Maserati’s new luxury SUV transforms from hot rod to off-roading beast

We tested out this Transformer-like car in an Italian quarry and an airport.

Maserati
The car sure-footedly descended from what felt like a cliff’s edge.Maserati

A turbocharged, Ferrari-built 590-horsepower 3.8-liter V8 engine makes the Levante Trofeo the most powerful production Maserati in the company’s storied history. The $169,980 vehicle is also the most exclusive, thanks to the availability of 400,000 option combinations, plus Maserati’s available personalization program.

For the uninitiated, Maserati is one of Italy’s old’s exotic car brands, founded in 1914 as an engineering company; it’s been building sexy Italian automobiles since 1926. Today, it is one brand in the Fiat Chrysler Automobiles group, alongside its neighbor, Ferrari. The two companies cooperate on technology, and Maserati relies on Ferrari for its cars’ V8 engines.

Sales of 55,000 Levantes since the car’s launch in 2016 make it the best-selling Maserati ever. And its crossover SUV body style, and sophisticated all-wheel drive system, make it the most capable off-road Maserati ever, too. Active suspension, computer-controlled all-wheel drive and turbo power let the Levante Trofeo transform between an Italian hot rod and an off-roading beast literally by pushing a button. By switching modes, the vehicle will move from having 6.9 inches of clearance all the way up 9.85 inches.

Off-roading

We put this vehicle to the test in a quarry outside the company’s Modena, Italy headquarters, where the rip-snorting, track-ready Levante Trofeo crawled effortlessly up absurdly steep inclines, rolled over blind crests, and sure-footedly descended from what felt like a cliff’s edge with the security of electronic hill descent control.

The Trofeo’s V8 engine is derived from the one seen previously in Maerati’s flagship Quattroporte GTS sedan. Revised turbocharger impellers boost airflow, while higher-lift camshafts and freer-flowing valves let the air from those turbos blow through the engine more efficiently. A reprogrammed engine management computer wrings the most out of this new hardware to produce the Trofeo’s 590 horsepower.

The turbo V8 drives all four wheels through a new 8-speed automatic transmission from the German specialist ZF. The Q4 Intelligent All-Wheel Drives sends 100 percent of the power to the rear wheels under most circumstances, lending the Levante Trofeo the lively rear-drive steering response fans expect of a Maserati. It only diverts power to the front when needed—like when you’ve foolishly decided to drive in a quarry.

Maserati
The launch control system works in concert with the all-wheel drive to produce 0-60 mph runs of 3.9 seconds.Maserati

At the airport

Tasking the front tires with handling both steering force and engine power means splitting the available traction between them. The result is that when driving fast on the street, the steering can be more sluggish, as more steering wheel angle is needed to get the same result. That’s why the Trofeo avoids sending power to the front wheels if it can.

Slicing through the mountains outside Modena, the Levante delivers on the promise of its Italian sports car heritage, with crisp turn-in and powerful cornering grip that combine to provide spirited driving without the drama that could be expected of a vehicle that is technically an SUV.

Power does go to the front wheels when performing drag-race-style acceleration runs at the Modena airport, where we were able to experience the Trofeo’s launch control system that works in concert with the all-wheel drive to produce 0-60 mph runs of 3.9 seconds.

Switch the Levante’s drive mode to “Corsa,” (Normal, Sport, Ice, and Off-Road modes are also available) and the Skyhook active suspension crouches down from an SUV-spec 8.25 inches to a more car-like 6.9 inches. In Off-Road mode, the Levante rises to a quarry-conquering 9.85 inches of ground clearance.

Corsa mode quickens the transmission's response, dropping average shift times from 230 milliseconds to 150. Keep your foot down after the acceleration run, and the Trofeo will top 186 mph, making this Levante fully compliant with the Maserati requirements laid out in the classic Joe Walsh song, Life is Good. ("My Maserati goes one-eighty-five. I lost my license, now I don't drive.")

The party comes to an efficiently quick end thanks to the six-piston Brembo front brake calipers squeezing monstrous 380 mm front rotors, with 330 mm rotors at the rear. The anti-lock brake software is recalibrated for the V8 to permit a little sportier response.

Channeling all of this accelerative and decelerative power to the tarmac is Maserati’s first-ever set of 22-inch forged aluminum wheels mounted with Continental’s SportContact6 tires for peak performance from tires that can withstand the Trofeo’s 4,784-pound mass. Rapid driving through switchbacks demonstrated that the tires are up to the task, a reality made all the more astounding by their simultaneous ability to claw the Levante up rocky inclines.

The driver gets to appreciate these capabilities from inside a lavish cabin. Classic Maseratis had nice-looking leather-wrapped cockpits that were frequently assembled with evident indifference. And while they looked great, those classic Italian cars’ interiors were burdened with ridiculous ergonomics that required drivers to steer from the bottom edge of a forward-tilted steering wheel.

Not so in the Levante. Its control placement and seating feel similar to the layout of its Jeep Grand Cherokee corporate cousin, from which the Levante borrows fundamental underpinnings.

Ultimately, unlike the original Levante V6, which fell decidedly short of the Maserati legend in terms of performance, the Trofeo is indeed a true Maserati—as befits the most powerful and best-selling production car in Maserati’s history.