When you think Maserati, you probably think if its thoroughbred Italian racing heritage, the glamour and slick sports car lines. You might not think about it in beefier SUV form, but that's exactly what you get in the new Maserati Levante: it's heritage with added hench.

The Levante is plenty strong enough to eat up the Cotswolds - as we found out in our first drive of the car, slipping through the mud during a particularly sodden period in the UK - but also controlled enough to eat up the Italian alps for dessert - with slush, ice and all - as we found out on a later trip to explore its on-road and on-ice capabilities.

Good job the Levante delivers the company's Q4 all-wheel-drive setup: the computer-guided system that's clever enough to transfer power distribution to any wheel in just 100-milliseconds for precision response. Indeed, we had no spinning on the ice - something we've managed more than a few times before in tricksier rear-wheel drive roadsters (yes, Toyota GT86, we're looking at you).

So does Maserati have what it takes to outsmart the Audi Q5, Porsche Macan, BMW X5, et al, or has this first SUV attempt slipped off course?

Maserati says that the Levante brings a completeness to the family of cars it offers. Not everyone is in the market for a Ghibli. So what better than a Ghibli on steroids? That's rather what the Levante looks like; it's sports car-like in its appearance, with bigger shoulder blades, sat higher - much higher if you adjust the on-board air suspension for its off-road mode.

Pocket-lintmaserati levante review image 4

Many will look at the way that Porsche, Bentley, Lamborghini and others that 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 lifestyle choice without sacrificing the brand values that sit at the heart of some of our best-loved cars.

Maserati has retained the visual identity that sees the Levante undoubtedly come across as a Maserati. The seriousness of, say, Maserati's GrandTurismo is reflected here, albeit on a bigger scale. The result is a rather long bonnet, scowling lights flanking a snarling grille to the front, centred around 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 and rear quarter badging. 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.

Pocket-lintmaserati levante review image 5

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: because it's not actually that big.

But the Levante isn't about challenging the Discovery with a cavernous rear. The Levante is all about doing SUV in Maserati style.

The Levante interior doesn't immediately scream luxury though. Even with the carbon inserts of our test model there's just something a little, almost, "spotty" about the way it all fits together. We can't quite put our finger on it.

However, it's 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.

Pocket-lintmaserati levante interior image 2

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 (it's the same as you'll find in Jeep, Fiat and throughout the FCA's (the parent company) wider range), 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.

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 grit 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 aforementioned shifters and aluminium pedals for more of a racing look and feel (as shown in our pictures). Still, it's a fair lump of extra cash to be paying.

Pocket-lintmaserati levante interior image 14

There's also on-board audio, which can be provided by Bowers & Wilkins. Thing is, even this upgraded system doesn't sound well balanced, particularly powerful or bass-heavy (there's no sub). We spent a lot of time tweaking the settings to obtain an optimum sound but were always disappointed: it's not a patch of the (admittedly hyper-expensive) Bang & Olufsen system that you can buy into an Audi. Shame.

Maserati's aim in the Levante was to produce a car that would drive like a Maserati on the road, but be happy wallowing in the mud or skirting over ice too. As we say, it adopts the Q4 all-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.

Pocket-lintmaserati levante interior image 10

This system works in tandem with driving modes from Maserati's Skyhook system - Normal, Sport, Offroad and ICE (increased control and efficiency). This system uses engine, gearing, stability and the all-wheel components to give you the best setup for the type of driving you're doing. It's easy to reach, each mode defined by an individual button down the centre reservation, signalling its action in the driver's side display to confirm which mode is selected.

There's also an air suspension system that offers a lot of travel, riding at 210mm high normally, but also 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) or even higher for particularly taxing experiences in Offroad mode.

Sitting under the hood of the Levante is a 275bhp V6 3.0-litre diesel engine, the same you'll find in Ghibli and Quattroporte, that will whisk you to 62mph in 6.9 seconds.

Pocket-lintmaserati levante review image 6

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, like the Porsche Macan Turbo.

Not that on twisty, icy roads or soaking, muddy fields have we had much chance to see the Levante hurtle along. We've let that V6 diesel kick in while scooting along the Italian highway, quickly arriving at top-limit speeds while feeling like we were travelling far slower. It's got that deceptively casual feel at high speeds.

Put your foot down and there's that reassuring purr, too, but the Levante isn't a noisy drive - it's mostly quiet and refined, in that luxe fashion, save for Sports mode which sits in lower gearing and growls a lot more to remind you you're driving a pumped-up sports car.

Shame the multi-plate clutch and auto gearbox don't ride especially well, though. The Levante feels somewhat choppy in its auto changes, lacking smoothness at lower speeds. It's rapid to respond in Sports mode, but still a little jumpy.

Pocket-lintmaserati levante review image 9

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. Sporty, sure.

We also had an issue with the in-car computer system having an issue with the left brakes, causing a "rumbling" issue when turning right and braking at lower speeds. Perhaps that's the Italian charm right there. (Maserati points out this was of no safety consequence whatsoever).

Overall, however, the Levante's main difficulty is its surrounding competition. With companies like Audi churning out S and RS Q models, Porsche pushing its Macan Turbo, and a widening selection of Range Rovers, there are a lot of choices to contemplate. Some being that touch more responsive and smoother with the gearing, others more performance focused. The Levante has sporty looks, but isn't the pinnacle of sporty performance for an SUV.

Pocket-lintmaserati levante review image 3

What Maserati succeeds in doing is offering the alternative choice: there will likely never be a shortage of Audi Q5 or BMW X5s on the road, so the Levante is a showy, stylish alternative choice.

It's off the main road and into the other Offroad and ICE settings that we get a sense of what the Levante can do that Maserati's other cars quite simply cannot.

Pocket-lintmaserati levante review image 17

We got 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 and no issues were to be had... except for some very splattered paintwork.

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. Raising the suspension - actioned by using the toggle switch to the centre reservation in the car - can be clearly seen from the exterior. It gives the car a whole different look, like it's on stilts.

No one really expects this Maserati to be a rival to the Range Rover's off-road skills, though, and the likelihood is that the Levante won't find itself being set to task in those conditions too often. Saying that, if you do find yourself off-road then the Levante certainly offers more control and handling than some softer crossover cars - it's really rather capable.

maserati levante review image 13

And we more than ventured off-road. Indeed, we got to throw the Levante around a private snow and ice track, testing out the various modes and how the Q4 system responds. In its ICE mode you can physically feel the car making adjustments, refusing to let the back slide anywhere; slip over to Sport and the power distribution differs for more leeway to get some extra slip and slide out of the car - but still not to uncontrollable levels - to keep things in check.

Only a mad person would switch off all the tracking controls. We didn't dare.

Verdict

When Porsche first pushed into the SUV market many looked at the company's new cars with a chorus of "what the heck are you doing?". But look how that turned out: the Macan and Cayenne are now the backbone of the German brand. Who'd have thought it, eh?

Indeed, with the global luxury market hitting one million sales per year, and SUV sales accounting for 50 per cent of that, Maserati couldn't sit by idly and not enter the space. With the Levante it's done so successfully, in a very Maserati sentiment that's worthy of the badge.

Not that it can be all about sales and money. You think Maserati and you think Italian - and that's meant to conjure images of passion, of good looks, of desire. Will the Levante prove to be desirable? For its standout looks and Italian personality, yes, it surely will.

It might not surpass its nearby Audi, BMW or Porsche competition - but to buy one of those cars these days comes with a complementary bleating sheep. Maserati is all out on its own here and despite some drawbacks it has a standout quality that those other German models lack.