When you think Maserati, you probably think if its thoroughbred Italian racing heritage, the glamour and slick sports car lines. It was perhaps totally fitting, then, that the day we headed into the Cotswolds to test the new Maserati SUV, the UK issued 19 flood warnings.
A stroke of luck, you might call it, that we were driving a four-wheel drive SUV, rather than a hunkered-down rear-wheel drive speed machine. Slipping into the cosseted interior of Maserati's new luxury SUV, hitting the heated seat button and speeding off along flooded roads, we did wonder if we'd be better in one of Maserati's sponsored racing yachts.
Maserati say that the Levante brings a completeness to the family of cars it offers, a luxury alternative, a lifestyle model, that through its SUV lines it offers wider appeal to a wider range of owners than some of its sports cars.
Maserati Levante: Design
Many will look at the way that Porsche, Bentley, Lamborghini and others are producing SUVs and see that Maserati is very much following the trend. We're seeing SUVs dragged out of the "utility" class and transformed into something all the more special, a bigger driving experience, a lifestyle choice without sacrificing the brand values that sit at the heart of some of our best-loved cars.
For Maserati, retaining the visual identity at the front in a similar fashion to Bentley with Bentayga, gives that sort of toy car charm. The seriousness of Maserati's GrandTurismo - its best looking model - is reflected but diluted as the Levante grows into its bigger body. The result is a rather long bonnet, scowling lights flanking a snarling grille on the front, centred on that Maserati trident. It's an angry-looking car from the front, taking sporty over boxy design.
The Levante is peppered with Maserati hallmarks, like those side gills, rear quarter badging and so on. With sporty in mind, the rear roofline drops and the rear side windows get smaller as you move back. The rear window itself, in keeping with those sporty lines ends up rather small.
That, combined with a rear seat central headrest means that rear visibility is fairly poor. If you're a sports car driver that's par for the course, but the Levante loses the natural advantage towards the rear that SUVs often offer: it's not actually that big.
But this isn't about challenging the Discovery with a cavernous rear, it's about providing a Maserati SUV.
Maserati Levante: On and offroad skills
Maserati's aim was to produce a car that would drive like a Maserati on the road, but be happy wallowing in the mud too. It adopts the Ghibli's four-wheel drive system, with a bias towards the rear wheels. In most driving conditions it will send the power to the rear, but with the ability to switch it through various steps of division up to a 50/50 split.
This works in tandem with driving modes from Maserati's Skyhook system - normal, sport, offroad and increased control and efficiency (ICE). This system, like the sort of driving modes you'll find in your average Audi, uses engine, gearing, stability and the AWD components to give you the best setup for the type of driving you're doing.
There's also an air suspension system that offers a lot of travel, riding at 210mm high normally, but being able to drop the car down to 175mm in aero2, a special automatic mode reserved for when you're driving at speeds over 170kph. This latter mode is automatic, you can't decide to drop into this low-slung position, the car decides when to do it.
That's something we didn't get the chance to use, given the poor road conditions we faced when driving the Levante, but we did get to test the descent control, feeling the car brake and control downhill speed on some very muddy slopes. We were driving on standard winter tyres through some very slick mud across fields and through woodland.
The Levante is perfectly comfortable in such conditions, with enough clearance to let you drive into the rough stuff without the worry that you're going to catch a piece of the bodywork on the way. No one really expects this to be a rival to the Range Rover's offroad skills and the likelihood is that the Levante won't find itself being set to task in those conditions too often.
However, find yourself offroad and the Levante certainly offers enough to give you the control and handling that some softer crossover cars won't, so if you do need to take your trident-badged luxe SUV through a muddy field to deliver your welly-wearing friends to a picnic, you shouldn't have a problem.
Sitting under the hood is a 275bhp V6 diesel engine, the same you'll find in Ghibli and Quattroporte, that will whisk you to 62mph in 6.9 seconds. Maserati says this is the most powerful engine of its size in this segment, but it's not the most powerful SUV out there, and will be left in the exhaust fumes of some of the more flighty models. Put your foot down and there's that reassuring purr, but this isn't a noisy drive, it's mostly quiet and refined, save for that moment you put your foot down and everything wakes up to remind you you're driving a pumped-up sports car.
There's plenty of weight to the steering, but we found the column-mounted shifters to be a little too big: the left shifter pretty much blocks access to the indicator stalk and we're pretty sure that you'll be using that more regularly than you will be manually dropping gears.
There's a distinct lack of choices available, and that's perhaps the problem that the Maserati Quartoporte faces: the competition is so widely varied and with companies like Audi churning out S and RS Q models, Porsche pushing its Cayenne and a widening selection of Range Rovers, there's a lot of choices, some higher quality, some higher performance and some more practical in this highly fluid SUV category.
What the Maserati succeeds in doing is making an alternative choice: there will likely never be a shortage of Audi Q5 or BMW X5s on the road, and this Maserati is there for people who want something different.
Maserati Levante: Everyday tech
With that in mind, the Levante interior finds itself filled with familiar technologies, many that haven't been offered on a Maserati so readily. There's an effective blind spot warning and lane departure system. There's collision warning, emergency braking, adaptive cruise control and so on. Dealing with that slight lack of visibility, there's also 360-degree cameras and parking sensors, to make sure you don't drive into that low wall in the Waitrose carpark, as well as the option for a kick sensor for the boot so you can easily get your shopping in.
There's also a central touchscreen controller for your media, satnav and other car systems. It's been designed to be familiar for users coming from other systems, offering both touch and rotary dials, although we don't quite have the confidence in its user interface that we do for BMW or Audi systems. It's easy enough to use, but doesn't quite have the sophistication and maturity of some of its bigger brand rivals. It is responsive to the touch, but you sometimes have to dig a little deep to get to something, like the passenger's heated seat for example.
There are choices for a range of interior packages, with a leaning towards luxe or sport, and we found the interior to be comfortable and reasonably quiet when underway - despite all the water on the roads. The seats are comfortable and there's enough space in the rear, although the centre rear might be a bit of a squeeze for a fully grown adult.
Choosing the Luxury pack (£5,950) brings some cost advantages over the individual elements it offers, as well has giving you some upgrades that can't be found on the options list and offers you a higher quality finish in the interior, while the Sport pack gives you things like the shifters and aluminium pedals for more of a racing look and feel.
But with all that said, the Maserati Levante does elevate itself above many other SUVs that it rivals. As wonderful or as technically proficient as many of them might be, some are getting very commonplace.
If nothing else, then that's what the Maserati Levante offers. It's an alternative that sits in the luxury segment, flying the flag for a smaller brand with heritage. It’s a car that, on first impressions, does have a few quirks, but it is interesting, and if you're looking at spending £55k on an SUV, that's important.
Our time with the Maserati Levante was a little limited and we can't profess to having driven it in anger on the road. What we can say is that as much as we don't think the Levante will worry the luxe SUV segment's leaders, we can't help liking it.