Smelling The Wind Of Change

It’s time for yet another SUV. And yet another object lesson in why either the modern automobile or myself has lost the plot. 

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Caution: Smelling The Wind Of Change may cause drowsiness!

This time, it’s Maserati’s turn to ‘go Sports Utility’. Which isn’t so terrible in itself – after all it’s a clear case of ‘join ’em in the chorus or die singing your own melody’, but the resultant car, dubbed Levante, is as disappointing as it is dull.

I’ve had the pleasure of seeing the car in the metal (and in quite dimly-lit circumstances) at its unveiling at a local prestige car dealership, which made for an interesting study on the people the Levante has been designed for.

In a nutshell: Bryan Ferry wasn’t around, but a lot of hair product, blazers-worn-with-blue-jeans and pointy leather shoes. The accompanying ladies (yes, I’m generalising here, for a good reason) were wearing dresses that could be described as almost outré by Hanseatic standards. Driving a Maserati in Germany is, after all, still considered a risky endeavour (in social terms, rather than for safety considerations, that is).

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Pert backsides abounded.

Catering was of decent quality, despite the soggiest Carpaccio I’ve ever come across. Making amends was a delightful veal tartare. And the catering staff serving both were a pleasant bunch, although acknowledging their physical presence (which quite a few fellow guests had chosen to ignore) might have helped establishing decent interaction.

The Wind of Change, as which an advertising magazine handed out upon leaving described the Levante, eventually blew across the halls, hence taking the spotlight away from the culinary arena.

An extremely ordinary luxury car indeed, trying – and failing – to marry the conflicting demands of elegance, athleticism and bulkiness, the Levante can best be summed up as one squat automobile. The attempts to instill its styling with some flamboyance as ill-fitting as having Bruce Willis play Benedict Cumberbatch’s incarnation of Sherlock Holmes. It is, plain and simple, not a convincing proposition.

And neither is the interior, which even tops the Ghibli/Quattroporte’s sense of insignificance. I actually welcome the concept of having Ermenegildo Zegna offering a high quality cloth option for the seats, but no matter what quality the upholstery: the current Maseratis’ cabins are simply too run-of-the-mill, too Rocher-like to exude a genuine sense of luxury.

And even if they did, the nasty Rovere Chiaro wood option the demonstration car was equipped with would do its best to sabotage the entire interior ambience. If this is actually wood, then I’d suggest FCA hire the chap who must have been fired from BMW for having brought the hilariously awful ‘wood’ option that was part of the current 3 Series’ Modern line to production. His sensibilities would fit right in with Maserati’s current interior styling ethos.

At the end of my introduction to the Wind of Change (will there be a Levante ‘Scorpions’ limited edition in the vain of VAG’s glorious past efforts?), I was left wondering about my own place in the modern automotive world. This is obviously the kind of car people aspire to these days – yet its appeal utterly eludes me. In the darkest corner of my conscience, I can actually see the reasons why anyone would desire a Range Rover proper: the lofty seating, the lovely cabin, the large windows, the excellent sound insulation, the sense of dignity this car – despite a great many owners’ best efforts to the contrary – still exudes. But this Maserati is too ill-defined, too insecure a product to even appeal as a guilty pleasure.

I’d rather have a whiff of Bora, thanks very much. Of either Maserati or VW provenance.

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Parting Gift I: A Ramp Advertising brochure/ramp.advertorial. Omnilingual and easily digested, as is always the case with Ramp ‘magazine’.
Parting Gift II: A fibre-themed brochure. ’cause fibre’s of the future, just like SUVs and lasers.

Author: Christopher Butt

car design critic // runs // contributes to The Road Rat magazine // writes a column for Octane France //

8 thoughts on “Smelling The Wind Of Change”

  1. From my lofty position it’s hard to remember about aspirations. By which I don’t mean that I now have it all, merely that I’m too old to actually want it any more. But I do remember the sheer exciting difference of, say, Lamborghinis Miura and Espada and the awful longing that I had to get my hands on one. That dreadful feeling of injustice that a provincial schoolboy should be denied access to such wonders. Other cars stand out – relevantly the Frua Quattroporte, a car that made it impossible for me to understand why my dad wouldn’t hock whatever he had to get one. And on a more attainable level my first glimpses of the original XJ6 finished in that shade of red that printed better than it actually sprayed, were so tantalising.

    Of course the Levante is designed to sell more in XJ6 numbers than original Quattroporte numbers but, all the same, what is there about it that would make me want one? Take off the porthole vents and the grille and I’d have no idea what it was. But my alienation from the modern zeitgeist is obviously demonstrated by the fact that I find the image of the solitary woman inhabitant of Concreteville gazing out in search of a fresh wind that will never come more dystopian than aspirational.

    1. I’d noticed the image too. The trope is the same as in many other car ads. There is no sense of fun or joy as in the equally artifiial ads of former times. I always think of JG Ballard when I see these desolate places. The idea is to suggest peace and quiet, tidy order in an urban setting. That’s absurd and tells me that even if the art directors work in towns they don’t know what towns are. Do they expect sterile calm outside their front door? Another way to look at these images is to think of the dead calm of a new office park. That’s what we see in this image. And the lady is dressed in Departure Lounge Moderne, a slight variation on a theme established by Jackie Kennedy. She could have been dressed in Suburban Weekend if they so chosen. And that is the range of styles we are presented with.
      Where does that leave the car? It’s a decoration for the world of brand new concrete villas, airports and office parks where the only sound is the rush of the air-conditioning.

    1. To more sober minds, the Porsche Macan is also a masterpiece of tricking-the-laws-of-physics. I’d still rather have a drive in an original Fiat Panda. Or in a Towns Lagonda.

  2. There is an argument here that we, the collected denizens of DTW (makes sweeping gesture with hands), are not the target market for any of these upmarket sports-biased C/SUVs. Viewed in the abstract, the cars combine practicality with comfort in a package that makes people feel both safe and special. That the various manufacturers have made these heavy vehicles handle in a halfway decent manner is a testament to their engineering skill. It is also testament to the “good enough” attitude of buyers regarding driving dynamics. Sure, these cars are ultimately hobbled by their weight and size, but it transpires that most people don’t care about “handing at the limit”, “steering feel” and all of that enthusiast perpetuated bollocks. Most of these things have big enough engines to make sure they can bounce along at a decent pace, which is as much excitement as anyone seems to want. As long as the handling and major controls are vice free, then people are happy.

    1. Agreed, Chris – to a point.

      I shall forever remember the first generation X5 a close relative of mine once owned. I got to drove it quite regularly and thus experienced what was then “the most dynamic of SUVs”. Later on, the X5 was replaced with an Audi A6 Avant, which did absolutely everything better then the BMW, apart from conveying what is referred to as “steering feel”, engine response (the X5 was a V8 petrol, the Audi a V6 TDI) and tight cornering (courtesy of Audi’s placement of the engine).

      I’m haven’t found myself lusting after an A6 Avant ever since, but whenever I’m seeing an X5, I’m telling myself that this much money could’ve been spent so much more wisely.

      But apart from that, a great many parameters are obviously dependent upon one’s own taste. To C&D’s scribe, the Levante is a visually attractive machine. To me, it is completely unappealing, full stop. Not shockingly ugly, but far removed from the kind of proportions, sculpting and attention to detail I find would worth craving.

  3. Maserati has been forced to adopt in order to survive on a number of occasions, but somehow remained exclusive and desirable – even throughout the less than stellar De Tomaso era. But now, diesel-powered Maserati’s outsell petrol-engined models. Take a moment and think about that. Then try to create your own mental image of what a Maserati is/was. This transformation has taken less than three years to effect and is probably irreversible.

    Now if you were to carry out the same analysis of Porsche sales, you’d more than likely come up with similar percentages, give or take. But Porsche, like them or not, have ensured the type of cars they used to make – the ones that you know, get certain types of automotive enthusiasts inappropriately damp in all the usual places are still being made to the same, or similar standards. In short, Porsche’s brand, despite now being predominantly an SUV constructor, has somehow maintained its mystique.

    Maserati however looks increasingly like losing theirs entirely.

    1. Unfortunately, the Maserati name is being used for the dirty jobs that Ferrari won’t do. For me those sort of cars are all dependent on the engine and I see no sense in them otherwise. So I think it would have been nice to give them more crumbs from the table – they could have produced the California for instance.

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