[Test Drive] If you like the others, consider Maserati
“If you expect anything gentle or well-tamed, you shouldn’t be looking for a Maserati,” said Song Jin-woo, a spokesperson for FMK, the official importer of Maserati models in Korea. “First-time Maserati drivers are usually scared of the car going wild on the road, but once you get used to it, the level of fun simply cannot be compared to that of German cars.”
And with those words ringing in my ears, I tooled around Seoul for two days in a few of the best vehicles offered by the Italian carmaker.
I had heard that Koreans looking for something beyond the smooth rides of Mercedes-Benz and BMW models have been seeking the Italian specialty as their car of choice for driving pleasure of another level. Now I know why.
In the two-and-a-half-hour drive to Gangneung, Gangwon, on the first day behind the wheel of the Levante S SUV, I became a believer in whatever marketing material it threw at me earlier in the day. It was not really exaggerating.
Although Maserati is known for making high-end sports sedans, the Levante S proves that an SUV is not too bulky for speedy performance.
The SUV sports the Maserati trident at the center of the iconic radiator grille, with design cues taken from the Italian brand’s Alfieri concept car. Disquietingly narrow LED headlamps push sleek to its limits.
The car features hand-sewn leather seats and wood veneer. While I have had the pleasure of driving some of the best from Mercedes and Porsche, the Levante S seemed to be a step above. It had a certain custom-made feel.
I was thrown off for a second with an incongruity that’s worth noting. The gearshift and the controls next to the driver’s seat are made of plastic, and the feel of them can ruin the moment.
What’s plastic doing inside a car priced between 159.8 million won ($137,000) and 166.7 million won?
Those doubts vanished after I put the proverbial pedal to the metal and put the 430 horsepower and torque of 59.2 kilogram-meters (428 pound-feet) to work.
On the streets of the city, it was difficult to test the vehicle to its fullest. But once I got out on the open road, I felt I was the king of it. And in Sport mode, the Levante S transforms into a whole new ride altogether.
I zigged, then I zagged, flying at 180 kilometers per hour (112 miles per hour), and handling was never an issue. Even without the digital safety features activated, I was never worried. The Levante S is a precision machine that executes the driver’s will flawlessly.
Of course, I always obeyed all traffic laws - that’s my story, and I’m sticking to it - so I can’t really tell you that the SUV was rock solid near its maximum recommended speed of 264 kilometers per hour.
It’s not that the ride was gentle or that the car warmly hugged the road. The experience was more akin to flying than driving, enjoyable and presumably safe, but exciting.
To be sure, the integrated vehicle control system helps manage what would otherwise be a challenge for even test drive veterans.
Quattroporte S Q4
For the journey back to Seoul, this reporter got the keys for the Quattroporte S Q4 sedan, a flagship model from the Italian luxury sports brand. The four-door sports sedan outdid the already impressive Levante S.
The Quattroporte proved that owning a Maserati means something quite different from having a Mercedes or BMW. While those German automobiles provide a well-refined experience at all speeds, the Maserati asks something of the driver.
It’s less zen and more zip.
The Quattroporte might be one of the largest sedans on the planet, at 5.27 meters long, 1.95 meters wide and 1.49 meters tall. It is also one of the most Maserati out of all the Maseratis, having been in production since 1963.
There they are: the trident and the signature grille. But the headlamps were wider. Then there’s the sound. The distinct “glug-glug” of a high-end sports car seems to emanate from everywhere.
Specs on the Quattroporte S Q4 are the same as those for the Levante S, but the Quattroporte seemed to perform well above the numbers. The 182.6 million won to 196.4 million won price tag seems about right when flying down the highway.
The market seems to disagree.
From January to October this year, a total of 894 Maseratis were sold in Korea, down 30.4 percent from 1,660 units sold during the same period a year earlier, as no new model has been launched in the country in 2019 so far. And Maserati has no plan to release a new model until late next year at the earliest.
As is often the case with foreign brands - with the exception of Mercedes - the infotainment system was just not up to the level expected by Korean consumers. I didn’t really care when I was driving a vehicle from a legendary manufacturer, but some local consumers might.
Despite the sales slump, FMK believes the future will be better for Maserati as German cars are thriving in the country at the moment. The importer believes the high-end cars from the two countries are more complementary than competitive.
The German cars, the importer seems to be saying, are starter cars. Maseratis are there when the drivers are ready to go for a serious drive.
“We never think we are competing against three German automakers in selling Maseratis,” said Park Geun-an, manager for a Maserati showroom in Hannam-dong, central Seoul.
“More than 60 percent of our customers have come to us after riding the German cars, so we don’t think of them as competition but as a foundation for our growth.”
To capitalize on the opportunity, FMK opened a showroom in Hannam-dong, near Itaewon, headed by Park, who is more than ready to greet all the Mercedes and BMW owners interested in upping their game.
“The demand for Maserati has steadily grown these days as more and more people are flocking to north of the Han River from the Gangnam area,” Park said.
“Many of our customers are those who have their own characteristics. They just don’t feel pleasure just from riding an expensive car. They care about the brand image of their rides and want to know the history behind it, all of which Maserati has.”
The Hannam showroom, which opened its doors in 2015, serves as the only end-to-end automobile service center for Maserati, with a maintenance center, a showroom and a sales office. The location serves the customer’s every need and doesn’t try to force anyone to buy.
“We are not selling a product; we are selling a masterpiece,” Park said, mentioning that every employee at the Hannam showroom has to wear gloves when touching Maserati models on display.
“Maserati has more than 100 years of history and has distinguished racing DNA. We are trying to stay loyal with that image in presenting the cars to consumers.”
BY KO JUN-TAE [email@example.com]