The Maserati Levante S is the comfortable SUV with all the power of a sportscar

In case you hadn't heard, SUVs are big business.

So much so that in 2017 and 2018 SUVs outsold passenger cars (sedans, wagons, coupes, hatches, etc) for the first time.

The lure of a higher-riding body with more space has finally toppled the established body styles.

Top of the pops

For brands such as Maserati an SUV is the top seller, accounting for more than half of Australian sales. That's not bad considering the Italian maker didn't have an SUV until late 2016.

But it's perhaps not surprising; in the market segment Maserati plays in, almost 80 per cent of it is now commanded by SUVs.

Little surprise success came quickly once the Levante hit showrooms. In its first full month on sale the Levante outsold every other Maserati combined.

Ever since it's comfortably been the top seller for the marque, giving it a rival to the likes of the Porsche Cayenne and BMW X5.

Power to the people

But until an update late in 2017, there has been one thing missing with the Levante: the sort of sound and performance people expect of a Maserati.

Sure, the Levante looks the business and devours corners with the sort of enthusiasm 2.1-tonne-plus SUVs simply shouldn't do.

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But its diesel engine was a tad too … sensible.

The 3.0-litre V6 diesel is grunty, but more about getting the job done than pushing those sensual driving buttons the Italians so often manage to nail.

Ferrari genes

Enter the Levante S, which sits in the middle of the expanding family.

Under the bonnet is a snarling 3.0-litre twin turbo V6 fed with premium unleaded. And it's an engine with pedigree.

While it's not used in any Ferrari, the V6 was developed in conjunction with Ferrari engineers and is produced in a Ferrari factory. Not bad fodder for some dinner party bragging rights.

Power peaks at 321kW, well up on the 202kW of the diesel. Combined with a hearty 580Nm of torque (that's 20Nm down on the diesel) it makes for brisk acceleration, although there are faster SUVs out there.

The sprint to 100km/h takes 5.2 seconds and the S has plenty in reserve once you reach triple figures. All of which better suits the sporty character of the Levante.

Sound off

As for the sound, it's nothing like the guttural bark of a naturally-aspirated Maserati V8 – very little is in an era where turbocharged engines rule - but it's among the more enticing V6s.

Dial up Sport mode and the idle and low-rev note gets a decent boost to its bass.

And there's a vitality to it as it builds revs, heading towards 7000rpm.

It works nicely with the eight-speed automatic, too, making for effortless acceleration with a decent dose of zing when you yearn for it.

For cruising, though, it's good to be able to dial back the exhaust for a more serene cabin environment, something the Levante does nicely.

Numbers game

Adding that extra letter to the Levante – along with the extra under-body excitement – costs more, although a repricing earlier this year made things more palatable.

Whereas the Levante diesel starts at $139,990, the Levante S begins at $164,990.

Splash out $179,900, though, and you can choose between the GranSport or the GranLusso, the versions most owners will choose.

The GranSport and GranLusso model names also apply to the diesel Levantes and add more equipment; wheels and tyres step up from 20 inches in diameter to 21 inches and there's additional paint around the lower skirting.

In keeping with its sporty positioning, the GranSport gets painted brake calipers (red or yellow), sports steering wheel, sports front seats, a grille finished in shiny black rather than chrome and a rear spoiler.

The GranLusso tilts more towards the luxury side with an Alcantara roof lining, additional chrome touches, higher grade leather, doors that suck themselves close and a panoramic sunroof.

Wait, there's more

The S is the performance hero of the Levante lineup for now.

But Maserati has more coming in the form of the Levante GTS and Trofeo.

Utilising a Maserati-tuned version of the V8 turbo used in the Quattroporte GTS and various Ferraris, the Levante's performance will better match the Porsches and V8-powered BMWs and Mercedes-AMGs it is priced against.

Expect it to arrive later in 2019 with the choice of a 404kW version or 441kW for the Trofeo.

Maserati is also reported to be working on a hybrid Levante, allowing limited electric-only running with the backup of an engine for longer drives.

Diesel at heart

Despite the more powerful and exciting engine option, many Levante buyers will choose the safe and sensible V6.

Maserati Australia expects almost 90 percent of Levante sales to be the V6 diesel, leaving the far more exciting and enticing new petrol engine to account for 10 percent (or maybe a fraction more) of sales.

Blame it on fuel prices – the diesel uses 34 percent less fuel than the petrol – or the $25K premium on the petrol engine.

Either way, it seems most are content to get everything else Maserati and live with an engine that just does the job.

They won't know what they're missing out on.