The police officer stands in the middle of the road and bows ceremoniously low. His left hand then comes up and indicates I should pull over. I’m about to get fined and that will smart, but these immaculately dressed officers are so courteous, I comply with a smile. Even seven-star hotels have nothing on these guys.
Stunning vistas line the Hakone Skyline; Mount Fuji looms in the background.
Things quickly change when one of the officers is handed a printout. “AAAIIIIEEEEEEE,” he squeals in horror, “90! 90kph!” He can only speak a few words of English, and I know almost no Japanese, but it’s clear, I’ve strayed quite a bit over the speed limit. I use sign language and simple words to tell him about a parked bus I had to drive around, and how I had to accelerate and avoid an oncoming truck – but it seems to have little effect. Then, in desperation, and wanting to shift some of the blame, I point to the Levante’s long bonnet and say 600hp very clearly. “SIX-HUNDRED HORSEPOWER,” he repeats, stressing on each word, his eyes wide in amazement. Seeing the effect it has had, I point to the bonnet again and say “Ferrari twin-turbo V8”, and he repeats that too in a thick Japanese accent. Thank God, he’s a petrolhead. “It just took off,” I carry on, mimicking a jet take off with my hand. He nods.
After much head shaking and browbeating, he finally gives me my license back with a stern warning: ‘Follow the rules’. He then smiles and says, “But enjoy the road after the gate,” pointing up to the entrance of the famed Hakone Skyline. I can’t believe it; despite everything, is he actually telling me it’s okay to drive flat-out up there? This is crazy.
With the Ferrari-based, 590hp, twin-turbo V8 under the hood, performance is very strong.
Not needing a second invitation, but still wanting to be cautious, I wait until we are clear of the toll plaza, and then step it up progressively. And oh what a road the Hakone Skyline is. Running along a set of ridges that appear to ring the caldera of a massive extinct volcano, the road snakes past volcanic lakes, dense forests, and then, every now and then, massive Mount Fuji looms into view, close enough to take your breath away. Even better is the road itself. Germany may have the Nürburgring, but Japan’s Hakone Skyline isn’t too far behind. Perfectly paved for the most part, incredibly sinuous and jam-packed with all types of corners, it is a veritable roller coaster. I stop early to take a few pictures on the road and meet up with other bikers and drivers. No speed guns and no cops here they promise. And what’s crazy is that there seem to be almost no commuters. “Maximum attacko,” I say to myself in a thick Japanese accent.
Hakone Skyline receipt looks cool.
The way of Bushido
I set the Trofeo in ‘Corsa’ mode, check to make sure the dampers are at their sportiest and then start really ‘driving’ the corners. The transformation from the earlier Levante I’ve driven has me scratching my head in disbelief. This is no Levante of yore, no way. The Trofeo feels so compact, so agile and so poised, I find myself cursing under my breath in awe. Lower and harder air suspension, better-tuned adaptive dampers, more aggressive torque vectoring; no wonder it feels half its size around corners. And why it feels so good is that every single part seems to play its role perfectly.
More aggressive nose of the Trofeo hits the spot.
The steering is now electric and, oddly, all the better for it. Where the old hydraulic system was over-reactive at times and made the car feel ponderous at others, this one feels like it is on the ball, all the time. There’s real weight and feedback flowing back through the wheel rim, and the Trofeo responds immediately to every flick of the wheel. The overall agility is so good, I soon start to flick-flick the Trofeo through corners; to hell with the bulk.
What also helps provide incredible grip are the new Continental Sport Contact 6 tyres. Sticky as glue and blessed with an outstanding turn-in, they work naturally with the super agility of the chassis and lend tremendous confidence once the rear of the car starts slipping.
New, full Matrix LED headlights are 20 percent brighter.
Even harder cornering up ahead brings out the precision in the chassis, which, unlike many SUVs, has a static balance of 50:50 and an almost 100 percent rear-wheel-drive bias under all but the most extreme conditions. Torque vectoring uses differential braking (on the inside wheels in a corner) to achieve some degree of yaw, and though this is difficult to pick up under normal circumstances, you notice it when all four tyres are howling and you are piling into a corner a little too fast. It helps rotate the hips of the car more easily, the nose tucks in more neatly into corners and the Trofeo positions itself so well on the exit of corners, it’s almost like there’s an unseen hand at work here. Actually, there is. Aiding agility is a unique system called IVC that uses a feed-forward controller. Unlike the normally reactive ESP system, IVC works on predictive logic and uses ESP proactively. So instead of slowing you down, it helps you speed up. Even the vast brakes are full of feel and offer tremendous bite on the way into corners.
Reverse bonnet scoop for exit of hot air.
After a couple of laps of the Hakone Skyline, I decide to explore another quiet road that has even less traffic. Directed to it by a Japanese driver who also stopped for a bit of a breather, this road is a bit tighter, a bit more technical and, unlike the Skyline, has more than a few long straights.
What I notice first up, however, is that the surface is nowhere as good. Full of expansion cracks, crumbling repair patches and frayed edges, it gets me quite worried. The Trofeo has 22-inch forged alloys, and what’s worse is that the 30 and 25 profile tyres don’t seem to offer much protection either. I leave it in ‘Corsa’ for a bit. And sure enough, the rough sections and big ruts cause the Trofeo to do a bit of a jig – going hard through a series of corners feels a bit like a rally stage, with the car moving around quite a bit. But, amazingly, once I step down to ‘Sport’, the Trofeo takes the bumps in its stride and allows me to work up a rhythm again. Porsche’s Cayenne Turbo may feel a bit more stable initially, but compared to the Trofeo, it also feels unnecessarily heavy on its feet. The Maserati just seems to have that playful sense of agility that’s so hard to come by.
The Trofeo’s cabin is clearly sporty with its black-on-black carbon-fibre detailing, but the design is quite ordinary.
Even more baffling is that Maserati has got the ride right. Placed in Comfort, the big SUV swallows rough patches with only a soft pitter-patter, and the ride is quite silent and flat as well. Even some of the bigger bumps we encounter on the outskirts of a few rural roads don’t seem to bother the SUV too much.
What makes all the sporty performance possible in the first place is that award- winning Ferrari engine under the hood. Sure, this version, known as the F154 AM has no flat-plane crankshaft (see box) and there are other big Maserati-driven changes as well, such as the reconfigured turbos. But what the snarling, forged-in Maranello motor brings to the party is real class, this is one of the best engines of its type in the world. Not for nothing has Ferrari’s twin-turbo V8 won International Engine of the Year THREE times.
Rear space is more than adequate for tall occupants.
Under the hood of the Trofeo, the V8 understandably feels very different. That overabundance of torque you’d normally experience in the mid-range of the 488 is set off by the weight of the SUV, and this Maserati version feels smoother and less aggressive due to the cross-plane crankshaft. That willingness to respond instantly, however, is just the same. And then what suits this sporty SUV to a T is that this engine almost feels naturally aspirated in the manner in which it makes power; there’s no sudden turbo-driven spike of power, and neither is the torque bunched in the mid-range. What you get instead is something much nicer – a long, lusty pull all the way from 2,000rpm to the redline – and then there is no let-up in the rate of acceleration either as you shift up to the next gear.
Huge seats are built with high-quality leather.
The cabin gets a lot of high-quality Italian leather and the seats are particularly comfortable. So it works well in essence too. Still there are more than a few ordinary-looking plastic buttons in the cabin and there’s nothing particularly appealing about the design of the cabin either.
It does look dramatic on the outside though. Those blow-back vents on the bonnet look rad, the nose with its new headlights looks even better and those 22-inch wheels, certainly not recommended on our roads, just look mad.
V8 pulls in a linear manner despite the big turbos.
Maserati will get the Levante Trofeo to India towards the middle of 2019, and with price at an expected Rs 2.7 crore, it’s lot of car for the money. Some of the materials in the cabin aren’t in line with expectations and it isn’t likely to be ideal for heavy off-road use. But if you want the best combination of a sportscar and an SUV, this could be it. Comfortable to sit in, gorgeous-looking on the outside, and simply brilliant to drive with that Ferrari-derived engine under the hood, this is the best Maserati in a long, long time.
Flat- vs Cross-plane crankshaft
A flat-plane crankshaft is one where a power stroke takes place every time it rotates 180 degrees. Ferrari makes sportscars and so prefers flat-plane cranks that are more responsive and allow engines to rev higher. Maserati’s version of the same engine, however, uses a cross-plane crank. Here, a power stroke takes place every time the crank turns through 90 degrees. Engines with cross- plane cranks have more torque, but need more counterweights and don’t like to rev as much.