What has been an otherwise hot and dry summer turned into a storm of almost biblical proportions as I headed up to the M1 Concourse near Pontiac, Michigan for a chance to check out the latest products from Maserati and sibling Italian brand Alfa Romeo. But almost as if on cue, the rain clouds briefly parted when I was handed the keys to the new Maserati Levante GTS for some lap time on the tight and twisty circuit.
There were plenty of skeptics when Maserati announced plans to get into the SUV game – as there were when Porsche revealed similar plans a decade earlier. But the Levante won over most of those naysayers when it made its debut two years ago, initially offering two versions powered by a twin-turbo 3.0-liter V-6. The GTS turns things up a notch.
The latest version of Maserati’s first-ever sport-utility vehicle is, certainly on paper, an impressive piece of machinery, thrumming out 550 horsepower and 538 pound-feet of torque from its 3.8-liter twin-turbo V-6 – just a slight bit less than the Levante Trofeo first unveiled at the New York Auto Show last spring. That’s enough to launch the GTS from 0 to 60 in just 4 seconds – and to take a broadside at the Porsche Cayenne Turbo, destined to be its most direct competitor.
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Considering the storm, it was far from clear I’d get any track time, but as the clouds briefly parted I quickly strapped on my helmet and buckled myself into the Levante GTS’s sumptuously trimmed and well-bolstered sport seat.
Normally, I’d have been disappointed to discover I’d be heading out on a lead-and-follow run. Typically, that means doddering along at a speed well below what a vehicle like the Maserati ute could handle. But this time, the man behind the wheel of the first car was Andrea Bertolini, the Italian marque’s lead test driver.
As we lined up along pit row, Bertolini hit the throttle and launched onto the 1.6-mile circuit, giving me little option but to go balls-to-the-wall and hope to keep up. The M1 is a tight and highly technical track, so holding the best line demands a lot from both man and machine. There’s also relatively little run-off, and even a minor mistake could have left me trying to explain why I’d dinged one of only a handful of GTS prototypes currently in existence.
But the Levante proved more than up to the task. Despite the dampness of the pavement, it maintained a confidence-inspiring grip on the tarmac. Give much of the credit to the SUV’s Q4 Intelligent All-Wheel-Drive system which normally biases torque to the rear wheels. But under aggressive driving – and slick pavement – conditions it can all but instantly shift power front and back, while also using its rear limited-slip differential and torque vectoring to counter the normal AWD tendency to push into corners.
One lap after another, Bertolini continued turning up the heat, even as the rain returned and the track quickly puddled up, shaving time while demonstrating the Levante’s ability to perform like a classic Maserati sports car.
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If there were still doubters left, the debut of the GTS and the even more powerful Levante Trofeo should win them over. Compared to that $170,000 monster, the 2019 Maserati Levante GTS is a relative bargain, at $119,980 – plus delivery fees. That’s about $5,000 less than the Porsche Cayenne Turbo which, not so coincidentally, also makes 550 horsepower.
The Maserati, meanwhile, has an ever-so-slight weight advantage over the German ute, at 4,784 pounds versus 4,796 for the Cayenne. That gives it an eye-popping power-to-weight ratio of 8.6:1.If that’s not enough, potential buyers will likely be advised that the twin-turbo powerplant under Levante’s hood – which can propel the SUV to a top speed of 181 mph — was provided by Ferrari, as will all Maserati powertrains going forward.
“We’re positioned dead-on against the Cayenne Turbo,” boasted Tim Kuniskis, the head of the Maserati and Alfa Romeo brands.
Visually, the Levante is the more handsome and modern of the two, its design clearly meant to carry over classic Maserati design cues, including the familiar portholes on the front quarter panel, as well as the trident logo on Levante’s concave waterfall grille – which, on the GTS is black-trimmed.
The GTS adds a few other subtle design tweaks to the earlier Levante models, including a larger lower air damn, 22-inch wheels and tires and, inside, carbon fiber trim – including the shifter paddles. The gearshift lever for the ZF eight-speed automatic itself has been redesigned for 2019 on all Maserati models to adopt a more intuitive shift pattern, incidentally.
The GTS also adopts some of the changes developed for the Levante Trofeo, including the stiffened and retuned chassis and upgraded Sport Skyhook adaptive damping system. The air spring suspension now has six different heights, which can raise or lower it by as much as 3 inches, depending on driver input and driving conditions.
There’ve been upgrades to onboard electronics, as well, including the infotainment system.
We were asked to hang tight before posting on our first drive of the 2019 Maserati Levante GTS until it made its official public debut at the Goodwood Festival of Speed. Expect to see it roll into U.S. showrooms by the official start of the 2019 model-year.
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