By Jennifer Clark
MILAN, April 19 (Reuters) - In these lean economic times, even supercar makers are reaching down-market - which for Maserati means a price tag below 100,000 euros ($131,000).
The Italian company owned by Fiat is reinventing its venerable Ghibli tourer as an "executive sedan" aimed squarely, as the description suggests, at people who still have to work.
The car, due to be unveiled at the Shanghai auto show on Saturday, is an early test of Fiat boss Sergio Marchionne's efforts to squeeze more cash out of the prestigious Maserati and Alfa Romeo brands. The plan would see Maserati sales surge eight-fold.
The outcome will help decide whether Fiat - a company founded in the late 19th century - survives the collapse of the auto market in Europe, where its losses reached 738 million euros last year, putting factories and thousands of jobs at risk.
Maserati will have to perform a difficult balancing act to emulate the success of Germany's BMW, Daimler and Volkswagen's Audi by rolling out more affordable models aimed at a broader client base without tarnishing one of the auto industry's most hallowed brands.
"This battle won't be won with individuals walking into showrooms with their cheque books," said Geoff Lancaster, chairman of Britain's Maserati Club.
"It will be won by Maserati convincing the leasing companies and fleet managers that their product is competitive on a cost-per-mile basis with BMW and Mercedes."
Founded a century ago in Bologna by the five Maserati brothers, the company secured its place in racing history by winning the Indianapolis 500 in 1939 and 1940. After passing through the hands of a succession of owners including PSA Peugeot Citroen, Maserati was bought by Fiat in 1993.
The Ghibli is a smaller, sportier version of the 110,000-euro Quattroporte and the brand's second four-door car. Named after a wind, like most Maseratis, the original 1967 model and a 1992-97 successor were both two-door GT coupes.
The revived Ghibli arrives in Europe and China this summer and U.S. showrooms later in the year, to be followed in 2014 by a new Levante crossover sport-utility vehicle.
The Ghibli's prices will start somewhere between 50,000 and 100,000 euros, Fiat has said, declining to comment on reports in the motoring press of a 70,000 euro entry ticket.
Brand chief Harald Wester is expected to announce prices and sales targets at the Shanghai show.
Fiat unions have been told the carmaker will add a second shift at its Maserati plant in Turin.
Maserati hopes the entry-level car will draw more buyers with its racing pedigree, powerful engines and alluring styling.
"For Maserati to grow, it needs to get into this segment with a smaller car at a lower price," said Pierluigi Santoro, a doctor and Maserati enthusiast based in Naples.
As European mass-market brands suffer, carmakers are turning to higher-margin luxury marques to make up for lost revenue.
Maserati and stable-mate Ferrari together sold 13,606 cars last year, or 0.3 percent of the 4 million total recorded by Fiat and its U.S. affiliate Chrysler. But they accounted for nearly 11 percent of group earnings.
The Maserati roll-out is being watched closely for clues about next year's Alfa Romeo relaunch, billed by Chief Executive Marchionne as one of the main drivers of his Fiat strategy.
Maserati is targeting an increase in sales to 50,000 cars in 2015 from 6,288 last year, with the Ghibli and upcoming Levante contributing a combined 35,000.
The goal may prove as unrealistic as it sounds, forecasters say. LMC Automotive estimates that total Maserati production will reach 39,078 in 2015. IHS sees 28,100.
Measuring just under five metres in length, the Ghibli comes with a 3.0-litre V6 turbo diesel or petrol engine, manual or eight-speed automatic transmission and optional four-wheel drive.
The same underpinnings will be used for a large Alfa Romeo car as well as Chrysler's next-generation 300 sedan, Dodge Charger and Challenger models.
For Maserati, which sold 2,730 cars in the United States last year, there is a big gap to close with its competitors. Jaguar recorded 12,011 U.S. deliveries, while Porsche had 35,043 and Mercedes 295,013.
The Ghibli will compete with the Audi A6, BMW 5-Series, Jaguar XF and Daimler's Mercedes E-Class but exceed all of their starting prices - drawing some scepticism about its prospects.
While a move into bigger-selling categories can unlock economies of scale, it also brings tough competition from the better-known names, said Stefano Aversa, managing director at automotive consultancy AlixPartners.
"With the Ghibli, Maserati is entering a higher-volume segment where Porsche and Jaguar are already well positioned," he said.