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