Ironic, really, the sport sedan's very existence is on figurative thin ice because of SUVs like what you see here; yet these 400hp, 5,000-pound, family-hauling fashion statements are quite literally supported by a mere 11 inches of frozen water. Yes, you read that right; we're taking these two luxury heavyweights worth more than $150,000 combined (without options) for a drive on a frozen lake. Truth be told, when I say this last sentence aloud, I still don't believe we're actually doing this. The idea sounded awesome back at home, but when you actually get on the ice and see the two shiny super-SUVs that may potentially end up with the most embarrassing salvage titles in history, you really start to question your sanity.
On the road, we've discovered both of these SUVs are capable of dynamic feats that would embarrass the best sports sedans from not that long ago. But if all they do is mimic the sports sedan, what is the point? Luckily, those roads lead here, Lake Sniardwy, Poland's largest lake located in the northern part of the country, just an hour's drive away from Russia. We've got professional lifeguards on hand that will help us judge the conditions reliably and pull us out of the frigid drink if necessary. They're here to save our lives, not boost our egos; the husky-Hasselhoffs really enjoy watching me squirm at the prospect of calling Maserati and Volvo to tell them I won't be able to return their cars until spring. After an obligatory round of jokes and more horror stories of where the lake is deepest or how far the currents can move cars underwater, I am advised to play it cool (apologies for the pun) and just keep driving if I see or hear the ice crack or crunch.
As I cover my first frozen meters, it becomes clear they weren't joking about the last one. I gently descend from the concrete ramp designed to launch boats rather than a Maserati (thank goodness for the adaptive Skyhook suspension and its ability to rise a full 1.6 inches in the Off-road mode to authentically off-road-worthy 9.75 inches ground clearance), and I hear some noises that can't mean anything good. My photographer, still heroically standing on the pier, shouts some even less comforting words about huge ice cracks that appear under the wheels, following the car wherever it goes like CGI in a sci-fi movie. I'm coming for you, Bobby Drake! Only then do I visualize 11 inches of ice. Eleven. Inches. I mean, my iPad measures 12 inches and I wouldn't drive on that.
As it turns out, 11 inches of ice is enough to comfortably keep these two family haulers on the dry side. It's generally believed that a car can drive on a frozen lake when the ice thickness goes past 8 inches, and when it grows to 12 inches, even medium-sized trucks are allowed. Keep repeating that to yourself; don't worry if the person who said it actually did any testing, and soon you'll learn to live with the cracking sounds. Once I've broken the ice (metaphorically), we can focus on the reason why I wanted to drive the new Maserati SUV to and then on a frozen lake, while stacking it against the newest and best Volvo SUV in these most bizarre conditions.
The shortest answer is: Because it exists. For the last century, the Trident logo has worked hard for its reputation by adorning the noses of some of the finest race cars, the most luxurious coupes, and the sportiest sedans. The car to shape the next 100 years of Trident's fortunes though is a volume-chasing SUV. Levante could be the greatest challenge in Maserati's history, as for the last century the legendary Italian brand has simply invented the segments it became so good at; the 1947 Maserati A6 can be regarded as one of the world's first grand tourers, while the 1963 Maserati Quattroporte put the words "sedan," "speed," and "sexy" in the same sentence decades before any of the German performance brands rolled out their AMG Hammers and BMW M5s. In Levante's case, though, Maserati joins a segment brimming with strident competition, already enjoying a few generations of honing. Without previous experience in anything taller than a sedan, Maserati dives headlong into the deep end—again, not literally.
The Levante isn't as extreme as you probably imagine; that's a good thing at this point. In a move to transform the exotic-sounding Maserati brand into a worldwide premium carmaker able to take on Porsche and BMW, the new wave of Trident-wearing models can be bought, serviced, and driven just like any other car from any local dealership. The engine lineup consists of efficient turbocharged V-6s, and Europe even has an option of a 275hp diesel. Maserati's SUV isn't the most powerful in the segment; the most potent version for the time being, the Levante S you see here, generates a rather modest-sounding 424 hp. (Porsche, Bentley, and AMG cannot rest on their laurels, as a hotter GT S derivative with a 510hp V-8 is on its way.) The "Maserati of SUVs," as it is advertised, isn't priced like a piece of Italian automotive exotica, either. The top spec version costs just $85,050 (although that's the most relative way "just" has been ever used). Not far off, some mainstream premium SUVs like a Volvo XC90 T8 Inscription are coming at your driveway for $69,895; although the top of the line XC90 is north of $100k. With Levante, Maserati is pushing into territory of brands it's never deemed competitors—until now.
Maserati is everything that Volvo isn't. The Italian, no matter if SUV or not, is still the stereotypical performance car from its homeland, theatrically exaggerated and dripping with bravado. Volvo counters this opulence with typically Scandinavian calmness and correctness. The Maser is powered by a classic (and classically growling) bi-turbo V-6, while the top XC90 powertrain option is an earth-friendly-ish hybrid that you can charge from a socket and drive around town without burning a single droplet of petroleum. Yet, thanks to some inexplicable sorcery (well, OK, it is explicable; it's a complex mix of a turbocharged and supercharged 2.0L four-pot in the front with an electric motor in the rear and another smaller electric unit between them for a good measure), the inconspicuous Volvo generates 400 hp, just 24 hp shy of the look-at-me Maserati. Levante's spirited V-6 allows it to gain an advantage at the start, reaching 0 to 60 mph in just 5 seconds, 0.8 second ahead of the Volvo, but as the speed rises, XC90's electric motors silently assist the boosted engine to match the thrust of its Italian competitor. The additional ballast of the hybrid powertrain (5,159- versus 4,982-pound curb weight) means that XC90 was slightly worse at braking (115 versus 105 feet for 60-0 mph), but it still boasts admirable dynamics for a car of its size.
You'd think the flagship family-friendly Volvo is the bigger car, but in fact it's the dynamically driven Italian. At 197 inches long and 77.5 inches wide, it makes for a truly grand sight on the road, and yet it's rather good at pretending to be an athletic granturismo. The distinctive details quote the rich heritage of the Italian brand and divert attention from the slightly ungainly profile. The ornamented grille featuring a giant chrome Trident will surely turn more heads than Volvo's logo, but still you can't really call Levante vulgar (unlike some of its German competitors).
A sleeker silhouette would rob the cabin of functionality; at 20 cubic feet, Levante's cargo space is plentiful, yet less so than the 22.5 cubic feet in the XC90's boot, which can be traded for an additional row of two seats and a still competitive 15.8 cubic feet of space (the batteries don't take anything from this as they are stowed beneath the second row of seats). Volvo's boxy body brings more air to the cabin, but which of these two SUVs fills the interior with more premium feel? XC90 sets the bar high. To give Volvo's cabins a much-needed revamp, the Swedes nicked the interior designer from Bentley—imagine the Swedes asking a Brit for interior decorating advice! Hiring Robin Page paid off, as the XC90 delivers timeless elegance and solidity known from the luxury British brand, while still preserving a more Scandinavian modern taste. The Levante is, however, a worthy opponent. Even if the brain says it's an SUV, the frameless doors, dash-mounted analogue watch, and quilted leather seats make the heart see a thoroughbred Italian supercar.
Usually at this point of a Maserati review, there would come a bit along the lines of "and it's for this lovable charisma that you learn to accept Maserati's quality or ergonomic shortages." Not this time! Each year, the Italians up the quality game for all of their models, as in the recent introduction of the new infotainment system, which now comes with a sharp 8.4-inch screen and an intuitive menu. While you still occasionally catch an uncomfortable glimpse of a detail coming from Chrysler or Fiat parts bins, taken as a whole, Levante's interior is ready to lure some BMW or Benz drivers out of their cars.
On mirror-smooth Lake Sniardwy, none of the witty electronic stuff that can push torque around or rotate the car using individual brake application means much, so it's best to give them a rest on both cars—it's especially appreciated by the Levante. Free from constraints, the mighty V-6 demands revs, always seducing the driver into the 7,000-rpm redline, even if the speed is still built from the bottom of the rev range like in any turbocharged engine these days. The power is sent to a mechanical differential that can send up to 100 percent of what it receives rearward and up to 50 percent to the front axle, if it must. Thanks to well-honed fundamentals, the traction-control-free Levante feels like the natural born athlete of the two. The sight of a huge SUV presenting graceful slow-mo-slides uninterrupted for hundreds of feet in a kind of automotive ice ballet was surely something to be savored by the spontaneously gathered audience comprised of local fishermen. Or not. Still not sure if they waved in appreciation or in anger for scaring off the fish.
As it turns out, it was a good decision to put Maserati's first SUV on the Ghibli/Quattroporte architecture, and not, as it was initially plotted, the one of Jeep Grand Cherokee. Eventually, Levante can still go further off-road than any of its owners will surely dare to take it, while now it can also boast the lowest center of mass among all SUVs currently on the market. Porsche enjoyed nearly a decade and a half of waiting for an SUV that would challenge its dynamic qualities; it may finally have one.
Surprisingly, the more advanced than an Airbus A380 XC90's powertrain turns out to be far less efficient on ice than the old-school Maserati. Although quite competent on asphalt, dirt, and even snow, both of Volvo's driven axles, which enjoy no physical connection to each other, weren't programmed with such extraordinary conditions in mind and are virtually helpless here—kind of a letdown, given how many frozen lakes are in Sweden. Of course, you can argue that asking XC90 to do such things is missing its point. You can even accept that the wonky 2.0L engine, no matter how vividly aided by forced induction and electricity, is just no match for Maserati's glorious V-6. Even with 400 hp, the top-spec XC90 is still a family hauler made to give you moments of peaceful tranquility. And it would be all perfectly good for Volvo, if Levante wasn't so nearly as competent at such things as well. Yes, it is stiffer and firmer than any other SUV on the market, but as I embarked on the long journey back home after the mission accomplished at the lake, the plush eight-speed ZF auto fluently progressed to the high gears, the exhaust system turned silent, and the body lowered itself by 0.8 inch to drive me in pampering conditions averaging 21 mpg; not far off what I'd get in the hybrid Volvo over the same distance.
As the Maserati tradition goes, Levante took its name from a wind. This one turns from a light breeze into a storm. It's an apt metaphor for this car. Although few put their bets on Maserati, it managed to make a huge impact for the luxury SUV segment.