The trident-badged SUV has a sonorous sound and the ability to reach over 300km/h. Picture: DENIS DROPPA
The trident-badged SUV has a sonorous sound and the ability to reach over 300km/h. Picture: DENIS DROPPA

Super-SUVs don’t make much sense as a concept. They start life as big, heavy and high-riding vehicles ostensibly designed for off-road use, which engineers then pummel into tar-wrinkling sports machines with monster engines and all manner of electrickery to try to hide their heavy mass and innate lack of sportiness.

They are also given impractically low-profile tyres and lowered suspensions, diminishing the all-terrain ability that is an SUV’s original raison d’être.

But common sense be damned, as there’s no shortage of such hell-raising beasts finding willing buyers, and membership of this 400kW-plus club keeps swelling with contenders such as the Lamborghini Urus, BMW X5M, Mercedes-AMG GLE 63, Porsche Cayenne Turbo, Aston Martin DBX, Bentley Bentayga, et al.

Maserati’s take on the theme is the Levante Trofeo, shoved along by a Ferrari 3.8l twin turbo V8 engine that packs 439kW and 730Nm, and slings the big Italian SUV to a top speed of 304km/h.

The first batch of these trident-badged SUVs recently arrived in SA and all have been snapped up by buyers who have not balked at the R3.75m price tag.

In contrast to the buying-down trend taking hold in other sectors of the car market, worsened by the coronavirus lockdown, Maserati Johannesburg reports that it is back to almost normal pre-lockdown sales levels since opening its doors in May. The pinnacle of the prestige car segment tends to be resistant to economy-ravaging viruses, it seems.

I got behind the wheel of a brilliant white demo Levante Trofeo provided by Maserati Johannesburg, and took it for a spin around Gauteng’s emptier-than-usual roads last week.

In its size and operatic sound, this Italian SUV reminded me of Luciano Pavarotti, though it had a decidedly more sprightly demeanour than the famous tenor. The portly 2.5-tonne Levante Trofeo will never be a slick sports car that slices the bends with razor-sharp responses, but for an SUV it corners with a well-mannered feel and far less top-heaviness than expected.

Rear-biased all-wheel drive, a rear limited-slip differential and super-wide tyres provide leech-like grip, and active air suspension allows the SUV to deliver good ride comfort on one end and reasonably pinned-down handling on the other. As long as the surface is smooth tar, that is; the 22-inch low-profile tyres won’t make good friends with gravel roads or potholes.

Switched to its Corsa (race) driving mode with Launch Control functionality (in addition to Normal, I.C.E., Sport and Off Road modes), the mega Maserati adopts a decidedly edgier character.

Corsa mode heightens the engine response and opens the exhaust valves for that passionate Pavarotti yell, as well as providing faster gear shifting, lowering the height of the air suspension and firming up the suspension.

The bulky SUV blitzes the 0-100 sprint in a claimed 3.9 seconds, which is truly remarkable for such a heavyweight. The performance is brawny, with hefty mid-range punch, and you can feel yourself getting satisfyingly squelched into the seat as you hook each gear.

The interior is a little underwhelming for a R3.75m car. Picture: DENIS DROPPA
The interior is a little underwhelming for a R3.75m car. Picture: DENIS DROPPA

There is a lot to like here and the Italian vehicle is quite visceral in sensation. I liked the feel of the carbon-fibre paddle shifters, which made me use them more than was necessary given how effective the eight-speed gearbox is in its auto setting.

Peering over the heat extractors on the bonnet also provided a fitting visual accompaniment to the power on offer.

Every Trofeo has Maserati’s exclusive Pieno Fiore Italian leather as standard, and is equipped with a 1,280W, 17-speaker Bowers & Wilkins premium surround-sound audio system for a concert-hall sound experience.

But apart from the charming analogue clock and the finely shaped sports seats, I felt the interior was a little underwhelming in style — it’s understated compared to the stiff-upper-lip plushness of a Bentley or the aviation-style flamboyance of a Urus.

In the realm of athletic SUVs, the Maserati ticks the right boxes with its powerful, operatic engine and its relatively keen cornering ability. That the engine’s built by Ferrari is also a strong selling point.

That said, it’s hard to find real justification for the Levante Trofeo costing so much more than some of its rivals (see list).

MASERATI VS KEY RIVALS, PRICE AND POWER COMPARISON

Maserati Levante Trofeo, R3.75m — 433kW/730Nm

BMW X5M, R2.6m — 460kW/750Nm

Porsche Cayenne Turbo, R2.3m — 404kW/770Nm

Bentley Bentayga V8, R3.4m — 404kW/770Nm

Bentley Bentayga Speed, R4.6m — 467kW/900Nm

Lamborghini Urus, R3.5m — 478kW/850Nm

Audi RS Q8, price to be confirmed — 441kW/800Nm

Aston Martin DBX, price to be confirmed — 405kW/700Nm

Jaguar F-Pace SVR, R1.5m — 405kW/680Nm

Jeep Grand Cherokee Trackhawk, R2.2m — 522kW/875Nm

Range Rover Autobiography Supercharged, R4.4m — 416kW/700Nm

Range Rover Sport SVR, R2.4m — 423kW/700Nm