Maserati, as a brand, is an institution, but Maserati as an everyday luxury alternative to BMW, Mercedes-Benz or Porsche is barely on anyone’s radar. I spent some time playing with the Italian automaker’s mass-appeal options to see what you’re missing.
(Full disclosure: Maserati wanted me to drive the Quattroporte, the Ghibli and the Levante so badly that it flew me to the northern Italian Alps, paid for my hotel and all of my food and alcohol. Ironically, I didn’t get to drive all that much.)
Maserati’s lineup currently has four cars: The sporty, ancient (but still lovely) GranTurismo, the moneymaking Levante crossover and the Quattroporte and Ghibli sedans. My trip to Italy basically amounted to a line drive of its current offerings, minus the GT. There were no new models, just some new features on the existing ones.
And with a plethora is other luxury cars to choose from, why would anyone buy a Maserati in 2018? I went and found out.
The Levante, Maserati’s SUV offering that went on sale in 2016, was definitely slated to be the brand’s cash cow. It was the automaker’s response to the SUVpocalypse and it bet right: Maserati sold 13,697 cars in 2017 and 5,448 of them were Levantes.
The Levante is a large, luxury SUV. If you get it in the GranLusso trim, you can order an interior upholstered with faaancy Ermenegildo Zegna silk. It’s pretty nice. The rest of the interior leathers are buttery and smooth and the seats supportive. The column-mounted shift paddles pull with a nice, substantive action.
On smaller roads through Italian towns, the SUV felt massive. The lanes seemed too tight for it and it towered over most other cars. This probably won’t be a problem in the U.S., however. Sitting inside, I felt absolutely cocooned in it. I could see out the front fine, but could barely see behind it because the C-pillars are quite fat and the rear window is quite small.
Good thing, then, that the 2018 Levantes are finally equipped with things like highway assist, lane keeping assist, active blind spot assist and traffic sign recognition. Have other cars had these features for literally years? Yes, definitely. But at least you can now consider the Levante modern.
The thing with these big, sporty SUVs is that the engineers can try to work all kinds of magic with the suspension and the chassis, but they just can’t mask the physics of it. Beneath your fingers and your buttocks, the Levante still feels like a large, hulking machine with a lot of weight to throw around, even though the electronically assisted steering did sharpen up at speed. But then, because the wheels are so big, you can still feel its mass around the corners.
Maserati also offered some ice and snow driving during the trip, where it carved out a snow track for us to try out. On my first pass, I tentatively kept the traction control on, which resulted in a very wooden experience: The car stodgily refused to get up to any sort of misbehaving.
But as soon as I turned it off, it was like the Levante got home from a long day and finally got to take off its work pants. The rear flicked out so much more willingly, turns became loopier and generally more fun. With the all-wheel drive system, the Levante was planted as hell in the snow, attacking the uneven surface with a kind of abandon that was frankly surprising for a car that usually markets itself as an unsmiling, serious pleb-flattener.
Are any actual Levante owners ever going to drive their cars off-road and on snow courses, at speed, with the traction control off? Probably not, or at least, not many of them. But I can tell you that if you do, the experience will go beyond just fine. It’ll be fun.
Actually, the everyday Levante experience you want is the aural one. As with the GranTurismo MC we tested last fall, a Maserati’s sound is perhaps its most defining quality. The Levante S that I tested had the 3.0-liter twin-turbo V6, mated to a snappy (and decisively not Italian) ZF eight-speed automatic with 430 horsepower. This by itself is good, but putting it in Sport mode is what makes it great.
Once the car is in Sport mode, the exhaust valves open up, magical things happen and the raspy scream of an Italian V6 rips its claws everywhere from your earholes to God’s front door. It cracks and snaps between shifts, making the long runs through the many tunnels snaking through the Alps events rather than chores.
If you ever stumble across some form of a Levante/tunnel combination, my advice is to drop that sucker down a few gears and floor it with the windows down. You’ll burn gas like there’s no tomorrow, but, come on. You’re in a Levante. You don’t care about gas bills.
My overall impression of a Maserati Quattroporte had been that maybe someone’s dad I knew once drove one. The car had always exuded a sense of stuffy maturity to me. Still though, I was excited to drive it because it I had never driven one before and Maserati had the GTS available, which is the one with the V8.
Never pass up an opportunity to drive a V8. That’s my motto.
Unfortunately, the V8 option isn’t offered with all-wheel drive, but with a set of snow tires on it the GTS can make it up and down a snowy mountain without much of a complaint. Just do it gently. It has that brilliant ZF eight-speed auto, paired to a 3.8-liter twin-turbo eight with 530 HP.
Though we took it up a snaking mountain road, and we made it back down again without dying (or worse, injuring the car), I really wouldn’t recommend traipsing about tight roads in a Quattroporte. It’s a large thing (207.2 inches long, 76.7 inches wide) and it’s not one of those cars that shrinks around you when you start driving. It’s best suited for larger roads, like the average American suburban streets.
The best place to enjoy the Quattroporte is on the highway. It’s such a comfortable cruiser that you almost don’t feel the miles ticking by. You’d almost forget about the V8 sitting behind its nose, too—almost, because if you’re riding in sport mode and you slam your foot down on the gas, the gearbox drops down by a few cogs and all 530 HP rip your face toward the horizon.
And you’ll do it in such luxury, too. Silk-trimmed seats. Nice leather. It’s the same story as in the Levante. The wood paneling is a little old-fashioned for my taste, but I’m sure there are other trims available. I appreciated that the infotainment screen was located in the console, instead of slapped on top of it.
Strangely though, the GTS didn’t sound as loud or crackly as the Levante. But I guess if you’re a more distinguished human than me—a Youth who likes loud noises and brashness—then the Quattroporte is the burly, understated and mature member of the Maserati family.
And for flying under the radar, that’s ideal. From the outside, anyone who didn’t know better would just see a big sedan. Visually, it really isn’t that obvious that this is a 500-plus HP car. In fact, as I’m writing this right now, I realize that I had forgotten that the GTS has 530 HP and, in remembering it again, I was filled with the same joy that you get when you find a forgotten 20 bucks in your pants.
But that’s just how it is with the Quattroporte GTS: The power and the engine are afterthoughts. Luxury is the star of this show.
Starting at $73,780, the Ghibli is currently Maserati’s cheapest offering. If you want a Maserati and you don’t want to spend disgusting amounts of money on it, this is where you start. Well, unless you’re bold enough to dive into the back pages of a used car catalog. As far as 2018 Maseratis go, the company sold almost as many Ghiblis last year as it did Levantes (5,531 cars).
I found the Ghibli to be much more my speed over the Quattroporte and Levante. It’s smaller and more compact, which means there is less car you have to deal with on a daily basis. And it’s lighter too, by about 100 pounds. Perhaps those 100 pounds are not actually discernible, but I feel like I could tell the difference.
As with the other Maseratis, the inside of the Ghibli that I tested was wrapped in creamy leather and bits of carbon fiber trim. The buttons and knobs turned and pushed with pleasant resistance and it was actually decent to see out of. Worryingly though, some of the parts of the dashboard sounded suspiciously hollow and plasticky when I knocked on them with my knuckles, despite being sewn up in sheets of leather.
Coming down a very twisty and narrow Italian mountain road while it was snowing, the Ghibli handled fine. It, too, has electronically assisted steering, a 3.0-liter twin-turbo V6 good for 430 HP and the ZF eight-speed auto.
I could tell where the nose of the car was always pointed and I was actually quite thankful that I was in the Ghibli for this part of the trip instead of the much larger Levante or Quattroporte. Its size was definitely more preferable to that environment, though I do not imagine there is much room in the back row for passengers to sit comfortably.
That’s fine, though. If you’re like me, a person with no kids but who also likes the added storage options of a sedan, the Ghibli is perfect.
All of these things, plus the snug and luxurious interior, made it a very pleasant thing to drive.
If you slap a set of snow tires on a car with all-wheel drive, it’s going to be a good combination. This is almost a guarantee. The mountain roads we drove on were slippery, and as they were often flanked on one side by sheer drops, I really didn’t feel the need to push the envelope. Even so, the cars never felt like they were about to lose traction or slide anywhere they weren’t supposed to.
The Levante, the Quattroporte and the Ghibli are perfectly agreeable to operate. They were quite inside when you wanted them to be, they had plenty of power on tap for exciting merges onto highways they were luxurious to the touch. For someone looking for a pleasant daily driver, I’d have no qualms with a Maserati.
And now that some of the models are finally equipped with the safety features that other cars have had for quite a while now, they’re finally what we could consider contemporary. Was this delay the result of a being a small, luxury automaker? Perhaps.
It doesn’t help me shake the feeling that Maserati isn’t high on FCA’s list of priorities, though. I won’t pretend to know exactly how the company allocates its annual budget, but it doesn’t seem like the Maserati cut is huge. But! If that means that Maserati gets to continue sticking crackly V6s and V8s into its cars and keep that GranTurismo alive, then you won’t hear me complaining.
Sure, that Cayenne is faster and more powerful, but the Levante has a crackly exhaust and maybe you really like what it looks like. Maybe you and that seat just bonded when you sat in it. Maybe you just love stuff from Italy.
There isn’t a science to why people like certain things and will place more value in one feature over another. But in this day and age where so many cars are egg-like in shape and design and are whisper-quiet in the cabin, having something loud and rude is nice. It’s refreshing.
You buy the Maserati because you want to be different. You want something that’s pretty and Italian and maybe it won’t be the most reliable thing on the planet, but goddammit, you’re going to do it anyway because it makes you happy on a very basic, incoherent level. It doesn’t need to be more complicated than that.