Maserati, the luxury-auto maker owned by Fiat SpA (F), will start an effort to boost sales eightfold and challenge Porsche for performance-car buyers with a new version of its Quattroporte flagship sedan.
The sixth generation of Maserati’s four-door model, which debuted today in Nice, has a top speed of 307 kilometers (191 miles) per hour. By trimming its weight by 100 kilograms (220 pounds) and using more efficient engines from Ferrari SpA, the model will cut fuel consumption by around 20 percent.
“The new Quattroporte represents the start of an industrial revolution for Maserati,” said Harald Wester, the brand’s chief executive officer.
The Fiat unit targets selling as many as 15,000 Quattroportes next year. The car will cost as much as 150,000 euros ($193,000) in Europe and challenge the Porsche Panamera Turbo for performance drivers needing a back seat.
“The new Quattroporte will close the power gap the old version had with the fastest Porsche Panamera, while maintaining its unique driving feeling,” said Pierluigi Santoro, a cardiologist in Naples who has three Maseratis and chairs the brand’s Italian owners’ club. “When you drive a Quattroporte you feel like you’re in a sports car, but you’re really in a luxury sedan with plenty of room for five.”
The Quattroporte spearheads a series of six new models that will be introduced by the Modena, Italy-based Fiat unit over the next four years, including the Levante sport-utility vehicle and a smaller sedan called the Ghibli. The goal is to boost sales to 50,000 vehicles by 2015 from 6,159 last year.
Maserati’s expansion is critical to Fiat Chief Executive Officer Sergio Marchionne’s plan to turn around the automaker’s European operations, which Fiat expects will lose 700 million euros this year. Combined with an expansion of Alfa Romeo, the Turin, Italy-based automaker is counting on demand for higher-margin luxury cars for export outside debt-strapped Europe to fill factories in Italy.
The brand’s sales this year will probably tumble to roughly 70 cars in Italy from about 450 in 2011. Because of the downturn in Europe, Maserati delayed its target of doubling the number of dealers to 500 outlets by 2015. The carmaker now expects 425 showrooms worldwide in three years.
Fiat cut its 2014 profit goal by 31 percent in October with the European auto market on pace to contract for its fifth straight year to the lowest level since 1995. Marchionne doesn’t see any recovery in demand before 2014 and is targeting reaching the break-even point in Europe in 2015 at the earliest.
Marchionne’s plan has so far failed to convince investors. At least seven analysts lowered their recommendations on the shares since the plan was presented at the end of October. Since then Fiat stock has fallen 12 percent, the steepest decline on the Stoxx 600 Automobile & Parts index in that period. Fiat shares fell as much as 5.9 percent today, burdened by political turmoil in Italy.
The revamped Quattroporte, which was first built in 1963, will be assembled at Fiat’s Grugliasco plant near Turin. Fiat aims to employ 1,500 workers at the factory.
The Italian carmaker, which controls Chrysler Group LLC, will also assemble the entry-level Ghibli sedan for Maserati. Porsche is planning a smaller version of the Panamera to compete with the new Maserati.
Maserati decided to shift production of the planned Levante SUV to Italy from Detroit because the Jefferson North factory needs all its capacity for its current lineup of Chrysler models, including the Jeep Grand Cherokee, said Wester, who is also Fiat’s technology chief.
Even after Prime Minister Mario Monti announced he would resign, the Fiat executive isn’t concerned that economic and political instability in Italy will threaten 1.22 billion euros in investment on the three new Maserati models by 2014.
“I’m convinced of the good sense of Italians,” Wester said today in Nice. “I’m convinced that our investments in Italy will have a successful conclusion.”
As part of Marchionne’s strategy to reduce costs by using the same technology for different brands, the Quattroporte and the upcoming Ghibli will share electrical components with the Chrysler 300 sedan, Wester said.
The Ghibli, which will compete with cars such as Daimler AG (DAI)’s Mercedes-Benz E-Class and the 5-Series from Bayerische Motoren Werke AG (BMW), is due to start production in the second half of 2013.
Fiat isn’t the only volume carmaker in Europe pushing upscale vehicles. Demand in the segment is typically more resilient during economic swings than mass-market models. Renault SA (RNO) plans to revive the Alpine sports car brand and is considering building its Initiale Paris insignia into a full-fledged luxury brand, while PSA Peugeot Citroen (UG) is expanding the Citroen DS line.
The moves are an attempt to mirror Volkswagen AG (VOW)’s success with Porsche, Audi and other luxury brands, which account for about half of the entire group’s profit. VW’s upscale marques, along with BMW and Mercedes, are Fiat’s main targets.
“There is space, obviously, which is currently being occupied exclusively by German producers that I think Maserati has access to,” Marchionne said when presenting Fiat’s turnaround plan in late October.
With European car sales on track to suffer their biggest drop in 19 years in 2012, demand for mid-sized luxury cars are on the rise. Worldwide deliveries in the segment are forecast to increase 19 percent to 3.25 million vehicles in 2015 boosted by growth in China and the U.S., according to IHS Automotive.
“Marchionne has no other chance to succeed in fast-growing countries than with upscale Italian brands,” said Giuliano Noci, associate dean at Milan Polytechnic’s business school. “In Asia and Russia, Italian brands are perceived as synonymous with elegance and quality.”
As part of Marchionne’s plan to introduce 19 Italian-built vehicles by 2016, Fiat also plans an Alfa Romeo model based on the Ghibli and may likewise assemble it at the Grugliasco facility. Other models include a compact Jeep and a total of nine new Alfa Romeos.
The expansion of luxury vehicles contrasts with delays in bread-and-butter models. Marchionne postponed the introduction of a new version of the Fiat Punto hatchback because of the lack of prospects to recoup the investment amid stiffer competition in Europe’s volume car market.
Fiat’s efforts to ramp up luxury-car sales may fall short of its expectations. IHS forecasts Maserati delivering 28,100 cars in 2015, 44 percent short of its 50,000-vehicle goal.
“Maserati has the right reputation and consumers are out there for more premium cars, especially in U.S. and China,” said Neil King, an analyst at Euromonitor International in London. “On the other hand, their target is incredibly ambitious.”
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