We Drove the Jaguar F-Pace R and Maserati Levante S

December 23, 2016, 6:34 PM UTC

Alfieri Maserati and his brothers founded what became Maserati in 1914, and eight years later, Sir William Lyons founded Jaguar. One built Italian stallions that ruled racing. The other constructed British bombshells that did the same. Since then, both marques have tried their respective hands at various model types—sedans, grand tourers, sports cars, convertibles. Neither has ever put a well-heeled toe in the world of sport utility vehicles—until now, with the Maserati Levante and the Jaguar F-Pace.

While purists may flinch, it’s an understandable move. Luxury SUVs and crossovers are hot-sellers today, and both Jaguar and Maserati expect their new versions to represent up to 50% of sales going forward. I took both models out to see first, how good each is; second, how well each represents its iconic brand and heritage; and third, how they hold up against one another.

The first to hit my driveway was a Grigio Metallo Maserati Levante S. With a 424-horsepower twin turbo V6, all-wheel drive, carbon fiber trim, paddle shifters, and red brake calipers peeking between the spokes of its 21-inch wheels, the Levante S certainly is walking the brand’s talk about delivering performance. The toothy grill, seductively swooping haunches, and guttural growl are all-important Italian icing.

All that eye candy had people—mostly men—turning their heads when I first drove it around town, and stopping me in parking lots to ask questions. What is it? A Maserati. Is it fast? Yes. Is it up-to-date? Yes, there’s a good amount of tech—active cruise control with autonomous braking, blind spot monitoring, parking sensors and surround view cameras. How does it sound? Sexy.

Maserati, owned by Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, worked hard to build the Levante not on a Chrysler or Jeep platform but instead on the Ghibli and Quattroporte sedan platform to give it more of a car-like feel. Unfortunately, some Chrysler parts slipped in, too. The touchscreen, graphics and center controls all feel more Detroit (because they are) than Modena.

I took the Levante S—price as tested a hefty $99,000 (base is $83,000)—up the Pacific Coast Highway. In sport mode, the Levante’s air suspension hunkers the body down for performance (there are five ride heights in all). And aurally, it is 100% Maserati. The sonorous bass-to-baritone that blasts from the tailpipes is so engaging I found myself modulating the gas just to provoke more. (I later asked for a full engineering description of how they achieve such a range of tones and the dense, lengthy answer I got was as complex as the sounds themselves.)

I felt some lag under hard acceleration, but very little body roll for a beast longer than a Porsche Cayenne. The Levante hugged the road and felt smaller than actually it is in motion, but its svelte lines cut into visibility, so parking was a bit trickier (still a price I’m willing to pay). And in truth, although it’s perfectly capable off-road, it’ll rarely see such tough duty from the typical owner.

Breaking away from the hot Italian, let’s turn to the next delight that hit my driveway: a black-on-black Jaguar F-Pace R-Sport. First impressions count, and mine was: masculine, expensive, and debonair. If the Levante is (forgive the American reference) Patrick Dempsey, then the F-Pace is Colin Firth on a really good day.

Surprisingly, even as equipped (which means loaded), my F-Pace cost $73,000 (base is $55,000). That is a whopping $26,000 less than my Levante S.

One reason for the lower cost is less power on paper: 340 horsepower from a V6 supercharged engine—nearly 100 horses less than the Italian. But here’s the surprise: When I drove the Jaguar up the same stretch of PCH, it felt as powerful and a bit smoother than the Maserati.

Jaguar has long had some secret sauce behind its buttery, linear ride, and his name is Mike Cross, a development engineer in the UK who is single-handedly responsible for why Jags feel so good. I confirmed with head designer Ian Callum that Cross had indeed had his hand—or in this case the seat of his pants—in the F-Pace’s calibration. Another factor is that, like the Levante, the F-Pace did not borrow a platform from sibling Land Rover but instead used its new modular sedan platform.

The F-Pace also has tons of tech, all that the Levante has plus lane-keep assist and an adaptation of Land Rover’s superb hill-descent control sytem. The cockpit feels expensive and at night is bathed in chic mood lighting, color of your choice. There’s also a clever (or quirky, depending how you look at it) option, something called the Activity Key, which appears to be a generic black rubber bracelet. The Activity Key syncs to the main key fob, disabling it, so that you can leave your key in the vehicle while you go kite-surfing or paddleboarding (it’s also waterproof) without fear of losing it. Now, how many people surf in the UK?

So what’s the verdict? Both boutique luxury manufacturers have managed to carve out new and credible versions of an SUV, and each has done so in a brand-appropriate way. You’ll pay more for the Maserati, and for that you get more power and more overt sex appeal—with slightly less cargo space. The Jaguar is more understated but a hugely competent contender. Between the silky acceleration, roomy interior, and handsomely lit flexible cargo space, I’d take the F-Pace. But my cellphone’s ringtone will remain a Maserati going 0 to 100, so there’s room to sway me.

Jaguar F-Pace: base price from $42,000

Jaguar F-Pace R-Sport: base price $56,000; price as tested $73,000

Maserati Levante: base price from $72,000

Maserati Levante S: base price from $83,000; price as tested $99,000