Not Your Soccer Mom's SUV

The sport-utility vehicle has been transformed into an entirely new genre of luxury sports car—starting with the Maserati Levante.

Once the sole province of a few car companies like Land Rover and Porsche, high-end sport-utes are rolling off the assembly lines at Maserati, Bentley, and Jaguar (and sometime down the road at Rolls-Royce and Lamborghini), offering luxuriously appointed vehicles with off-road capabilities, whether those features will ever be used or not. “We know that more than 90 percent of our customers will not drive the Levante off the tarmac,” said Marco Tencone, Maserati’s head of design, at the vehicle’s global launch at Lake Garda, Italy, “but they want to know that it can be done if they need it to.”

And can it ever. The Levante offers the lowest center of gravity in this category, with five settings for ground clearance on challenging terrain or lower ride heights for highway driving, taking the “sport” factor to the nth degree. It can maneuver easily through thick mud and over boulders, while handling like a true sports car on the road. Even the look of it reminds one of a sleek coupe rather than a boxy SUV.

Our test drive through the narrow, winding streets around Lake Garda, as we traveled from fruit and vegetable stands to cheese and meat markets loading the cavernous interior (19.4 cubic feet of cargo space and impressive head-room) with groceries for Michelin three-star chef Massimo Bottura, who would be preparing our dinner later that evening, proved to be a lesson in Maserati’s mystique. “The sound of our engines is known world over,” said Roberto Corradi, Maserati’s head of product development. “Our objective was to create a multisensory environment.” Whichever of the four modes we drove in—Normal, Sport, Off Road, or ICE (Increased Control and Efficiency)—that signature growl was exhilarating, upping the excitement quotient another notch and delivering on that race-car-inspired elegance the brand is known for. Starting at $72,000;