Maserati Levante Debuts in Hollywood

Courtesy of Michael Walker

Maserati joins Porsche, Jaguar and Bentley in the red-hot luxury SUV category with the $72,000 Levante.

Add Maserati to the growing list of luxury automakers embracing an SUV with the Levante, its entry into the category, unveiled in a private ceremony in Hollywood earlier this week.

The Levante, priced at $72,000, will go on sale this summer and compete with hot-selling SUVs from Jaguar-Land Rover, Mercedes-Benz, Porsche, BMW and Tesla, whose $84,000 Model X is for now the only pure electric luxury SUV on the market and working through a 20,000-order backlog.

SUVs have allowed niche luxury brands such as Porsche to greatly expand market share, especially among women drivers. Porsche's Cayenne and Macan, a compact SUV introduced in 2014, are now the first- and second-best-selling vehicles in Porsche's roster, accounting for more than half of the 51,756 Porsches sold in the U.S. last year and beating the marque's flagship 911 sports car by large margins.

Maserati has been steadily increasing the range of sizes and prices of its cars under the ownership of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, with an aggressive brief to sell 50,000 cars a year worldwide. (Last year, Maserati sold 11,697 cars in the U.S., down slightly from 2014 but still more than double its 2013 sales.)

Purists sniffed when the company introduced the Ghibli, a downsized, down-market sibling to the beloved Quatroporte sedan priced nearly $30,000 less, but it has been largely responsible for Maserati's bump in market share since the Ghibli's debut in 2014. In this sales environment, the Levante — which the company puckishly refers to as "the Maserati of SUVs" — is almost compulsory.

Even superpremium car brands such as Rolls-Royce and Bentley, for whom fielding an SUV would have been unthinkable five years ago, are throwing in with SUVs because without one their customers are forced to "downgrade" to vehicles made by Mercedes, BMW, Land Rover and, soon, Maserati.

Rolls has confirmed it has a crossover in development, while Bentley's Bentayga, starting at $229,000, the world's most expensive SUV, is on sale this year. The addition of a single option — a dash-mounted Mulliner Tourbillon mechanical clock — ups the price by $160,000.

In a public relations masterstroke, the first Bentayga was earmarked for Queen Elizabeth, who plans to use it for royal hunting excursions at Balmoral Castle.