The automotive industry is an inherently forward-looking one. How far forward ebbs and flows, but at a minimum, it’s always focused on the next model year, the next model, and the next generation. Work begins five to seven years before the public can put a dollar down, and the next one is already in progress five minutes after the new one goes on sale. Although automakers work hard to keep up with the competition, schedules don’t always align, and you occasionally find a pair of competitors at opposite ends of the development cycle. Competitors like these, the 2020 Maserati Levante Trofeo and the 2020 Porsche Cayenne Turbo Coupe.
The 2020 Cayenne, as you may well know, is all new. Yeah, in the finest Porsche tradition it looks a lot like the old one, but it’s on a new platform and has new powertrains and a new interior. This example in particular is especially new, as it introduces Porsche’s entry into the inexplicably popular SUV-coupe segment.
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More than just a raked roof, the coupe models are now the sportier versions of the Cayenne across the board, and this Turbo comes knocking with a twin-turbo V-8 with 541 hp and 567 lb-ft of torque. Because it shares a platform with other Volkswagen Group products, it makes do with a torque converter automatic instead of Porsche’s own PDK gearbox, but it still drives all four wheels at all times.
(Note: We don’t have the Turbo S here because the only Cayenne Turbo S is now the Turbo S E-Hybrid, which is more powerful but also heavier. That’s good for power and fuel efficiency, less so for handling.)
The Levante Trofeo, meanwhile, is a somewhat recent addition to the Levante lineup, now in its fifth year on the market. More critically, for reasons you’ll soon understand, it shares a platform with Maserati’s two sedans. This platform stretches back to 2013. Not the oldest platform on the market, but it’s a generation behind Porsche.
Initially offered only with twin-turbocharged V-6 engines, the Levante was a compelling option but lacked the oomph needed to partake in a comparison like this. With the addition of a twin-turbocharged V-8, however, things got a lot more interesting. This Trofeo model, the mightiest of the Maseratis, huffs out 590 hp and 538 lb-ft of torque by way of the same ZF-sourced eight-speed auto as the Porsche, and that power goes to all four wheels. This is a proper matchup. On paper, anyway.
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Levante Trofeo vs. Cayenne Turbo Coupe: Powertrain Showdown
It starts off well enough. Maybe it’s the way the Trofeo rears back when you give it a kick, or maybe it’s the way the Ferrari-built and programmed V-8 meters its turbo boost to even out the power delivery, but the Maserati absolutely rips. Compared to other turbocharged V-8s, it feels soft at the bottom end because it doesn’t hit you in the face with a wall of torque. Like the old naturally aspirated V-8s the engine computer emulates, it builds power in a never-ending wave so that things really start to get interesting in the midrange, and it absolutely screams on the top end. Then you hit the next gear, and the engine drops right back into that midrange, and you get to relive the best part of the powerband again until the next upshift when you get to do it again.
“The engine doesn’t sound very good inside,” road test editor Chris Walton said. “It’s definitely the muffled exhaust of a turbo. But what an engine it is. Bright and linear like the Ferrari 488, but I could definitely sense it was slightly burdened shoving a heavy SUV down the road.”
The turbos do indeed layer a lot of noise over the beautiful exhaust note inside the vehicle, but folks on the outside are treated to the best turbo V-8 noise around, so at least someone gets to enjoy it.
The Porsche sounds better inside—when you can hear it. Although it isn’t as powerful as the Maserati, it has the torque, and it’s not afraid to show it. Any time you put the pedal down, a surge of pent-up power is released on the asphalt. You don’t get the same hair-on-fire feeling as the needle sweeps toward redline, but it ain’t slow, either.
The Cayenne was, however, held back slightly by its transmission programming—highly unusual for a Porsche, but then, this is a new transmission to the brand even though seemingly every other automaker has been using it for years. Walton and senior features editor Jonny Lieberman both expressed mild disappointment in it for not choosing gears with the same telepathy as Porsche’s in-house dual-clutch automatic transmission, better known as PDK. It made a few unnecessary shifts here and there, which it had to go back and correct, and it had a tendency to fall out of step with the driver if you backed off the throttle for more than a few seconds. Let the car coast through a long enough sweeper, and even in its sharpest mode, the transmission would suddenly give up and select the highest gear, assuming you were done having fun. Put your foot back in it, and you’d catch it flat-footed for a beat. Some companies would kill to program transmissions this well, but by Porsche standards, it misses the mark.
Maserati isn’t one of those companies. Years of experience with this transmission have imparted expertise in programming it. The Maser never missed a shift, and if you put it in Sport or Corsa mode, it never backed off. You told it you wanted to play, and it came to play. And if you want to shift it yourself just for giggles, well, I’ll let Walton tell you.
“Maserati gets a bonus point for the most satisfying paddle shifter here,” he said. “Genuine metal with a satisfying amount of travel and just the right sound when you grab a gear.”
Trouble is, the powertrain department is the only one where the Trofeo can hold a candle to the Turbo Coupe (maybe in design, too, but that’s entirely subjective).
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Levante Trofeo vs. Cayenne Turbo Coupe: The Handling Hook
We’ll start with the big one: handling. Features editor Christian Seabaugh, MotorTrend en Español managing editor Miguel Cortina, Jonny, and I, without talking about it, all compared the Turbo Coupe’s handling to a 911 Carrera. The body control is perfect. It hunkers down and jukes like a sports car. At no point does it ever feel like it weighs more than 2.5 tons. Porsche has struck that ideal balance we look for in a Best Driver’s Car winner: just enough body roll to make you feel truly invested in the drive but tempered by millimeter-precise control and unimpeachable grip. Pair that with real compliance in the suspension, even under load, to absorb bumps, and you can’t ask for more from a vehicle except for the speed necessary to fully exploit this capability, and the Porsche has plenty of that.
“It’s as if it’s anchored to the apex with a chain,” Walton said, “and you’re just along for the ride. Yet there’s enough grip wiggle room in the system (e.g., dodging a rock in a corner) that allows near-limit handling with adjustability in case you need it.”
Jonny, without talking to Walton about it, said the same thing: “You’re able to make mid-corner corrections without upsetting the SUV. Very impressive. That said, you don’t need to make many mid-corner corrections because the Turbo Coupe is so communicative and accurate. You tend to choose the correct steering angle—a mark of a well-engineered…thing.”
The steering really is that good, too. For an electrically assisted rack in a 5,000-plus-pound SUV, anyway. Look, it’s never going to feel like 911 steering, but damn if Porsche didn’t give its best effort. The Maserati’s steering is quick and precise, but the Porsche’s is more so while also providing far more road feel than the disconnected Trofeo.
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“Its steering is direct and immediate,” Seabaugh said. “It’s always subtly transmitting from the road up to the Alcantara-wrapped wheel what’s going on.”
Then there’s the Maserati. Remember how I said its chassis is a generation behind? The suspension makes this inescapably clear. There’s far more travel in the suspension, which translates to more vertical motion in the cabin every time there’s a bump. You feel the suspension bind up then release and shoot you upward when it hits a big bump, or fully droop then bind up as the body catches up when it drops into a dip. It must be said it absorbs the harshness of these bumps as well as the Porsche does, but whereas the Porsche seems to handle it all in the individual corners, the Maserati uses the whole vehicle to dissipate the energy. Every action, being jumped up or compressed down, has an equal and opposite reaction as you’re launched the other way. Lots of these high-performance SUV things used to do this, but it’s been tuned out of the latest generations. Hopefully, it’ll be tuned out of the Maserati’s next generation.
As much as the body bounces up and down, the thing does hang on, even when those bounces happen mid-corner. I wasn’t a fan of the first five generations of Continental SportContact tires, but the SportContact6 finally combines grip with longevity. There was a time that the tread blocks (especially on the outside shoulder) would look like ground beef after one good run, but these hold up as well as they hold on. It’s especially notable considering how much the vehicle is moving around on top of the rubber—loading and unloading the tires as you go.
“There’s a particular point where the Levante Trofeo feels excellent,” Jonny said, “when you’re just past apex and rolling on the power. Suddenly, everything makes sense, and yeah, man, you’re in a super SUV. But the rest of the time, it just doesn’t feel as good.”
That moment is precisely when the active rear differential engages. The Porsche has one, too, but it engages seamlessly. You never feel it working. You feel the Maser’s. Get it set up in the corner and roll on the throttle, and you’ll immediately feel the outside rear wheel being overworked and pushing you around the corner. With the engine high on its horsepower, the transmission in the right gear, and the suspension settled, you feel for a moment the potential this thing has.
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Levante Trofeo vs. Cayenne Turbo Coupe: Brake Stuff
Then you get to the corner and hit the brakes and the moment passes. For steel brakes on a 5,000-pound SUV, these are pretty good. For a time. There must be a lot of brake cooling going on because they hang in there for a while, but then the pedal gets longer and longer. It still stops, but you really feel like you ought to back off before it doesn’t and let the smoke clear. Shockingly, appallingly, inexplicably, Maserati won’t sell you a carbon-ceramic brake upgrade on this thing. The Brembo factory is a two-hour drive from Maserati world headquarters. This is absurd.
Porsche, however, will absolutely sell you carbon-ceramic brakes, and the units are as flawless as the chassis. The brake pedal feels as if it’s been lifted part and parcel from the 911, with all the tactility and adjustability you expect from a Porsche. You have enormous stopping power on hand, but you can modulate it with the pressure of your toes in your shoe.
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Here’s the part where I make a small excuse for the Maserati. Back off a bit, and drive it quickly, but not like you’re setting a qualifying lap, and it all works pretty well. At 75 percent capacity, neither the chassis nor the brakes are overtaxed. The Porsche, though, is never overtaxed. Ever. Nor does the charm wear off when you slow down. The Cayenne is as nice to drive slower—and even slowly—as the Maserati is, whether you’re just out for a Sunday drive or sitting in traffic.
Levante Trofeo vs. Cayenne Turbo Coupe: Cabin Fever
There’s no excusing the Maserati’s interior, though. Whether it’s the switches and stalks plucked straight from the Dodge parts bin, the uninspired design, or the Barcalounger sport seats that leave you sliding all over the place and trying to brace with knees, elbows, and anything else, it’s just a letdown across the board. Sure, the materials are really nice, from the leather to the Alcantara and those aluminum shift paddles, but all are laid over a design that’s conservative at best. Even the infotainment system is the least intuitive iteration of FCA’s brilliant Uconnect setup, as it’s burdened with an odd organization of functions.
Not that the Porsche’s interior is perfect. It’s very modern and tech-forward, which is cool, but all the piano-black touch-sensitive surfaces are a smudge-fest, and the infotainment system is heavily layered and cumbersome to navigate. Otherwise, it’s pretty good. And the seats are great.
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The Porsche is also $20,000 cheaper to start, did I mention that? Maserati wants $151,485 minimum for a Levante Trofeo, tens of thousands more than nearly every other vehicle in the class. Only Bentley and Lamborghini charge more for a super SUV. Porsche, of course, will get you with the options. In this case, $27,000 worth, making this Cayenne Turbo Coupe $4,375 more expensive than the Maserati as tested. But think about that for a minute. You can put 20 grand worth of options on a Cayenne that already outperforms and out-luxuries the Maserati and still break even. It’s even more galling when you know Maserati was asking $170,000 for the thing up until this model year.
This is the part where I’m supposed to tell you the Italians have infused some mesmerizing, intangible soul in the Maserati that makes all its shortcomings forgivable and forgettable. The sound, the look, the way it makes you feel, some “X factor,” as Jonny likes to call it. Sorry, not this time.
“The Maser is at its best in a vacuum,” Seabaugh said, speaking for all of us. “On its own, on the open road, it feels powerful, fast, and fun, but when driven back to back with the Porsche, it’s quite clear how outclassed it is.”
This didn’t look like a lopsided comparison on paper, but that’s why we do what we do. I’ll let Cortina play us out: “I keep being impressed with how meticulous Porsche is in tuning its cars. They look at every detail to make sure it delivers the way it’s supposed to, and for that reason, they keep winning comparisons.”
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