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2019 Maserati Levante GTS: Heart of gold

Roadshow logo Roadshow 4 days ago Steven Ewing
a car parked on the side of a road© Steven Ewing/Roadshow  

The Maserati Levante was never supposed to have a V8. Like its Ghibli sedan sibling, Maserati's SUV was only slated to use V6 power, in 345- and 424-horsepower states of tune. But some crafty Italians decided to see if the Quattroporte GTS' 3.8-liter V8 could fit under the SUV's hood, and presto, the 550-horsepower Levante GTS and 590-horsepower Trofeo were born.

This Ferrari-built V8 feels right at home in Maser's midsize SUV. And after a week of testing a GTS model in and around Los Angeles, I can't imagine buying a Levante without it.

a close up of a motorcycle: 2019 Maserati Levante GTS© Provided by CBS Interactive Inc. 2019 Maserati Levante GTS

V8, v great

I'm eager to test the more powerful Levante Trofeo, but as it stands, I have no complaints about the GTS' 550 horsepower and 538 pound-feet of torque. Maserati quotes a 0-to-60 mile-per-hour time of 4 seconds flat, and hard acceleration is accompanied by the sort of sonorous wail you'd expect from an eight-cylinder engine made in Maranello.

Lovely as the big, steering column-mounted paddle shifters are to use, I prefer to let the Levante choose its own adventure. Shifts are buttery smooth while cruising, or sharp and precise when running with aggression. Go easy on the throttle and the eight-speed automatic will shift with efficiency in mind, and you might hit the EPA-estimated highway fuel economy rating of 18 miles per gallon. But if you're like me, and you spend every waking moment provoking the engine to sing the song of its people, you'll see numbers far closer to the 14-mpg city rating -- if not less.

Not gonna lie, I was kind of expecting the Levante GTS to be a one-trick pony of straight-line brute force. But an afternoon romp in the canyons near my default photo shoot location revealed otherwise. With the GTS in its Sport setting, the air suspension lowers, the dampers get stiffer and the steering wheel adds a nice helping of heft to its action. Don't get me wrong, this is still a high-riding, 4,784-pound SUV, but it's no slouch along the winding roads of California's Angeles National Forest. The SUV pitches and dives under braking, but the stoppers themselves -- carryover Brembo units from the Levante S -- stay strong. There's appropriate amounts of body roll when cornering hard, but the optional Pirelli P Zero tires offer tremendous grip.

The GTS comes standard with 20-inch wheels, but you can option 21s (as seen on my test car) or even 22s. I was initially worried that the upmarket 21s would ruin the ride quality over poorly surfaces Los Angeles city streets, but happily, the adaptive suspension does a nice job of softening up to filter out pavement imperfections when you're just running errands around town. And unlike fellow Italian hot-ute Alfa Romeo Stelvio Quadrifoglio, the Levante GTS isn't a herky-jerky mess when you're just trying to get through the Target parking lot. The throttle, brakes and transmission all settle down and behave like perfect gentlemen. The Levante GTS is not an always-on beast that you constantly have to tame.

Having spent some time in Porsche's third-generation 2019 Cayenne Turbo, my gut says it's the SUV I'd pick for spirited drives. Its chassis has better overall balance, and its steering is a little more direct. Land Rover'sRange Rover Sport SVR is another good option, with its own blend of ripsnorting V8 grunt, but the Maserati feels tighter and nimbler when pushed hard. I'd also be remiss not to mention Maserati's corporate stablemate, the Jeep Grand Cherokee, which in 707-horsepower Trackhawk guise is a full $30,000 less than the $119,980 starting MSRP of the Levante GTS, and shares a lot of the same interior switchgear and tech.

a car parked on the side of a road: 2019 Maserati Levante GTS© Provided by CBS Interactive Inc. 2019 Maserati Levante GTS

High lux, but a little too familiar

It's no secret that a lot of the Levante's interior is made up of Fiat-Chrysler parts bin equipment. If you've ever sat in a Grand Cherokee, you'll recognize the turn signal stalk, engine start button, headlight controls, window switches and various items on the center stack. Other plastic panels and stylized bits of trim -- like the high-gloss carbon fiber on the center console -- don't feel all that premium, either. So much of this cabin just feels like it's been ripped from an SRT-badged Jeep.

But that's not to say the Levante isn't comfortable and luxurious. Fine leather trims the sport seats, which come standard with heating and ventilation. A soft Alcantara headliner looks nice above my head, and the aforementioned shift paddles are finished in aluminum, and feel great against my fingertips. Passengers in both rows of seats have ample accommodations, with lots of head- and legroom, even for taller folks.

When pressed into cargo-hauling SUV duty, the Levante is plenty able, with 21 cubic feet of space behind the rear seats, or 57 cubic feet with the back bench folded. That said, thanks to their more upright shapes, the Land Rover Range Rover Sport and Porsche Cayenne offer more capacious boots. Something to consider if you need to routinely need to haul while hauling ass.

a close up of a motorcycle: 2019 Maserati Levante GTS© Provided by CBS Interactive Inc. 2019 Maserati Levante GTS

Uconnect tech

As Andrew Krok said in his recent Maserati Ghibli review, "borrowed tech is good tech." I can't fault Maserati for using parent company FCA's Uconnect infotainment system -- with its large icons, colorful graphics and fast response times, it's a system that's super easy and intuitive to use.

Embedded navigation is standard, as well as Android Auto, Apple CarPlay and a 14-speaker Harman Kardon premium audio system. A bevy of driver assistance tech, on the other hand, is all bundled in a $1,590 driver assistance package that includes adaptive cruise control, blind spot monitoring, lane-keeping assist, a 360-degree camera, forward collision warning and traffic sign recognition. It's certainly not unheard of for luxury automakers to charge extra for these optional extras (looking at you, Porsche), but at $120,000 to start, it seems weird to upsell this safety tech.

How I'd spec it

Still, at $119,980, the Levante GTS comes really nicely equipped. I also love the GTS-specific design elements like the body-colored front splitter and matte black rear diffuser surround. In fact, I think the Levante is one of the best-looking Maserati products, full stop. And considering how gorgeous the Ghibli and Quattroporte are, that's saying something.

I'd paint my Levante GTS in Blu Emozione, and have the interior done up in Cuoio brown leather. From there, I'll take a set of 21-inch, gloss black wheels ($1,800), the aforementioned driver assistance package ($1,590) and the optional matrix LED headlights ($1,890; bi-xenon lamps come standard). That puts my perfect GTS at $125,260, which isn't a huge step up from the model's base MSRP.

a car parked on the side of a road: 2019 Maserati Levante GTS© Provided by CBS Interactive Inc. 2019 Maserati Levante GTS

A worthy contender

$120 large is a lot of money, but not absurd when you consider the competitive set. A Porsche Cayenne Turbo starts at $124,600, the Range Rover Sport SVR comes in at $113,600 and the outgoing Mercedes-AMG GLE63 S costs $109,700. Again, it's the Jeep Grand Cherokee Trackhawk that really offers the best value comparison, to me, with more power, and the same switchgear and tech, for $86,200.

The one thing these other cars don't have, however, is a Maserati Trident on the nose. And while you can come to your own conclusion about what that really means these days, the truth is, for luxury buyers, the Maserati name still carries huge panache.

But unlike the Ghibli, the Levante is not just a good car in a class of great offerings. Thanks to its new V8 heart, the Levante GTS stands tall with the best performance SUVs from around the world. And to think, it wasn't even supposed to happen.

Research the Maserati Levante on MSN Autos >>

This was originally published on Roadshow.

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