres long and is one of the roomiest in its class.
The interior is extremely spacious and offers prestigious luxury with extremely comfortable leather seats and classy trims which you can personalise from 28 different colour combinations.
The dashboard and centre console house the 8.4-inch touch screen, the cluster of drive mode buttons, and a rotary controller for the new Maserati Touch Control Plus infotainment system which features a good sat-nav, great graphics, excellent audio system and all the driver assists you will ever need.
The 360° overhead camera view is an excellent parking assist and there are additional cameras for added visibility for safety. The instrument panel is the same as you will find in the Maserati Ghibli and Quattroporte and it has a very cool sports steering wheel with the Trident logo in the middle.
If you really want to up the exclusivity there is an optional Zegna Edition pack that combines premium Italian leather with bespoke silk from Ermenegildo Zegna, one of the world’s leading fashion designers.
And now for the best bit… the engine. The Levante is equipped with the latest Maserati 3-litre twin-turbo V6. The standard Levante has a 350bhp version, but the more powerful Sport, which I drove, has a stonking 430bhp and 580nm of torque.
There are four drive modes; Normal, I.C.E. which stands for Increased Control and Efficiency, Sport and Off-Road and this is where the fun starts.
In normal the engine is reasonably quiet with a subtle rumble as it ticks over. Push the Sport button on the centre console once and the engine note changes significantly with a more dramatic baritone growl. Push the button twice and the suspension becomes tauter for a more sporty performance.
Put pedal to metal with the excellent 8-speed automatic gearbox pumping the power through the AWD system which comes as standard, and you will be rewarded by a proper Maserati snarl as you blast through the gears. I guarantee it will bring a smile to your face.
It has a 0-100kmh time of 5.2 seconds and a top speed of 264kmh and in Sport mode it handles like a large sports car which is impressive for a car that weighs over two tons.
The chassis is excellent and the suspension comprises air springs and electronically controlled Skyhook shock absorbers which, in conjunction with the AWD system and newly introduced torque vectoring makes it more precise.
The Levante S is also well equipped to take on more challenging terrain although I would stick to tarmac for fear of damaging those lovely wheels. I can say without hesitation that the Levante S is one of the best SUVs I have driven this year, mainly because it is so different to anything else and probably the closest we are ever going to get to a Ferrari SUV.
It is named after a wind and it certainly blew me away.
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