It’s no secret: Coupe and sedan sales are in decline, and sport utilities are keeping many automakers in the black. That doesn’t mean fun died. More SUVs are available with previously unheard of amounts of power, transmissions with multiple shift programs, and increasingly clever AWD systems. Intelligent and active suspensions enable physics-defying cornering poise and precision, plus ever-improving tire technology that makes it all work for the intended purpose: a sport utility—emphasis on sport—that’s fun to drive. These two examples, however, go beyond mere sport. With zero-to-60 mph acceleration in under four seconds, they’ll embarrass muscle cars and purebred sports cars alike. These are Super SUVs.
In this Super SUV shootout, we pitted the visually stunning 2020 Maserati Levante Trofeo against the comparatively somber 2021 Mercedes-AMG GLE 63 S 4Matic+. But this isn’t a beauty contest. Both are powered by twin-turbo V-8s dancing around 600 horsepower sent through all-wheel drive. Both have supple and adjustable air springs and multimode adaptive dampers. But which is more satisfying to drive?.
Unquestionably, AMG was the very first to dip its toe in the modern high-performance SUV pond 20 years ago with the ML55 AMG. It would take Porsche three years to introduce the Cayenne, Jeep six years with the Grand Cherokee SRT8, and BMW 10 years for the X5 M. Looking back at the so called “Sport/Brute of Sport/Utes,” we called ML55 the “quickest, fastest, best-handling, and, quite simply, the baddest sport/utility on the planet.” Hyperbole intended, its naturally aspirated 5.4-liter SOHC 24-valve V-8 made 342 hp (40 hp less than the 2020 Mercedes-AMG CLA 45’s 2.0L 4-cylinder turbo) that propelled the body-on-frame (remember those?) ML to 60 mph in 6.3 seconds—a feat now eclipsed by, of all things, a 2020 Honda Pilot. Seriously.
Engine vs. Engine
Three generations later, that ML55’s spiritual successor, the GLE 63 S, packs an even more potent punch. Originally debuted in the AMG GT sports car, the now-ubiquitous 4.0L twin-turbo DOHC 32-valve V-8 pumps out a punishing 603 hp and 627 lb-ft of torque; that’s good enough for a 3.4-second sprint to 60 mph in this SUV. The evolution of this engine sees the addition of an electric motor/starter that can torque-fill the power delivery to quell turbo lag as well as instantly fire the engine in auto stop/start conditions. Under other certain conditions, the electric motor can temporarily propel the GLE with the internal combustion engine shut off. Just like the AMG GT, it still sounds magnificent without the telltale garbled exhaust that so many turbocharged engines suffer.
After blasting the GLE 63 S up and down L.A. ‘s infamous Angeles Crest Highway, senior features editor Jonny Lieberman put it this way: “News that shocks no one: AMG makes big, strong engines. Power and torque and then more power and more torque. Stud of a machine.” It’s shocking, then, that a prudent driver could eke out 20 mpg fuel economy on the highway.
In the other corner, the Maserati Levante Trofeo also sourced its engine from an impressive performer, the mid-engine Ferrari 488 GTB sports car, a supercar that won MotorTrend’s 2017 Best Driver’s Car. We lauded, among many other things, the 3.9L twin-turbo DOHC 32-valve V-8 as an exceptional engine for its lack of turbo lag, its “fat” and flat torque delivery, and its “animalistic” engine note. Well, you get two out of four in this cross-plane crank application. In the Levante Trofeo, the engine makes 590 horsepower and 538 lb-ft of torque, enough to drive the SUV to 60 mph in an estimated 3.3 seconds; that would be at full throttle, of course. Sadly, most of the 488’s glorious engine note is muted by the turbos and the several feet of additional exhaust tubing that features editor Scott Evans reckoned turned the Maser into “a V-8-powered vacuum cleaner.” Still, every driver noted how impressive the engine was all the way up to its 7,200-rpm (!) redline. “Bright and linear like the Ferrari 488, but I could definitely sense it was slightly burdened shoving a 5,000-pound SUV down the road,” I wrote. Giving up nearly 90 lb-ft of torque to the GLE 63 S really showed up in the real world. The engine sometimes felt flat-footed when the AMG engine was eager. Yet there’s also a pleasant urgency as the Levante’s revs swing past 4,000 rpm and horsepower really begins to come into play. What a stallion. All this and the Levante Trofeo will also earn a speed-limit-attentive driver close to 20 mpg on the highway.
Driving Performance: Seven Years Make a Difference
As mentioned above, we took these two Super SUVs to one of our favorite and best-known roads in southern California. On its sinuous route to our usual turn-around at 5,300-feet elevation, it offers a good number of trials for any sport-intended vehicle: that altitude gain/loss, camber changes, and a wide variety of slow and fast corners, plus a straight or two to safely explore the higher gears. This challenging road really gives any vehicle a good, all-around workout, be it engine, brakes, suspension, or steering.
Road Battle: Levante vs. GLE 63 S
Imagine you worked on the AMG team, tasked with making a 5,500-pound SUV feel capable and confident. The old AMG recipe? Give it more power! The GLE 63 certainly has that, but in recent years, the division has made huge strides when it comes to handling – even with this slugger. Quick and clever computers, electrically controlled drive and handling systems, and the successful, happy marriage of the two are the key to allowing a GLE 63 S driver to attack a mountain road with near-reckless abandon. What we witnessed in the GLE simply wasn’t possible several years ago.
Self-leveling, adjustable-height air springs and multi-mode adaptive dampers are nothing new to SUVs. Those provide a smooth highway ride. What the GLE 63 S adds to the mix is active engine mounts, 48-volt-powered active anti-roll bars, and rear-axle steering. Combine these with an AMG-tuned nine-speed automatic, astute AWD, and a limited-slip rear differential, and you’ve got hardware once found only on high-end sports cars.
There are distinct personalities among the common available drive modes: Comfort, Sport, Sport+, Race, and more options as you delve into Individual, Trail, and Sand. The AMG influence really comes to light in Sport+ and Race modes, as one might imagine. Driving up the hill in Sport+, I was immediately reminded of the first time I drove the Mercedes-AMG GT S, also a MotorTrend Best Driver’s Car winner. Like that sports car, this SUV was anticipating (or had been programmed with my inclinations and instincts) as it blipped the throttle and shed gears in braking zones, landing in the proper ratio for the corner as if I were rapidly pulling the downshift paddle. The optional carbon-ceramic brakes did as promised, with a medium-firm pedal and high resistance to fade. The GLE 63 S turned into corners with the type of confident precision that required only one input on the steering wheel to navigate all the way through the corners, slow or fast, smooth or bumpy. It was like a guided missile. As I grew more confident, realizing that surface irregularities never upset its arc, I could roll into the throttle earlier and earlier on the exits while relying on the driveline’s ability to put power where it needed to be to leap out of bends. It was so good that it might even be call it “easy.”
Levante Trofeo Driving Performance
The Maserati Levante Trofeo, with its fiery engine and snappy ZF eight-speed automatic, also enjoys air springs, a smart, heavily rear-biased AWD system, and a limited-slip rear differential. Throttle response, exhaust note, transmission behavior, ride height, reactions from the magnetorheological dampers, and traction/stability control are collectively controlled through off-road, I.C.E. (Increased Control and Efficiency), sport, and Corsa (race) selections. It has all the ingredients to take on the hill, so how did it perform?
Features editor Christian Seabaugh collectively summed up our individual assessments when he said, “There’s a constant sense of delay gain with the Levante. Turn-in and wait. Hard into the brakes and wait. Mat the throttle and wait. Nothing in this thing happens instantly—it’s like you’re constantly having to convince a team of little Italians on their espresso break to do what you ask.” Lieberman found its happy place, however, noting, “There’s a particular point where the Levante Trofeo feels excellent, when you’re just past apex and rolling on the power. Suddenly, everything makes sense and yeah man, you’re in a super SUV.” If you’re outside the Levante’s happy place, the SUV felt ponderous and simply not as capable as the GLE. Its lack of body control—even in Sport or Corsa—makes it much less confident than the GLE. I felt like I was driving at my nine-tenths the entire time in the Levante, yet at a considerably slower pace than the GLE. I was also falling out of the driver’s seat on every corner, needing to press the dead pedal extra hard to push myself into the seat, or use the steering wheel to maintain my position. And the wheel requires more “clocking” due to its 16.1:1 ratio. It’s exhausting to drive quickly.
Despite the relatively slow steering ratio, most agreed the feel of the electric-assisted system was quite good: non-digital, almost hydraulic. The consensus was the opposite on the feel of the brake pedal. There’s ample braking capability when you mash the pedal and got enough heat capacity from the large-diameter vented/drilled steel Brembos, but the pedal travel required to use them is excessive, even alarming at times. I sent my backpack from the passenger front seat to the footwell once because I misjudged how much pressure was needed.
Two Different Eras
By the end of the day, we all resolved it’s as if the two SUVs are from different eras, and effectively, they are. Based on the 2014 Ghibli sedan, the Levante debuted in 2017, and not much has changed. The Ferrari-sourced engine was certainly welcome, and the FCA-sourced infotainment system is easy to learn and use. Yet, the Levante’s interior suffers from too much use of plastic, obvious FCA—or should we say Stellantis—parts sharing, and just plain lack of performative competitiveness in what is becoming a pretty viable slice of the SUV pie, especially at a price that starts $36,540 above the GLE 63 S 4Matic+. MotorTrend en Español managing editor Miguel Cortina put it this way: “Poor Maserati, it just feels out of place… There are two things I like, its engine and transmission, but other than that it doesn’t have anything to really compete in the segment. If Maserati wants to survive, it has to do way better than this.” Maserati brought a rapid, smooth-riding, and quiet Grand Touring SUV to a Super SUV shootout.
The GLE was heavily revised in 2019 and it shows. The two enormous high-definition instrument panel and infotainment screens are just the beginning. Even if the user interface is difficult to manage while driving, its capabilities cannot be denied. The attention to detail in the cabin is meticulous. The adept use of colors, materials, and textures is top notch. The way it attacks roads is remarkable. It’s brutish driveline, ready-for-anything chassis, and overall competence are irrefutable. It makes an average driver feel like a hero, but other, more competent drivers felt it was anodyne; that it made it too easy to go fast. Is that really a liability or an asset for a Super SUV? I’ll take confidence, predictability, and “how is this even possible?” over “what’s going to happen next?” every time.
|POWERTRAIN/CHASSIS||2020 Maserati Levante Trofeo||2021 Mercedes-AMG GLE 63 S 4Matic+ SUV|
|DRIVETRAIN LAYOUT||Front-engine, AWD||Front-engine, AWD|
|ENGINE TYPE||Twin-turbo 90-deg V-8, alum block/heads||Twin-turbo 90-deg V-8, alum block/heads, plus electric motor|
|VALVETRAIN||DOHC 4 valves/cyl||DOHC 4 valves/cyl|
|DISPLACEMENT||231.8 cu in/3,799 cc||243.0 cu in/3,982 cc|
|POWER (SAE NET)||590 hp @ 6,250 rpm||603 hp @ 5,750 rpm (gas), 21 hp (elec), 603 hp (comb)|
|TORQUE (SAE NET)||538 lb-ft @ 2,500 rpm||627 lb-ft @ 2,500 rpm (gas), 184 lb-ft (elec), 627 lb-ft (comb)|
|REDLINE||7,200 rpm||7,000 rpm|
|WEIGHT TO POWER||8.5 lb/hp (MT est)||9.1 lb/hp (MT est)|
|0-60 MPH||3.3 sec (MT est)||3.4 (MT est)|
|TRANSMISSION||8-speed automatic||9-speed automatic|
|SUSPENSION, FRONT; REAR||Control arms, air springs, adj shocks, anti-roll bar; multilink, air springs, adj shocks, anti-roll bar||Control arms, air springs, adj shocks, adj anti-roll bar; multilink, air springs, adj shocks, adj anti-roll bar|
|STEERING RATIO||16.1:1||Not yet available|
|TURNS LOCK-TO-LOCK||2.8||Not yet available|
|BRAKES, F; R||15.0-in vented, drilled disc; 13.0-in vented, drilled, disc, ABS||15.8-in vented, drilled, disc; 14.6-in vented, drilled, disc, ABS|
|WHEELS||9.0 x 22-in; 10.5 x 22-in, forged aluminum||10.0 x 22-in; 11.0 x 22-in, forged aluminum|
|TIRES||265/35R22 102Y; 295/30R22 103Y Continental SportContact 6 MGT||285/40R22 110Y; 325/35R22 114Y Michelin Pilot Sport 4S M01|
|WHEELBASE||118.3 in||117.9 in|
|TRACK, F/R||64.4/66.9 in||66.7/67.7 in|
|LENGTH x WIDTH x HEIGHT||197.6 x 78.0 x 65.4-68.4 in||190.0 x 79.5 x 70.2 in|
|GROUND CLEARANCE||6.8-9.7 in||7.5-8.1 in (MT est)|
|APPRCH/DEPART ANGLE||22.0/26.0 deg||18.0/19.8 deg|
|TURNING CIRCLE||41.2 ft||40.7 ft|
|CURB WEIGHT||5,000 lb (MT est)||5,500 lb (MT est)|
|WEIGHT DIST, F/R||51/49% (MT est)||56/44% (MT est)|
|TOWING CAPACITY||Not equipped for towing||7,700 lb|
|HEADROOM, F/R||40.2/39.1 in||40.5/39.6 in|
|LEGROOM, F/R||41.6/37.2 in||40.3/40.9 in|
|SHOULDER ROOM, F/R||57.8/55.9 in||59.3/58.3 in|
|CARGO VOLUME, BEH F/R||57.4/20.5 cu ft||74.9/33.3 cu ft|
|PRICE AS TESTED||$154,085||$133,075|
|AIRBAGS||6: Dual front, front side, f/r curtain||9: Dual front, f/r side, f/r curtain, driver knee|
|BASIC WARRANTY||4 yrs/50,000 miles||4 yrs/50,000 miles|
|POWERTRAIN WARRANTY||4 yrs/50,000 miles||4 yrs/50,000 miles|
|ROADSIDE ASSISTANCE||4 yrs/50,000 miles||4 yrs/50,000 miles|
|FUEL CAPACITY||21.1 gal||22.5 gal|
|EPA CITY/HWY/COMB ECON||14/18/15 mpg||15/19/16 mpg|
|ENERGY CONS, CITY/HWY||241/187 kW-hrs/100 mi||225/117 kW-hrs/100 miles|
|CO2 EMISSIONS, COMB||1.25 lb/mile||1.15 lb/mile|
|RECOMMENDED FUEL||Unleaded premium||Unleaded premium|