Sometimes the very best road trip is the one you fly to. Going far from home gives us the chance to pair pristine rubber with a new locale. It’s even better when both the car and the place are equally exotic. And so I find myself in fresh wheels, the very latest Maserati Levante, and exploring an unusual location, the Emirate of Sharjah—the third largest of the United Arab Emirates, bordering Dubai.
Maserati’s first-ever SUV, the Levante was first released last year and already the 2018 model sees technological upgrades and two new trims, the GranLusso and the GranSport. Both come with a Ferrari-sourced twin-turbo V-6—an engine with 430 hp and 580 ft lbs of torque.
The GranLusso tilts toward the luxe, with optional Ermenegildo Zegna silk-swaddled comfort seats, wood trim, and a chrome grille. The GranSport gets sport bucket seats, red-painted brake calipers, and a blacked-out grille. Both trim packages are priced starting at $92,000.
Around us is sand, sand, everywhere. Though our trip began in Abu Dhabi, we’d left behind the blue waters of the Persian Gulf the day before to bed down at a Ritz-Carlton partner hotel, the Al Wadi Desert, Ras Al Khaimah resort, a literal oasis in the emirate of Ras Al Khaimah. The land was thirsty, but each villa had its own private pool.
As the sun bleeds over the dunes in the early morning, I jump out of bed and into the red-and-black interior of a GranSport. Maserati did an excellent job with the new trim as it feels handcrafted, and the carbon-fiber inlays and bright leather are jaunty and fun. The sports seats are comfortable, too.
One major change from the 2017 version is the steering. The hydraulic setup has been replaced by an electric power steering unit, which often signals trouble. And yet it isn’t so. The road out of the resort is a tight two-lane over twisting hills, and the steering proves to be naturally firm, tactile, and exact—pretty great, actually. (One of the reasons for the steering change is that it works in tandem with a new suite of advanced driving assistance programs, including one which helps you keep in your lane.)
The engine snorts happily, in proper Maserati style, occasioning two camels to raise their lumpy heads and stare as we roar by. We aim east, further inland, and the roads narrow from multilane freeways to double lanes. The asphalt worsens and the roadside buildings coarsen until the monumental spires of Abu Dhabi seem like a desert mirage. If the UAE’s coastal cities are right out of Blade Runner, this landscape is closer to 1001 Arabian Nights.
The sensation of going back in time is even more significant when we hit a dirt road and then hook a right at the tomb of Umm Al Nar—an ancient and significant archeological site.
From there we find only towering dunes. The sand is extremely fine, and deep, a specific hue of sun-licked gold. The outside temperature gauge reads more than 100 degrees Fahrenheit. I’m thankful for the Italian air conditioner that lends a Mediterranean-like comfort to the cabin.
Not very long ago, tackling the desert in a Maserati would have been madness. The Levante, however, is a genuine SUV rather than a crossover, with a locking rear differential, skid plates, and an air suspension that increases ride height. Putting it in the highest ride position and in off-road mode, the Levante happily eats up the first miles of sandy track.
Driving in deep sand is tricky. Momentum is key; a moment’s indecisiveness can lead to bogging down. You’ve got to keep your foot on the gas, have quick hands to get ahead of the slides, and use the vehicle’s momentum to pivot direction. When I occasionally shut the traction control completely off, the Levante is a sand-spewing riot due to its 50-50 weight distribution and low center of gravity.
Still, the Levante is not truly outfitted for this kind of duty, especially with regular road tires. Hardcore off-roaders have a front and rear locking differential. The Mercedes G-Wagon has three. And the sand is greedy. Like any wise desert traveler, I am not alone; we are a caravan of Levantes. But my fellow travelers, one after another, sink into the sand when they don’t give their steed enough gas. Out come the shovels and tow ropes.
I tire of waiting, spin a whirlwind of doughnuts that rises into plumes of dust into the blue sky—and then rocket off to charge out of the dunes on full throttle, sending the Levante off all four wheels more than once. New roads call out.
We turn toward Abu Dhabi and the sea. Tonight I’ll put my head down in the great halls of the Emirates Palace, one of the most expensive hotels ever built. I can’t help but notice that the Levante looks just as at home in the Palace’s valet portico as it does in the dunes—and that’s as rare as a downpour in the desert.