CORRECTED-UPDATE 1-Fiat Chrysler to begin Maserati SUV production next year

Wed Mar 5, 2014 9:49am EST

(Changes dateline to Geneva, no changes to text)

* Maserati key to Fiat's European turnaround plan

* Alfieri production could start within 28 months

GENEVA, March 5 (Reuters) - Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA) plans to begin production of bodies for the new Maserati Levante sport utility vehicle (SUV) at its Mirafiori plant in northern Italy next year, its chief executive said on Wednesday.

The revival of the luxury Maserati brand represents a key element of Fiat's attack on European profitability, alongside the relaunch of the Alfa Romeo marque, as the group aims to move back into the black in the region by 2016.

Maserati's performance last year was encouraging, with trading profit tripling as deliveries more than doubled to 15,400 vehicles.

Though still a long way short of its 50,000 target for 2015, and not enough on its own to transform Fiat's bottom line, analysts have said that Maserati's increased profit bodes well for the forthcoming resurrection of the higher-volume Alfa Romeo brand.

"We are getting Mirafiori ready for production (of the Maserati SUV). The first bodies are expected for 2015," Marchionne said on the sidelines of the Geneva auto show.

He also said that production of the two-door Maserati Alfieri coupe, the prototype of which was unveiled at the show, could start within 28 months if it decides to press ahead with the concept car.

"The platforms and motors are there," Marchionne said. "Technically, production could start in 24-28 months."

Marchionne did not say whether the Alfieri - named after one of the brand's founding fathers, Alfieri Maserati - would also be produced at Mirafiori, but that could be an option given that the Turin operation is one of Fiat's production plants for luxury brands.

The success, or otherwise, of a Maserati and Alfa Romeo renaissance will be key to whether Fiat survives a difficult European market, allowing the company to fill idled plants in Italy and reinstate thousands of workers placed on temporary layoff schemes.

But Maserati will have to perform a difficult balancing act to emulate the success of BMW, Daimler and Volkswagen's Audi in rolling out more affordable models without tarnishing one of the industry's most hallowed brands.

Founded a century ago in Bologna by the five Maserati brothers, the company secured its place in racing history by winning the Indianapolis 500 race in 1939 and 1940.

And while Maserati, bought by Fiat in 1993, could unlock economies of scale with a move into bigger-selling categories, that would also invite fierce competition from the better-known mass-market players.

Marchionne said he is optimistic about the brand's future, adding that productivity at its Italian operations had also improved greatly and that the Alfieri sports car provides an "indication of things to come".

"The Maserati stand (at the auto show), for me, is living proof of the fact that Italians know how to build great cars," he said at a press conference on Tuesday.

Marchionne acknowledged that a listing or sale of a stake in Maserati remains an option for boosting group finances, but that such a move is not under consideration at the moment. (Reporting by Stefano Rebaudo and Agnieszka Flak; Editing by David Goodman)