Jaco van der Merwe
Head of Motoring
4 minute read
19 Jun 2019
10:48 am

Maserati for the middle class

Jaco van der Merwe

When car manufacturers list POA in the price column, it usually means those models are so expensive that 99.999% of the population won’t be able to afford them anyway, so why bother advertising a number that will only be a surreal figure for discussion around office water coolers? But this longstanding policy by Maserati has left the Italian luxury carmaker in a bit of a fix.

While their most expensive products are still for only the richest of the rich, it does offer affordable options for people who don’t have a Lear jet. At just a tad over R1.5 million, their recently launched Levante 350 is a worthy competitor to other luxury SUV offerings from Porsche, Land Rover, BMW and Mercedes-Benz.

“Price has always been an issue when it comes to the brand and people’s perceptions dictate to them that you can’t buy a new Maserati for under R4 million,” says Marc de St Pern, Operations Manager at Maserati South Africa.

“We are trying to change people’s perceptions in that regard and can back it up with the introduction of the Levante 350. We believe it is well priced compared to others and also offers features some of the others don’t have.”

In an added effort to showcase the Levante to prospective buyers, European Automotive Imports South Africa, the official local Maserati importers, launched a new certified advanced driver training programme. The aim is to help Maserati enthusiasts perfect their driving skills on the road, while getting a hands-on experience of the Levante or the Ghibli, the brand’s luxury sports sedan. And in line with the brand’s exclusivity, these programmes are by invitation only.

“This unique and newly launched programme allows drivers to experience the thrill that comes with getting behind the wheel of a Maserati. “This programme also allows participants to develop their skills both on and off-road, regardless of their ability or experience,” says De St Pern.

Last week, Maserati gave a small group of motoring media a glimpse of their Levante SUV Experience Event held at Gerotek Test Track outside Brits with the opportunity try out the Levante 350 and the Levante S, which is priced at just over R1.9-million.

Both models sport a 3.0-litre twin turbo V6 Ferrari engine, with mapping and a different exhaust system giving the S slightly more bite than the 350. The S produces 316kW of power and 580Nm of torque, with the tuned-down powertrain in the 350 slotting in at 257kW and 500Nm, both delivering power to all four wheels though an eight-speed ZF torque-converter automatic transmission.

Apart from the expected high levels of craftsmanship found in the interior, like the superb leather seats, the optional Bowers & Wilkins surround sound system and the added comfort of the air suspension making handling extremely easy, the undoubted highlight of driving the Levante was the noise generated from the exhaust.

Knowing how passionate Italians can be when it comes to perfecting their craft, I’m pretty much convinced that somewhere deep inside the design lab at headquarters is an isolated sound room where engineers and orchestra conductors brainstorm on a regular basis to perfect the tune of the stupendous roar accompanying rapid acceleration. And they don’t break for ravioli and latte before the perfect notes are recorded. And as if the Levante’s roar isn’t impressive enough when one turns the ignition on, the meaner growl resulting from activating the sports mode is really addictive.

Every racing car-like gearshift is pure harmony and even vibrates enough under the rear seats to thrill the passengers too. Another improvement the Levante underwent during it’s recent update is found on the gear flaps at the back of the steering wheel, which was enlarged after consumer feedback.

I did not personally experience the previous ones, but the new flaps are huge and made of metal and it gives you heaps of confidence holding those large chunks at your fingertips, ready to induce the distinctive sound through a gear change. Although Maserati is the first to admit the Levante isn’t an out-and-out off-road vehicle, it doesn’t mean the car can’t hold its own when venturing off the tarmac.

That is evident going up and down rather steep gradients at Gerotek, with the Hill Descent Control with speed setting making light work of going down the slope nose or tail first.

But the real excitement of the Gerotek programme is getting a feel for the car’s capabilities in the skidpan and on the high speed oval, where going around on the upper slope of the track at 200km/h could sway quite a lot of potential clientele into towards the Maserati brand. Without having to sell the yacht.

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