CEO: Levante SUV to continue Maserati revitalization

Michael Wayland
The Detroit News
View Comments

Maserati is in the midst of what could be the most challenging period in its five-year growth plan, following record sales and financial performance in 2014.

Revenue, earnings and shipments for the exotic luxury brand are all down at the midpoint of the year compared to 2014 because of a global decline, including in China, in the luxury segments it competes in. And a dearth of new vehicles isn’t driving traffic into showrooms.

But 2015 is not a cause for concern, company officials insist. Profit margins remain healthy and sales this year are on pace to be Maserati’s second-best ever (only behind 2014) for Fiat Chrysler, as Maserati awaits the arrival of its highly anticipated Levante crossover SUV in 2016 — a first for the brand. The U.S. will be a critical component of its sales: In 2014, 39 percent of Maserati sales were here.

“We are doing well,” Maserati CEO Harald J. Wester said in a phone interview from Italy, birthplace of Maserati. “The revitalization of Maserati doesn’t lack steam or power or performance. There is no weakness directly connected to what we are doing.”

Maserati, which will become Fiat Chrysler’s most coveted brand following the spinoff of Ferrari by early 2016, offers four cars ranging from $70,000 to more than $160,000: Ghibli and Quattroporte sedans, and the GranTurismo coupe and convertible.

Wester said production of the Levante should start by February in Turin, Italy, followed by full capacity production about six months later.

The Levante has been more than a decade in the making. Since 2003, the company has unveiled two concept SUVs. Maserati would not confirm reports that the Levante will be unveiled in January at the 2016 North American International Auto Show in Detroit, where the SUV was originally planned for production instead of Italy.

“Not being in that segment makes a difference for pretty much any brand right now, because it is so strong,” said Stephanie Brinley, IHS Automotive senior analyst. “Consumers seem to be gobbling up that body style.”

Maserati is late to the luxury SUV/crossover market, which as defined by IHS Automotive, has grown from 23 percent of global luxury vehicles in 2010 to 31 percent in 2014. The automotive consulting and advisory service firm estimates SUVs, including crossovers, will grow globally to 33 percent in 2016 and 36 percent in 2020.

Wester and Fiat Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne believe the Levante should move Maserati to its next chapter of growth.

“We are outperforming the markets with nearly all of our products in nearly all regions. From this point of view, I am satisfied,” Wester said. “Obviously, I would have preferred to have the Levante nine months earlier, which would have allowed us to have a more continuous growth.”

Maserati is watching its product mix due to an increasing shift to sales of the $70,000 Ghibli rather than the more profitable Quattroporte, which starts at about $107,000 and $140,500 depending on the model.

“In terms of the luxury segment as a whole, Maserati is a relatively small brand,” Brinley said. “Its importance to FCA is as a revenue generator — more so than the luxury market as a whole.”

Maserati’s second-quarter adjusted profit margins declined to 7 percent from 8.3 percent in the same quarter in 2014. Margins were 10 percent in 2014. .

Although the Ghibli is its entry-level model, it is a key growth area for Maserati that helped it enter new markets and segments, including all-wheel drive.

Maserati’s lineup had not included AWD, unlike many of its competitors. The Ghibli and Quattroporte sedans both offer it now.

“It was clear to us that being able to offer 4x4 … would be one of the big game-changers for us,” Wester said. That option was especially important in the United States.

The automaker sold 14,690 cars in the U.S. last year, up 110 percent from 2013, boosted by the Ghibli and Quattroporte equipped with the 410-horsepower twin-turbo and AWD.

Worldwide, Maserati sold 36,500 cars last year, up 136 percent from 2013 and almost six times as many as 2012. Its five-year growth plan aims at increasing global sales to 75,000 by 2018.

Through the first six months of the year, Maserati’s revenue topped 1.1 billion euros ($1.2 billion) and adjusted earnings before interest and taxes was 79 million euros ($88.4 million). It shipped about 15,600 vehicles through June, down 1,945 cars compared to the same time period in 2014 but higher than the 15,400 cars in all of 2013.

David Butler, an executive manager at the Suburban Collection dealership group, which operates a Maserati dealership in Troy, said about half of its sales this year have been the Ghibli. He expects that to change after the Levante arrives.

“Everybody’s in anticipation of the SUV coming out,” Butler said.

Maserati’s dealerships have grown to more than 350 globally, including 106 in North America. By year’s end, it expects 400 globally.

Following the Levante, Maserati plans to release the Alfieri sports coupe (followed by a convertible version) and a new GranTurismo by 2018.

“We will work our way through 2015 — all the Levante preparation is running in the background,” Wester said. “We are 100 percent focused on the cars we have.”

View Comments