It’s 1975. Maserati is the byword for quirky Italian exotica, with a suite of products that rivals or even exceeds the cars created by its fellow countrymen at Ferrari and Lamborghini. The Modena-based company prides itself on building mid-engined machines of rakish beauty and throaty prowess, as well as the occasional coupe of unrivalled beauty. With a genuine customer base of princes and playboys, Maserati was Italian industrial royalty, created for the global elite.

Who would have thought that thirty years later, the famous Maserati trident would be appended to this front of this titanic 4x4? The new Levante belongs to a category of car that scarcely existed back in the 70s, save for a sharply creased but rather agricultural vehicle known as the Range Rover. Today, its descendants have achieved almost total dominance over the European car market, from chunkily styled ‘crossovers’ through to luxurious Sport Utility Vehicles that now crown the line-ups (and sales charts) of almost every upscale manufacturer, from Porsche through to Lexus, Jaguar and Bentley.

In some respects Maserati is rather late to the SUV party. The Levante started life as a concept car, the Kubang, way back in 2011 and you can be sure that the product planners had been badgering the designers for many years before that. The simple truth is that, right now, SUVs sell and are wildly (by car-making standing) profitable. The not so simple truth is that SUVs by their very nature were once seen at odds with the values and ethos of sports or luxury manufacturers.

Ermenegildo Zegna has partnered with Maserati to further enrich the Levante experience. As an additional option, the finest leather is combined with natural fibre Zegna Mulberry Silk inserts on the seats, door panels, roof lining, sunshades and ceiling light fixture

That ship has long-since sailed. Porsche proved unequivocally with the Cayenne that a well-executed SUV doesn’t need to tarnish a brand, hence the pile on that subsequently followed. So the Levante has showed up with Maserati’s halo largely intact, despite being bigger and far more imposing than the Quattroporte could ever hope to be. In the diesel iteration we tested, it’s not exactly sporting, either, begging the question of what Maserati actually means to a modern audience. A few minutes behind the wheel, however, and the answer comes back; it means presence, with a little soupcon of perversity.

Despite the absence of a raucous exhaust note, à la GranTurismo, it’s impossible to drive the Levante without being noticed. The diesel gives a meaty warble, but nothing too ostentatious in this era of burgeoning diesel allergy, and the lofty driving position makes it easier (although not ideal) to position the car in traffic. The dashboard is the usual confection of ergonomic idiosyncrasy and deliberate eccentricity; Maserati has been shoehorning an incongruous clock into their dashboards for decades – it’s other companies who have copied them.

But despite the shortcomings, there’s luxury afoot with the leather and carpet, the generous number of features and the simple pleasure of being insulated from the world outside. And while the car’s systems are markedly different from the increasingly slick interfaces offered by rivals, it works just as well and soon becomes second nature. We’d opt for bigger wheels than on the test car as they’d enhance its proportions and profile, but the overall flow from trident-bearing grille to rear screen is handled with aplomb.

And that’s the Levante’s greatest strength. Like its more sporting siblings, it is a car that stands aloof and detached from its rivals. For a start, it couldn’t be less Germanic if it tried and for Maserati fans, that’s a genuine blessing. The Levante won’t win prizes as the very best looking or the fastest SUV on the market, but for its role as challenger to the status quo. 

RELATED TOPICS: TRANSPORT, CARS, ITALIAN DESIGN