Ride and Handling
With big claims made for a class leading blend of ride and handling the Levante has much to live-up to. Initial impressions are really encouraging, with a palpable sense of structural rigidity, smooth, well-judged steering response (from a hydraulic power-assisted rack) that’s quick-witted without feeling overly sharp, and damping that connects you to the road but isolates you from the bumps. Above all it hides its size and weight (2205kg for the diesel) admirably.
After two hours of lumpen back roads and rapid autostrada work we arrive at the Balocco Proving Ground, where we can explore the opposite ends of the Levante’s capabilities on the high speed handing circuit and a technical off-road course. I’m not sure what feels more incongruous; pointing the bluff nose of a 2-ton+ SUV out onto one of the world’s more challenging manufacturer test tracks, or slamming it through rocky ruts , wading through mud and nudging over the edge of a precipitous 70% slope and falling into the invisible catch net of the hill decent electronics.
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While it’s impressively capable off-road (of the five suspension settings available, the highest of the two off-road modes lifts the ride height by 40mm) the biggest surprise and greatest pleasure comes on the high speed handling course. Too often these big beasts contain their mass with huge tyres, musclebound damping and resolutely rigid anti-roll bars, but the Levante feels free and fluid from the off. There’s plenty of poise and pliancy, and the handling balance really does reflect the 50:50 weight distribution.
A mechincal limited-slip differential and Torque Vectoring helps, as does an active torque split that prefers 100 per cent to the rear, but can send up to 50 per cent to the front as required. It has a natural athleticism where others SUVs feel like they had had it thrust upon them.
When grip fades it yields from the front first, but its gradual and easily contained with a gentle lift of the throttle. You can feel the ESP at work in Normal, but switch to Sport and the thresholds are upped to minimise the intrusion. Disable the ESP completely and you access the final 10 per cent of the Levante’s abilities, though in deference to the increased c of g the ESP reawakens if you’re a complete hooligan. That might puts a dent in potential YouTube video views, but outside of that rather daft bubble it doesn’t get in the way of your enjoyment of the car.
As you’d expect the petrol V6 has greater urgency and a pleasing appetite for revs that the diesel can never hope to match. It has a pleasingly gruff note, in fact it’s really rather vocal on full-throttle with Sport mode engaged. It sounds like a Maserati, in other words. The uprated brakes have a slightly firmer pedal and more insistent stopping power when used hard, but they retain the diesel’s smooth, progressive feel at low speed.
There’s more outright grip, and because the rear tyres are wider the balance remains more neutral, but it still has poise where more musclebound SUVs like the Range Rover Sport and Cayenne can feel numb and flat-footed. Of course it’s the quicker and more exciting car, but far from overshadowing the 275, the 430 merely underlines the inherent rightness to be found in both models.