Hammer Time

Another year, another Maserati sales crisis. But just how tarnished are the Trident’s prongs?

Image credit: motor16

It does appear at times that the only Maserati news is bad news. When we last reported on the Tridente’s fortunes in 2015, a woebegone tale was unfolding, with FCA’s Harald Wester revising his forecasts downwards in the wake of disappointing sales.

Last Autumn it was widely reported that production at the Mirafiori plant which builds the Levante crossover (and Alfa MiTo incidentally) was temporarily halted, owing to changes in Chinese regulations regarding the manner in which manufacturers and dealers should do business – a rule change which effectively prevented FCA from forcing stock upon their Chinese dealers. At the time, the Mirafiori plant shut down for a two week period to bring production back in line with real (rather than imagined) demand.

The latest development, reported last week sees workers at Mirafiori offered ‘solidarity contracts’, which are in essence an agreement not to be laid-off, while not actually being employed (in a full-time capacity) either; a situation which is set to remain in force until the summer at least, and one which has prompted some commentators to speculate upon the Levante’s failure in the market. So is Maserati failing or are the doom-mongers being a tad over-dramatic?

Ghibli. Image credit: Maserati

Now whatever one’s opinion about the Levante either as a creative execution or indeed as a luxury product, it cannot at this stage be said to be a sales failure – not when 2017 was only the first full year the model has been on sale. But how has it fared? In North America, where such vehicles would be expected to sell strongly, it racked up 5448 units (YTD), while across the border, 711 Levantes found Canadian homes. Over in the old World, the picture was similar, with 5733 being registered.

Ghibli? Having offloaded 7,100 in the US during 2016, last year saw registrations fall to 5,531. The Canadians demonstrated more fealty to traditional formats, with sales up (328 versus 318 the previous year). Europe saw a sharper percentage fall with 2,981 emerging from dealer’s lots, down from 4,124 in 2016.

Quattroporte sales tell a similar story. Down in the US and Europe, up slightly in Canada – albeit, falls in this case were as gentle as the volumes themselves were small.

Until mid-2016, Maserati’s fortunes were overseen by Wester, but following his appointment as group Chief Technology Officer, FCA’s Atlas shouldered sales supremo, Reid Bigland, assumed the role. However, last week Automotive News reported that Bigland (potentially being groomed for even bigger things), has been replaced by the former Dodge brand-chief, Tim Kuniskis.

(Former) Maserati and Alfa Romeo CEO, Harald J Wester. Image: autoapassionati

This latest round of FCA musical chairs sees the 51 year old sales firebrand (and Bob Lutz-style ‘car-guy’) being given responsibility for delivering a closer approximation of projected Maserati (and Alfa-Romeo) sales figures than either of his predecessors managed. This despite the Chinese market (where the current generation of Maseratis were quite clearly focused) proving something of a disappointment.

With original projections of more than 75,000 cars a year from Maserati by 2017 falling some way short, where does this leave matters? FCA allegedly do not officially release figures for individual models, but ANE reports 2017 Maserati sales of 51,500, up from 42,100 the previous year – the bulk of this improvement being courtesy of the Levante. These figures are not disastrous, especially given that a day late and a dollar short does appear to be the Marchionne way.

Image credit: Autocar

It does appear that more visitors to their Maserati retailer are signing on the dotted line for the high-rider rather than for the saloon offerings. However, some observers believe the Levante ought to be selling more strongly, given that the market is fixated upon SUVs and suggest the car’s allure is lacking against newer, more polished opposition. The absence of a high performance variant has also been cited, a matter which appears to be on the cusp of being remedied by the forthcoming V8-powered GTS variant.

Last week, Reuters reported that FCA has been refitting their Italian plants in anticipation of “producing greater numbers of higher-margin models.” The carmaker is set to present its next strategy plan and investments to 2022 in June of this year; a plan where additional SUV and crossover models are likely to feature prominently. So there’s a very strong likelihood you can forget about that Alfieri we saw you salivating over.

To return to the question then, whither il Tridente? The answer is probably more nuanced than some would have us believe. Yes, it’s clear that Maserati volumes are a good 25% short of projections. The cars themselves are also notably adrift of class leadership. Furthermore, not only is the marque itself now position and proposition-wise, light years away from the high-end marque it was in fond memory, its volumes are as well.

Like Jaguar, Maserati has been recast anew as a slightly cheapened product with a broader global appeal, yet one which in jettisoning past values, leaves little richness to linger in the mind’s eye. Also like the Coventry cat, its saloon offerings, while broadly competent, lack sufficient clarity of purpose and (debatable this) visual appeal to fully compete against a formidable set of (mostly German) opponents.

Luxury interior. Image credit: motor1

Perhaps under Kuniskis’ more effusive stewardship, Maserati can break the 75,000-a-year barrier, but it’s difficult to see where this will come with the product mix FCA are offering now. A smaller crossover has been envisaged, but surely such a vehicle would steal sales from Alfa Romeo, whose revival calls Maserati’s current positioning into further question?

You only get one opportunity to make a first impression and impressions of Maserati’s repositioning are mixed, to put it mildly. Winning sales is only half of the equation however. Forging a durable and convincing marque proposition remains the tougher nut to crack, and as everyone knows, you don’t crack a nut with a sledgehammer.

European car sales data: carsalesbase.com / NA car sales data: goodcarbadcar.com

Author: Eóin Doyle

Co-Founder. Editor. Content Provider.

9 thoughts on “Hammer Time”

  1. It’s too much too ask of a marque with as troubled a history as Maserati to become mainstream quite so quickly.

    The German ‘premium’ trio just about get away with, because they’ve all got at least two decades of consistent products behind them (although there’s some wear & tear visible at the seams already). Bentley also had a crystal clear, fully established reputation by the time VAG turned them into the Footballer’s Favourite.
    But Maserati’s previous reinvention, which may be called the Luca di Montezemolo era, encompassed just one generation of cars, which is too short a period of time and too brittle a foundation for this kind of brand expansion to work out.

    On top of that, the ancient GranTurismo is a bit of a joke as a halo car. Say about JLR’s current management all you like, but they certainly understood that Jaguar needed a product that would be perceived as a ‘thoroughbred’ in order to maintain some credibility (which results in a higher profile and, ideally, higher profit margins).

    1. Marchionne can only cheapen things: volume, workarounds and tactics. There is not a groupwide coherent strategy for FCA with clear increments in content, capability and content. A lower price Maserati may sell, once, and stifle Alfa Romeo while at it.

  2. FCA offers really terrible lease options on Maseratis. At least in the US, a VAST majority of luxury cars are leases. Who’s going to lease a Levante at $869 a month, when you can get an X5 for $615 a month? And have a real dealership network? And have a car that won’t randomly crap out on you?

    1. I’d imagine one of the big issues for FCA (amongst many) is one of dealer representation, spread and level of service. If a customer has signed the lease on a Maserati they have an expectation of excellent customer service, if not necessarily a commensurate level of reliability – especially if they have ownership experience of the marque in the past.

      The Levante is a risk purchase / lease. FCA products do not by their nature inspire massive confidence and at this price / monthly repayment level, a degree of polish is expected – (unless you’re Tesla, one assumes). I can’t vouch for the material quality or durability of the current era Maserati-branded products, but what I can say is that to these eyes they do not embody the effortless high-end Italian style the Montezemolo cars (which admittedly sold in vastly smaller numbers) did.

      The Levante at least is not Bentayga-ugly, but it’s a little half-hearted looking, which is perhaps damnation with faint praise, but about as positive as you’ll get from me. I don’t find it a very convincing entrant to the sector, but it’s clear that it requires further time on the market before we can ascertain for certain whether it is the vehicle FCA needs at this level.

      I would sound a further note of caution in that this endless reshuffling of names and faces at FCA towers does little to instil confidence. But then, little of what the bejumpered one does these days, does – wouldn’t you agree?

  3. The Levante styling is terribly weak; it looks like a Chinese knock-off from square-on at the front while the only one I regularly see is finished in ‘Sugar Bag Blue’, hardly a premium looking vehicle.

    Finally its towing capacity is a bit low at 2.7 tonnes, but this does correspond to a top of the line Airstream. Why not ‘life style’ towing statements to emphasise its SUV body?

  4. Maserati have been running ads on southern German radio lately, promoting their fantastic lease deals. Hardly a good sign for a brand once on par with Porsche and even Ferrari.

    The Munich dealership is close to my workplace, I doubt having seen a single car on display (mostly Levantes) leave permanently.

  5. Of course, Lancia was never allowed to aspire to anything truly upmarket. It could have been Italy’s answer to Audi and Mercedes-Benz, with Alfa going after BMW, but even as far back as the days of Paolo Cacarella, such thoughts were verboten: It was all Alfa and Maserati.

    1. It seems a job requirement for Fiat executives was to have no idea what to do with Lancia.

      That said I am in doube about your approach. I don´t believe that Mercedes, Audi and BMW are sufficiently different any more for it to make sense to send Alfa after BMW and Lancia after Mercedes. They´d still end up fighting each other. The German cars are interchangeable now like Coke and Pepsi.

      For old times´ sake, I´ll recap the Herriott product plan for Lancia and Alfa. It involves Alfa and Lancia having lines of cars with no format overlap at a given price and clear steps in pricing and clear differentiation in styling.
      Alfa would have classically styled sporting cars and Lancia would have innovatively styled comfortable cars. The “sporting” and “innovative” aspects cancel the conservative/older buyer aspects.

      Another way of looking at it is that Lancia and Alfa would have half a product range each making up one full range of cars. It was a beautiful idea but despite my repeated offers to FCA, they never showed the slightest interest.
      If I can recall this correctly:

      Small three-door – Lancia Y
      Small five door – Alfa Romeo Alfasud
      Small MPV – Lancia
      Mid-size five door (Golf) – Alfa Romeo Giulieta
      Mid-size saloon and estate – Lancia (e.g. Lybra)
      C-D class saloon – Alfa Romeo Giulia
      CD class coupe – Lancia Flaminia
      GT roadster – Alfa Romeo GTV
      GT conververtible – Lancia Florida

      When I wrote that I did not consider CUVs. I suppose the new model range would be:

      Small three-door CUV – Lancia Y
      Small five door CUV – Alfa Romeo
      Mid-size five door CUV (Golf size) – Alfa Romeo
      CD class CUV – Lancia
      GT Roadster – Alfa
      Full size CUV – Lancia.

      I might not be joking. CUVs do it all, don´t they?

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