SUV’s have been all the rage in the car business due to their high margins and versatility. Those high margins stem partly from the fact that the majority or SUV’s are built on antiquated truck chassis onto which a station wagon body can be cheaply attached. Since gas prices began to rise in the mid 2000’s manufacturers have been forced to find ways to save weight which is most effectively achieved by employing unibody chassis technology devised by Lancia in the 1920’s and first introduced to SUV’s in 1983 with the Jeep Cherokee.
Until then sports-car makers had been less than enthusiastic about “Chelsea Tractors” due to their rather oafish handling and in the case of the Ford Explorer a tendency to roll over like a happy golden retriever angling for a belly scratch. Then in 2003 Porsche gave us the Cayenne and the world was never the same again. With the help of adjustable and reliable air suspension and immense power thanks to two turbos the Cayenne not only ushered in the era of the performance crossover but triggered a windfall like Porsche had never seen, allowing the company to keep the 911 alive and diversify the brand. Since then few have followed into the sector the Cayenne created. Lamborghini has been threatening to for years but we are still waiting for the Urus.
Sergio Marchionne has sworn that only over his dead body would Ferrari ever make a crossover or any SUV for that matter but instead Maserati have been chosen by FCA to carry the luxury sports crossover mantle forward with the recently released Levante. Originally rumored to use the unibody structure of the Grand Cherokee itself a close relative of the current Mercedes GLE Class chassis, the Levante instead has remained totally in house using a modified version of the Ghibli structure with air suspension to increase ground clearance and calm the Ghibli’s fidgety handling.
My earliest memories of Maserati were of riding in my mother’s succession of Biturbos in the mid 1980’s, age 11. Apart from the first Biturbo E model’s propensity to scrape its oil pan on even the most innocuous sleeping policeman and the last 222 E’s occasional climate-control and power-steering hara-kiri, they were extremely reliable cars. The black 222 E was the most beautiful and the one that suited my mother better than any other car she’s ever had. I can still remember the sight and smell of the sumptuous interior, bathed in burled wood veneers, as well as Alcantara and leather the color of vanilla ice cream that would literally make my mouth water. Only a Lancia Thema 8.32 in all its Poltrona Frau glory or Crewe’s Connolly-steeped offspring could compete in those day
In America however, land of J.D. Powers Dependability studies and flawless kitchen appliances like the Toyota Celica and BMW 3 Series fan-boys, the Biturbo was demonized and mention of its name alone makes American gear-heads recoil and shudder in disgust and dread to this day. Those who owned one, a friend of the writers among them, still have nightmares of oil-leaks, spontaneous combustion and a steadfast refusal to start when warm. Maybe most damning of all, they became the car of choice of lesser Miami Vice villains. The capos drove Quattroporte Mk3’s.
The Biturbo was a departure for Maserati. It was their first car designed to a price-point and not to a performance benchmark in an effort to reach a greater audience. In 1980, Argentinian investor Alejandro DeTomaso who had bought the company from the bankrupt Citroen in 1975 knew that if Maserati was to survive it needed to increase sales volume, which could only be done by encroaching down-market into BMW 3 series territory. 40000 were produced.
It was also around this time Chrysler got its first taste of a good thing when Lee Iacocca bought a 5% share of the company, later increasing that stake to 15.6%. The result was the Chrysler Maserati Coupe and Convertible for the US market, an insult to humanity and Caesar himself if ever there was one.
Unfortunately by 1993, DeTomaso had had enough and sold the company to Fiat who entrusted its resurrection to the able stewardship of Luca Cordero di Montezemolo in his role as President and CEO of Ferrari. Much-needed Fiat cash turned the last scions of the Biturbo bloodline; the Ghibli 2, Shamal and Quattroporte 4 into perfected versions of their forbears, greatly improving reliability and performance. The successor models; Maserati Coupe and the sinfully sexy Quattroporte Mk 4 began to drag the company, kicking and screaming, into the 21st century.
With the launch of the Levante, Maserati is once again in search of volume and as in those uncertain days of the early 80’s the stakes are high. Like its Lombardic cousin bearing the Visconti crest, the Trident must fight for its rightful place within the Fiat family and prove that the cash liberated by the partial sale of Ferrari is earning its investment keep. The Quattroporte 5 and Ghibli 3 have started the progression towards Sergio Marchionne’s goal of 75,000 units by 2018 but time is running out and Ghibli sales have recently plummeted with excessive rebates on those sales turning already small margins into salami. This time Maserati needs help fast. Mr. Marchionne recently proclaimed cheep oil in secula seculorum and anointed the SUV as defender of the faith. Hopefully the Levante can do for Maserati what the Cayenne did for Porsche, while preserving the brand’s cachet, which is even more crucial now since Neptune’s chariot has Ferrari’s shoes to fill as flag bearer for the FCA Group.
Alejandro DeTomaso fled the Argentine after being involved in a failed coup against Juan Domingo Perón. Hopefully the Levante can save the day like Saladin at the Horns of Hattin.