June 28 (Bloomberg) -- Maserati, the Italian maker of exotic cars driven by the likes of U2 frontman Bono and designer Ralph Lauren, is shifting its focus from the elite to the merely wealthy with a mid-sized sedan called the Ghibli.
The new car, which will start at $65,600 when it hits U.S. showrooms in September, represents a direct challenge to mainstay German models like the BMW 5-Series, Mercedes-Benz E-Class and Audi A6. The Fiat SpA unit is betting the car can offer something the Germans can’t: Italian sex appeal backed by the power and cachet of engines from sister brand Ferrari.
“We have to steal buyers from the Germans,” said Benedetto Orvietani, a product development manager at Maserati. “We are going after their most demanding customers, the ones that are bored of their Audi A6 and want to stand out.”
The Ghibli -- a 1960s-era model name stemming from an Arabic word for a hot wind from the Sahara -- is a critical part of Maserati’s plan to boost sales eightfold to 50,000 vehicles by 2015. While that wouldn’t be much for the Germans, which each sell more than 1 million cars a year, it marks a threat because Maserati is targeting buyers of the most expensive, highest-horsepower vehicles.
“We are not far from the truth if we call our plan the Maserati revolution,” said brand chief Harald Wester, a German engineer who worked at Volkswagen AG and Audi before taking charge of development at Fiat in 2004. German rivals “are limited in how well they can satisfy customers’ desire to be different.”
The four-door Ghibli exudes sportiness with glaring headlights, a low-slung front end and high rear haunches. The base version features a Ferrari 330-horsepower V6 engine and its interior is accentuated by leather from 101-year-old Italian furniture maker Poltrona Frau SpA.
Maserati is counting on such luxurious touches to convince buyers to pay some 20 percent more than they would for similar-sized German sedans. The top-of-the-line Ghibli S Q4 pushes performance with a 410-horsepower engine and a top speed of 284 kilometers (177 miles) per hour. The $75,700 all-wheel-drive model accelerates to 100 kph in as little as 4.8 seconds, beating the $61,400 402-horsepower Mercedes E550.
“I’m a believer” in Maserati’s strategy, said Max Warburton, an analyst with Sanford C. Bernstein. “While the plan is clearly ambitious, there is room in the high-end sedan segment for something different, and with the right quality and network distribution, Maserati can reach its goal.”
The Ghibli is part of a broader expansion by Maserati, which includes the overhaul of the $130,000 Quattroporte flagship earlier this year and the introduction of its first sport-utility vehicle, the Levante, by 2015. Fiat, which plans to merge with Chrysler Group LLC, is investing about 1.2 billion euros ($1.6 billion) to revamp Maserati. Ferrari is hiring 200 workers at its Maranello plant to build engines for the brand.
Maserati said earlier this month that it already had more than 2,200 orders for the Ghibli, and more than 14,000 bookings in total for models across the brand.
“What we have seen so far on Maserati is very encouraging,” Fiat Chairman John Elkann said yesterday at Bocconi University in Milan. “The Quattroporte has been very well accepted. The Ghibli had very good press reviews. This shows that Fiat-Chrysler’s premium strategy is starting to bear fruit.”
Maserati, which was founded in 1914 and has been part of Fiat since 1993, aims to deliver at least 20,000 cars in 2013, more than triple last year’s total. The brand’s operating profit is forecast to rise 12 percent to 47 million euros this year, according to an estimate from Commerzbank AG. The automaker expects to sell about 20,000 Ghibli sedans a year -- 40 percent of its 2015 sales target.
The Germans won’t be easy to beat, even if Maserati can draw on a past that includes owners such as Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev. IHS Automotive forecasts that Maserati will fall short of its goal, delivering 31,300 cars in 2015 and just 9,900 Ghiblis.
“It’s very tough to win against the Germans,” said Gianluca Spina, dean of Milan Polytechnic’s business school. Maserati “may be positioned too high to be stretched into mid-sized luxury sedans. For sure, it’s the most lucrative segment of the market and the strength of German carmakers arises from having created it.”
Lifting Maserati’s global appeal is key to the effort by Sergio Marchionne, chief executive officer of both Fiat and Chrysler, to end losses in Europe, which totaled more than 700 million euros last year. Fiat is counting on overseas demand for higher-margin luxury cars to keep workers at under-used Italian factories busy. That strategy also includes Alfa Romeo, which is to make somewhat less opulent cars aimed at the Germans’ mainstream customers.
Wolfram Mrowetz, who manages 200 million euros at Alisei Sim in Milan, says Maserati can succeed in that strategy by building the right image to woo new customers.
“Maserati is a hidden jewel,” Mrowetz said. “But it’s crucial for them to market properly to boost their aspirational value for wealthy consumers.”
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