Luxury SUVs. Maserati Levante vs. Porsche Cayenne GTS vs. BMW X6

November 14, 2016

The Levante is Maserati’s first attempt at a luxury SUV. But how will it fare against established names like the Porsche Cayenne GTS and BMW X6?

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 EnginePowerTorque0-100kphTop speedWeightPrice
Porsche Cayenne GTSV6, twin-turbo, 3604cc434bhp @ 6,000rpm 600Nm (443lb ft) @ 1,600-5,000rpm5.2 secs262kph2110kg (206bhp/ton)$102,500
Maserati Levante SV6, twin-turbo, 2979cc424bhp @ 5,750rpm580Nm (428lb ft) @ 4,500-5,000rpm5.2 secs264kph 
2109kg (201bhp/ton)$103,200
BMW X6 xDrive50iV8, TwinPower Turbo, 4395cc444bhp @ 5,500–6,000rpm 649Nm (479lb ft) @ 2,000–4,500rpm4.8 secs250kph2170kg (205bhp/ton)$95,200

The Maserati Levante SUV has been a long time coming. True, like the Bentley EXP 9 F, the Kubang-named and heavily Jeep underscored concept first made its appearance back in 2011, an early sign of the company’s future direction. Many of you may have forgotten though that this was not the Kubang’s first appearance, the 2011 model a refresh of the Kubang concept that originally appeared  back in 2003, a prelude to both a market that hadn’t reached its full potential, and – surprise surprise – a general lack of investment from the parent company.

Here though the Levante stands today in the Fujairahan mountains, shoulder-to-shoulder, alongside the Porsche Cayenne, which Maserati has targeted in terms of both sales and handling. If that’s not an ambitious enough target in itself – the Cayenne has steadily established itself as THE luxury performance SUV since its debut in 2002 – today’s Porsche test model is the Cayenne GTS, the most dynamic model of its SUV line-up. Stiff competition is 
an understatement.

But then, Maserati can’t afford to play it safe. The Italian marque is already the third manufacturer this year to ‘step outside its comfort zone’ and into the heavily-competitive SUV market, and while it’s fast becoming something of a clichéd statement, the Levante could well be – like the Jaguar F-PACE, and Bentley Bentayga before it – the most important new model in the company’s history. After all, today the premium luxury segment rakes in one million sales worldwide, half of which are SUVs. If Maserati hopes to achieve its 25,000 per year sales figures aspiration, the Italian firm will want to get in on that action.

And on paper alone, Maserati seems to be off to a good start. Fortunately the Jeep underpinnings from its parent company have hit the skip, the underneath now ‘100 per cent Maserati’ and assembled in-full in Italy. Maserati’s long-standing naming tradition remains intact too with ‘Levante’, which references both the Viento de Levante that blows through the Strait of Gibraltar in the southern Mediterranean, and, ahem, the ‘winds of change’ such a model could bring to Maserati’s coffers.

Nauseating, but potentially apt. After all, the 3-litre twin-turbocharged V6 under that sleek bonnet boasts insight from Ferrari’s engineering department, and has already been put to extensive test in the Ghibli saloon. With 424bhp and 428lb ft on tap, it is also ‘the most performant V6 in Maserati history’. Even if it’s still not the most powerful model in our 
group test.

“Today the premium luxury segment rakes in one million sales worldwide, half of which are SUVs. Maserati is looking for a piece of that action.”

That accolade goes to the BMW X6 xDrive 50i, our solitary V8 here today kicking out 444bhp and 479lb ft of torque, enough for a 0-100kph sprint of 4.8 seconds and a 250kph top speed. The Maserati and Porsche remain on par given their 424bhp and 434bhp respective power figures and identical 5.2 second 0-100kph times, but it’s the dark horse of today’s group test that could yet walk out victorious. Though only into its second generation (more of a heavy facelift, in all honesty), the X6 shares the same distinctive presence, premium badge and versatility that made the pioneering X5 the sleeper hit it became following its 1999 debut. Bimmer’s Sports Activity Coupe could yet spring a surprise.

It’s the Maserati though I’m keen to put to the test first. Not only because it’s the newboy, but because, in terms of design, the Levante already has a notch on its belt over its rivals, despite the best efforts of that rather hideous ‘Rame’ metallic paint to hide them. While both the BMW and the Porsche present a more brutish aggression so frequently associated with the segment these days, Maserati has gone for a sleeker, more elegant approach, favouring curvaceous body panels over sharpened bodylines. And while Maserati traditions like the three fender-mounted air intakes and Trident-inspired front grille remain, it’s a design that legitimately stands alone: numerous revisions over the years have seen the Cayenne’s divisive looks soften, but to many it is still an elongated 911. Ditto the X6, whose admittedly handsome front-end design is
offset by the awkward plunging roofline. Not least because this leaves a question mark hanging over the X6’s practicality.

Though the X6 now features three abreast seating on the rear bench (something its 2009 predecessor did not), head and legroom are still not as spacious as either the Cayenne or the Levante. The boot is also shallower and smaller, and while both are an improvement over the outgoing first generation, the message is still clear: if you want practicality, go with 
the X5.

“The upgraded chassis of the Cayenne will re-arrange your pre-conceptions of physics.”

Fortunately the cabin itself is typical BMW top rate quality, complete with full leather upholstery, a cheeky dash of aluminium-effect and an updated infotainment system. Cabin space has been further improved over its predecessor, and while the newly updated infotainment system and iDrive may still prove a bit of a faff, it’s nevertheless a stylish look. A far cry it must be said from the Cayenne GTS cabin, wherein the ungainly button-festooned centre console and centre-mounted grab holders are, to put it mildly, a bit much. Yes, the ride is surprisingly pliant for such a sporty concept, the build quality is excellent, and the driving position is easily the best of all three. But if less is more, Porsche’s design department clearly didn’t receive that memo.

Credit once again then goes to the Maserati. Admittedly both the ride and seats are much firmer than I’d expected of a luxury SUV, and there is a certain mainstream feel to the gauges and sometimes fiddly gear lever, but the cabin design – complete with ‘Levante’ lettering across the dashboard is sharp and minimalist, a welcome detraction from the more convoluted cabins in both the Porsche and the BMW. First blood to Bologna.

 EnginePowerTorque0-100kphTop speedWeightPrice
Porsche Cayenne GTSV6, twin-turbo, 3604cc434bhp @ 6,000rpm 600Nm (443lb ft) @ 1,600-5,000rpm5.2 secs262kph2110kg (206bhp/ton)$102,500
Maserati Levante SV6, twin-turbo, 2979cc424bhp @ 5,750rpm580Nm (428lb ft) @ 4,500-5,000rpm5.2 secs264kph 
2109kg (201bhp/ton)$103,200
BMW X6 xDrive50iV8, TwinPower Turbo, 4395cc444bhp @ 5,500–6,000rpm 649Nm (479lb ft) @ 2,000–4,500rpm4.8 secs250kph2170kg (205bhp/ton)$95,200

Unsurprisingly, handling is absolute Porsche territory. While to many the re-introduction of Porsche’s ‘GTS’ moniker – a throwback to the 904 original of 1963 – was a strange one when it appeared on the Cayenne in 2007, its nevertheless well deserved. The upgraded chassis of the Cayenne will re-arrange your pre-conceptions of physics, the 20mm reduced ride height impressively controlling its bulk through even the tightest corners: sorry to roll out the cliché, but here is an SUV that considers itself a sports car, and may well have a point. Hot hatch-like agility is measured by steering that, admittedly is a little low of feel and perhaps a tad over-damped by Porsche standards, but is nevertheless direct and sharp, proving well-matched to the speed of directional changes the twin-turbocharged V6 encourages. But more on that in a second…

The BMW by comparison could use a little more weight and feel to the steering, though to overly criticise would be unjust. The steering for instance is still very responsive if not exactly dripping with textured feedback, and while it may outweigh the 2110kg Cayenne GTS by 135kg, the X6 still manages to weave its way through the flick-flacks with massive amounts of grip and traction, and a not unreasonable amount of body roll. It can’t quite measure up to the GTS’ formidable benchmark, and granted the high seating position does emphasise that higher centre of gravity, but there is some genuine agility and stability Whether this is agility I’d be happy to lean on every day is another matter: understeer is teased if not outwardly demonstrated when you’re really on it, and while the updated suspension allows for impressive road holding, this does tangibly affect the ride quality should you opt for Sport or Sport+.

“In terms of design, the Levante already has a notch on its belt over its rivals, despite the best efforts of that rather hideous ‘Rame’ metallic paint to hide them.”

And then there’s the Maserati. Spoiler alert, the Levante S also cannot match the Porsche for sheer stability, but you wouldn’t call it disappointing either. Turn-in for instance is crisp, and there’s a re-assuring, meaty heft to the hydraulically power-assisted steering: smooth and well-judged, it feels more quick-witted than the BMW’s. Part of this is down to the all-wheel drive setup, with 50 per cent of the torque and power being sent to the rear axle. The resultant traction and well-weighted poise means throwing this 2205kg lump around is surprisingly easy, that weight being hidden well by ungodly amounts of grip and little in the way of body roll. Again, it’s not quite up there in Cayenne GTS territory, but there’s a natural athleticism that outmanoeuvres the BMW, nonetheless.

What does surprise though, and not necessarily in a good way, is the Maserati’s drivetrain. Yes, initial grunt is impressive, never petering on its way to the redline nor offering any signs of noticeable turbo lag across the rev range. But while the handling hides the sheer girth of the Levante impressively, it’s difficult to say the same of the V6. The soundtrack for instance is not pure, 100 per cent Maserati, the drone simply too mechanical and lacking any real emotional punch to really set the hairs on the back of the neck asunder. The Ferrari-engineered V6 is quick, don’t get me wrong, but smooth rather than ratchet-like shifts through the eight-speed automatic gearbox means the Levante doesn’t feel overly rapid.

“There’s a natural athleticism with the Maserati that outmanoeuvres the BMW.”

Bizarrely, it’s a similar situation we find with the Cayenne GTS. The Tiptronic S gearbox may be impressively swift with its gearshifts, but doesn’t offer the same intuitive response as the PDK, a shame given the enthusiasm with which the V6 is keen to canter and stretch its legs. Deep, gutsy pick-up is then followed by progressive acceleration that, come the 3500rpm mark, conveys a whole new surge of adrenaline as the turbos spool up. It’s not a decisive thwomp of forward momentum and can’t quite match the Turbo for serious bursts of speed, but it’s enough to emphasise that the GTS will not run out of steam anytime soon.

Again though, the doleful timbre of the V6 just doesn’t fit the enthusiasm of the occasion, something its V8 predecessor 
managed admirably.

Not an issue the X6 need concern itself with. For starters, the V8 under the bonnet goes about its business with a raw, textured, almost angry note, one that picks up in ferocity the further up the rev range both the 4.4-litre unit and the well-ratioed gearbox will allow. It’s the acceleration though that really impresses. Like both the Porsche and the Maserati, initial grunt is deep and menacing, but rather than cascading into linear pull from there, the BMW’s V8 continues to build, each few thousand revs bringing with it more decisive bouts of forward momentum. It feels more than quick. It feels exciting.

Ultimately though, the BMW is not the performance luxury SUV of choice for this particular writer. Yes, the ride comfort is easily the most forgiving of the three, though this has not dampened the composure the X6 enjoys through the corners, even if a slightly higher centre of gravity and more body roll means your confidence to push is not as high as it is in the Levante or Cayenne. Design-wise the X6 also comes up short, and while the V8 is the powertrain you’d want, the package that surrounds it does fall a bit behind compared with its rivals.

As for that matter does the Maserati. The design is sterling, the aptitude through the turns very impressive, and if there was any doubt that the Levante was a deserving new addition to the performance luxury SUV market they’re all but gone. What does let the newboy down though is a lack of any real sense of charisma, something we’d expected the Italian to cream its opponents with. It handles impressively and feels genuinely fast, if a little lethargic. And that’s it. Where is the Maserati character? Where is the panache and the style? Where is the wind of change? Impressive as the Levante S is, as an experience, it feels flat.

In terms of sheer agility then, the Cayenne GTS stands alone in this group test. It’s arguably the only one of the three you could genuinely hustle through the turns whilst simultaneously not eroding your spinal column to dust. The design remains divisive meanwhile, and it is a pity the twin-turbo V6, though not lacking in grunt, ultimately falls short of its V8 predecessor in terms of charisma.

But if Maserati was hoping to share the limelight with Porsche, it still has some work to do. If you’re looking for a performance luxury SUV, the Cayenne is still the one you’ll want.


*Images courtesy of Arun M. Nair and Awesome Group

Porsche Cayenne GTS (Tech specs)

Engine V6, twin-turbo, 3604cc

Power 434bhp @ 6,000rpm

Torque 600Nm (443lb ft) @ 1,600-5,000rpm

Transmission Eight-speed Tiptronic S automatic, all-wheel drive

Front suspension Double wishbones

Rear suspension Multi-link

Brakes 390 x 38mm (front), 358 x 28mm (rear)

Wheels 9.5 x 20 (front and rear)

Tyres 275/45 R20 (front and rear)

Weight 2110kg

Power-to-weight 206bhp/ton

0-100kph 5.2 secs

Top speed 262kph

Price $102,500

Maserati Levante S (Tech specs)

Engine V6, twin-turbo, 2979cc

Power 424bhp @ 5,750rpm

Torque 428lb ft @ 4,500-5,000rpm

Transmission Eight-speed ZF automatic, all-wheel drive

Front suspension Double Wishbone

Rear suspension Multi Link

Brakes 380 x 34mm (front), 330 x 22mm (rear)

Wheels 19in (front and rear)

Tyres 265/50 ZR19 (front), 295/45 ZR19 (rear)

Weight 2109kg

Power-to-weight 201bhp/ton

0-100kph 5.2 secs

Top speed 264kph

Price $103,200

BMW X6 xDrive50i (Tech specs)

Engine V8, TwinPower Turbo, 4395cc

Power 444bhp @ 5,500–6,000rpm

Torque 649Nm (479lb ft) @ 2,000–4,500rpm

Transmission Eight-speed Steptronic sport automatic, all-wheel drive

Front suspension Double track control arm

Rear suspension Integral-IV axle

Brakes 385 x 36mm (front), 345 x 24mm (rear)

Wheels 9J x 19 (front and rear)

Tyres 255/50 R19 (front and rear)

Weight 2170kg

Power-to-weight 205bhp/ton

0-100kph 4.8 secs

Top speed 250kph

Price $95,200