By Jennifer Clark
MILAN Jan 10 When rap legend Eminem took a
Chrysler sedan for a crawl through dark Detroit streets in a
landmark 2011 TV commercial, the car he drove was defiantly
"Imported from Detroit."
In 2013, with Chrysler back in the black, its Italian
parent, Fiat SpA, is trumpeting another new car - one
that rockets from 0 to 60 miles per hour in under 5 seconds and
is decidedly "Imported from Italy."
Fiat's luxury brand, Maserati, will unveil a newly
redesigned Quattroporte sedan at the Detroit auto show, which
begins on Sunday.
The contrast between the Quattroporte and Eminem's Chrysler
sedan is apt. While it was U.S. factory workers who benefited
from Chrysler's Fiat-led resurgence since 2009, this year it
will be employees at Fiat's money-losing Italian plants watching
to see if the Turin-made Maseratis will be able to increase the
company's tiny U.S. market share.
To move into bigger volumes, Maserati must pry buyers away
from German and British luxury competitors - a tough challenge
given that many U.S. consumers have heard little about the brand
in recent years.
Worldwide, Maserati wants to increase annual sales from
about 5,000 cars at present to 50,000 in 2015 with the help of a
smaller, less expensive "entry-level" Ghibli model due out later
this year and the Levante SUV in 2014. The redesigned
Quattroporte begins arriving at European dealers next month and
in the United States in June.
Maserati has yet to announce a price tag for the
Quattroporte in the U.S. market. In Europe, it will sell for
between 100,000 and 150,000 euros ($132,100 to $198,200).
Maserati launched the original Quattroporte in Italy in 1963.
"Even if you take it as a given that the new car is a valid
competitor for BMW and Audi, it's not
clear how Maserati plans to step up from 5,000 cars it sells now
to the 50,000 they are targeting in 2015," said UBS analyst
Philippe Houchois. "What's missing is an indication of their
marketing and distribution strategy."
Fiat says it will increase Maserati dealerships worldwide to
425 by 2015 from 250 at the end of 2012.
Fiat is spending $1.6 billion between now and 2014 on
product development and a new factory in Italy to build this
hoped-for increase in sales for the three new models.
MASERATI A KEY PIECE
Building up Maserati volume is a key piece of Fiat's latest
strategy to stem losses in Europe. With European car sales
likely to shrink for a sixth year in a row in 2013, mass-market
car makers have been cutting capacity, as did their U.S.
counterparts back in 2009.
Rather than shut another factory, Fiat-Chrysler Chief
Executive Sergio Marchionne's plan is to sell more Maserati,
Alfa Romeo, Jeep and Fiat 500 cars in expanding markets such as
the United States in order to return Fiat's money-losing
operations to profit in Europe in 2015 and keep Italian workers
in their jobs.
Marchionne's ambitious plan - which he admits is "not for
the faint-hearted" - sent the stock tumbling after it was
unveiled on Oct. 30 on concerns about whether Fiat has the
ability and sufficient cash to execute it.
Luxury brands are important to car makers because they are
more profitable than mass-market ones. Fiat's Maserati and
Ferrari brands combined sold about 10,000 cars globally in the
first nine months of 2012, contributing 9.5 percent of Fiat's
total earnings before interest and tax of 2.77 billion euros
($3.66 billion). Fiat said it earns a trading profit of 6.6
percent on each Maserati it sells, while it loses money on its
mass-market brands in Europe.
Maserati aims to sell 7,000 to 8,000 of the new Quattroporte
worldwide in 2013, and between 13,000 and 15,000 when the full
range is available. By way of comparison, Jaguar sold 12,011
cars in the United States alone last year, Porsche about 35,000,
and Maserati sold 2,730.
DIFFERENT THIS TIME?
While Fiat's previous attempts to build the Maserati and
Alfa Romeo brands have fallen flat, Maserati CEO Harald Wester
asserted at the Quattroporte launch last month that the pieces
are in place this time.
"If I look back at 2005, the situation was difficult," he
said. "We had quality issues at the time. We have no quality
issues at this point."
Another difference is the partnership with Chrysler, which
enables Fiat to save millions on development costs. Maserati can
piggyback on Chrysler's dealer network. It can share platforms,
cutting down on development costs. The Levante SUV could be
built on a Jeep platform, while the Quattroporte shares
underpinnings with the Chrysler 300.
That means the biggest challenge for Maserati will be to
carve out its niche in a crowded field. Some reviewers have
referred to the Quattroporte as a "four-door Ferrari" because of
its speed, although it sells for tens of thousands of dollars
less. Maserati will need to sharpen its brand focus and then use
the dealer network to make a statement as it did with the Fiat
500, said Stephen Wunker, managing director of consultancy New
"One thing that the Fiat 500 experience has shown is how
important it is to tailor your outlet to the product," said
Wunker. "The downside is that it's costly and slow to get