Maserati has long supplied exotic—and expensive—rides to the rich and super-rich. Now the 99-year-old sports car maker is shifting its focus to the merely wealthy. In September the Fiat (F:IM) subsidiary plans to introduce the Ghibli, a midsize sedan starting at $65,600 that it hopes will present a direct challenge to German models such as the BMW (BMW:GR) 5 Series, Mercedes-Benz (DAI:GR) E-Class, and Audi (NSU:GR) A6. Maserati is betting it can offer something the Germans can’t: Italian sex appeal backed by the power and cachet of engines from sister brand Ferrari. “We have to steal buyers from the Germans,” says Benedetto Orvietani, a product development manager at Maserati. “We are going after their most demanding customers, the ones that are bored with their Audi A6 and want to stand out.”
The Ghibli—the name is taken from a 1960s-era model and stems from an Arabic word for a hot wind from the Sahara—is a critical part of Maserati’s plan to boost sales eightfold, to 50,000 vehicles, by 2015. While that wouldn’t be much for the German carmakers, which each sell more than 1 million cars a year, it marks a threat because Maserati is targeting buyers of the most expensive high-horsepower vehicles, which typically yield the greatest profits. The Germans “are limited in how well they can satisfy customers’ desire to be different,” says brand chief Harald Wester, a German engineer who worked at Volkswagen (VOW:GR) and Audi before taking charge of development at Fiat in 2004.
The four-door Ghibli exudes sportiness with glaring headlights, a low-slung front end, and high rear haunches. The base version features a 330-horsepower V6 engine by Ferrari, and its interior is accented with leather from 101-year-old Italian furniture maker Poltrona Frau. Maserati is counting on such luxurious touches to convince buyers to pay roughly 20 percent more than they would for similar-size German sedans. The top-of-the-line Ghibli S Q4 pushes performance with a 410-hp engine and a top speed of 285 kilometers (177 miles) per hour. The $75,700 all-wheel-drive model can accelerate to 100 kph in 4.8 seconds, beating the $61,400 402-hp Mercedes E550. “I’m a believer” in Maserati’s strategy, says Max Warburton, an analyst with Sanford C. Bernstein (AB). “While the plan is clearly ambitious, there is room in the high-end sedan segment for something different, and with the right quality and distribution network, Maserati can reach its goal.”
Maserati, which has been part of Fiat since 1993, aims to deliver at least 20,000 cars this year, more than triple last year’s total. In 2015, the automaker expects to sell about 20,000 Ghibli sedans—40 percent of the brand’s overall sales target. The Ghibli is part of a broader expansion by Maserati, which includes this year’s overhaul of the $130,000 Quattroporte flagship and the debut of its first sport-utility vehicle, the Levante, by 2015. Fiat is investing about €1.2 billion ($1.6 billion) to revamp Maserati, and Ferrari is hiring 200 workers at its Maranello factory to build engines for the brand.
The Germans won’t be easy to beat, even if Maserati can draw on a heritage that includes such diverse owners as Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev. Researcher IHS Automotive (IHS) predicts Maserati will fall short of its goal, delivering 31,300 cars in 2015 and only 9,900 Ghiblis. “It’s very tough to win against the Germans,” says Gianluca Spina, dean of Milan Polytechnic’s business school. Maserati “may be positioned too high to be stretched into midsize luxury sedans. For sure, it’s the most lucrative segment of the market, and the strength of German carmakers comes from having created it.”
Lifting Maserati’s global appeal is key to the effort by Sergio Marchionne, chief executive officer of both Fiat and Chrysler, to end losses in Europe, which totaled fon ore than €700 million last year. Fiat is counting on overseas demand for higher-margin luxury cars to keep workers at its underutilized Italian factories busy. That strategy will also be used at Alfa Romeo, which will make somewhat less opulent cars aimed at German rivals’ mainstream customers. Wolfram Mrowetz, chairman of brokerage Alisei Sim in Milan, says the company can succeed by building the right image to woo new customers. “Maserati is a hidden jewel,” Mrowetz says. “But it’s crucial for them to market properly to boost their aspirational value for wealthy consumers.”