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At Maserati, Tank is Half-Empty — or Half-Full?
Brand is selling more cars, but still short of 10k targets.
by Paul A. Eisenstein (2006-02-13)

Is the gas tank half-empty or half-full? You could certainly argue it either way when it comes to Maserati. Reborn from its own ashes, the Italian sports car manufacturer ended 2005 with record sales. In the critical U.S. market, Maserati's largest, the numbers surged 53 percent over the year before, with buyers snapping up 2100 sedans, coupes and convertibles. Worldwide sales hit 5600, a 25-percent increase.

But there's a downside, company officials acknowledge. The 92-year-old brand is likely to miss plans to bring sales up to the 10,000 mark by 2007 or '08, acknowledged CEO Karl-Heinz Kalbfell. With the current product mix, he told, worldwide sales of 6000 to 7000 are probably more realistic. The challenge, then, is to expand the product lineup and tap into new markets Maserati has so far missed.

It's not that the Italian automaker, a subsidiary of Fiat Auto, isn't trying. The striking Quattroporte is already the marque's best-seller, accounting for more than half of its sales last year. Maserati hopes to gain even more traction with unique spin-offs, such as the $115,000 Executive GT, which it showed at the Detroit auto show. The sedan is aimed at buyers who might prefer being chauffeured during the week, then take the car out for a spin of their own over the weekend.

A more aggressive version of the sedan, the Quattroporte Sport GT, was unveiled at the Los Angeles Auto Show, along with the GranSpyder Sport, a low-volume version of Maserati's convertible.

Keys to the future

The key to the future, said Kalbfell, is to develop a new model, "a new entry base for Maserati," while an even more exclusive product priced above the Quattroporte may also be in the cards.

"It's not very complicated," said Jim Selwa, CEO of Maserati's U.S. operations. "We need higher volume for the future."

But making a business case for adding new products hasn't been easy, the two executives acknowledged, and Maserati's parent has been tight with the purse strings. Fiat took control of Maserati in 1993 and then, four years later, assigned control to its other high-line subsidiary, Ferrari. But in an unexpected shake-up, responsibility was shifted just over a year ago to another Fiat unit, Alfa Romeo.

Ferrari isn't out of the picture entirely. It still provides engineering assistance, as well as key parts and components, including the powertrains used in current Maserati models. But the new alliance provides access to "production processes more suitable to higher volumes," explained Selwa. Meanwhile, by working with Fiat's larger brands to source its parts, Maserati aims to "improve its purchasing power," said Kalbfell, "to lower our costs."

Kalbfell insists the transition has been good for his company. "Maserati is now more independent," he said, but there's a price to that. It needs to prove that it can generate enough cash to justify any new products it plans to introduce.

"To be healthy, we cannot invest (beyond) our income," he cautioned.

Caught between Ferrari and Alfa

Kalbfell hasn't ruled out the idea of putting his brand into more direct competition with its former partner, Ferrari, though that appears unlikely, but for limited forays. The automaker sold 50 of its limited-edition MC12 at $1.2 million apiece, and Kalbfell hints another supercar could follow. But it's likely not to push past the $150,000 mark on the high end, while it is likely to put even more emphasis on something priced below its current starting point, "where we have much bigger growth opportunities."

The brand's current "base" model is its Coupe, at $87,983. A stripped-down version at $84,559 is being added to the lineup, though that would hardly qualify as an "entry" model.

But exactly what Kalbfell has in mind for the future, the German executive wouldn't disclose during a recent interview, though it won't be a rebadged Alfa, he stressed. But a production version of the Kubang, a crossover/SUV concept shown several years ago, "is still on the table."

Despite his caution, Kalbfell insisted that Maserati will eventually meet its 10,000 sales goal. It may take a bit longer than planned, but considering its recent growth, that target remains reachable, "in this decade."
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