Maserati is Ready to Party

With record sales and great new cars including the Quattroporte, Maserati's low-tech style is winning back well-heeled drivers the world over

As the dizzying nichefication of the luxury car market dominated by the Germans and Asians continues, with the occasional worthy entry from the British, it's easy to forget the Italians are still playing in this park. And I don't mean the super-duper sports cars from Ferrari, Lamborghini, and Bugatti. Anyway, those last two are owned by Volkswagen (VLKAY).

No, I'm talking about Maserati. Left for dead several times in its nearly century-long history and forgotten by many Americans when it exited the U.S. in 1990, Maserati is on a steady comeback globally, and especially in the U.S.

Maserati's flagship is the Quattroporte, a four-door sedan that competes with the likes of…well, that's a tough one. A large, plush rear-drive sedan powered by a 400-horsepower 4.2-liter V-8 engine that makes 0 to 60 mph in just over five seconds could be said to compete with models ranging from Jaguar S-Type and BMW 7 Series to Bentley Continental GT. At $120,000 or so, it leans more Bentley than Jaguar.

But it's the style and Italian-ness that sells Maseratis. At one time thought of as a poor man's Ferrari, Maserati has come into its own. "Our customers are people who like 'quiet' money," says global CEO Roberto Ronchi. Indeed, the average Maserati buyer, according to the company's marketing book, has a net worth of $5 million to $7 million, and owns four to six cars.

Popularity and Growth

Maserati, owned and controlled by Fiat (FIA.MI) today, sold 7,353 cars last year, 33.3% more than the previous year, through a network of 272 dealers in 59 countries on five continents. The U.S. market was in first place, with 2,600 vehicles delivered in 2007, 20.5% more than the preceding year, followed by Italy with 714 vehicles, a 40% increase from 2006. In October the company set a new one-month production record of 850 vehicles, the same number it produced in an entire year just a few years ago.

Key to the growth and increased popularity has been the introduction of a new automatic transmission. When the previous Quattroporte sedan was introduced in 2003, it was fitted with a cumbersome and jerky semi-automatic transmission whose shortcomings quickly spread around the Internet and to car enthusiasts. "It was a key problem we had to sort out, and we did," says Ronchi.

Maserati sold 5,450 Quattroportes worldwide last year, a hike of 80%, including 2,200 in the U.S., which represented a surge of 56%. Modena (Italy)-based Maserati has the capacity to build about 10,000 cars a year, which it achieves by hand with no robots. It figures to hit 8,500 total cars in 2008, and is planning an expansion.

The Grand GranTurismo

The newest Maserati in the neighborhood is the GranTurismo, a coupe based on a shortened version of the Quattroporte. At first glance, one might be tempted to compare this car with a BMW 6 Series, a Jaguar XKR, or a Mercedes-Benz CL550. And that comparison might put a few people off, since the GT is about $114,000, compared with the $80,000 to $90,000 it takes to buy the other three.

But we are talking style here. Italian style. With Maserati's limited sales, there is value for some in being the only cat in the neighborhood driving a "Maz." Indeed, the body, designed by Italian coach builder Pininfarina, borders on sumptuous. The hand-stitching on the rich leather surfaces inside is enough to make you forget how much your house fell in value last month, or the cost of the fill-up.

The GranTurismo lacks the high-tech interfaces of German luxe cars, and that is one of its endearing qualities—no gadgets such as night vision or adaptive cruise control or a knockoff of BMW's iDrive.

You can, however, get a preposterous choice of color combinations for almost every surface of the car, from the seats to the headliner. For Pete's sake, there are 10 different hues of leather for places including the gear-shifter and steering wheels. There are even six color choices for the brake calipers. These are, after all, Italians. Think of this car as an Italian amarone wine, compared with a German Riesling for the BMW, and you start to understand why Maserati's Italian-ness is enough to close the deal for a lot of buyers.

The GranTurismo comes with a standard 4.2-liter V-8 engine. The GranTurismo S, just shown at the Geneva International Motor Show, comes mated to a 4.7-liter engine with bigger and darker wheels than the standard version. The leather and Alcantara seats are upgraded a bit. The car sits 0.4 inches lower at the front and 0.98 inches lower at the rear compared to the standard car, and features stiffer springs and dampers.

Quality Control

As with many luxury car brands, Maserati is happy to combine a purchase with tourism. A visit to Modena to check out the factory and the driving course is encouraged. The course takes place at the Paletti Circuit at Varano de' Melegari, 20 kilometers south of Parma. This is a circuit that brings out the best of drivers' abilities and boasts a technical section that is equipped with special driving instructions.

It's all enough to make the founders proud. Begun in 1914 by four Italian brothers who gave the company their name, Maserati earned a stellar reputation on racetracks around the world during the next 50 years. Its race cars captured a procession of Grand Prix championships, as well as wins at the Indianapolis 500 in 1939 and 1940.

The history in the U.S. isn't all glorious, though. Some will recall an ill-fated tie-up with Chrysler in the 1980s, during which time Detroit's favorite paisan, Lee Iacocca, purchased a stake in Maserati. Out of that relationship came the infamous Chrysler TC by Maserati. By the time the car reached market the project was so far over budget and so full of glitches that there was no way to pull it back into profitability or good sense. The cars were so roundly condemned by critics that they quickly vanished from the market.

The other problem that long dogged the Italian cars was quality. A Maserati was so often its owner's fourth or fifth car because of the time it usually spent in an auto repair shop. But Fiat's purchase of the company in 1990 has helped. About five years ago, Fiat became hyper-focused on increasing quality to better compete against companies such as Toyota (TM) and Honda (HMC) with their newly granted free access to European markets. Maserati, though hand-built, benefited and is now fully competitive with companies including BMW (BMWG) and Jaguar on quality.

In 2007 the proof of Maserati's comeback took a turn few would have imagined a decade ago. It made its first profit since Fiat took over the brand 17 years earlier.

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