Maserati plots ambitious growth

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Maserati has released images showing its all-new fourth generation Quattroporte. Given that its predecessor was widely hailed as one of the best-looking saloons to be created by Maserati or indeed anyone else, it’s a relief to see the styling of the new car is evolutionary.

Some might not like a tail that appears to have been influenced more by Audi than Maserati, but the profile is sleek and flowing, the nose unmistakably Maserati. The interior, said to be far more spacious than that of the old car, looks timelessly elegant.

But recent Maseratis have all been gorgeous to look at: it’s finding a way of making that beauty run more than skin deep that’s proven troubling. To stand a chance of selling in volume next to the top-of-the-range Audis, BMWs and Mercedes at which it will be pitched, the new Quattroporte must at the very least finally acquire acceptable ride quality, a decent gearbox, and engines designed to work powering a heavy saloon rather than a rev-happy sports car.

Maserati has released no technical details ahead of its global debut at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit in the New Year but the car will sit on a new platform. As before, it will use engines cast and built for them by Ferrari.

The even more interesting news is what Maserati plans to do with its business over the next three years. In that time, if its plans come to fruition, Maserati production will grow from a little over 6000 cars at the moment to 50,000 units. To put this in perspective, that’s as many cars as Porsche was producing at the time of the Cayenne’s introduction in 2002. Looked at another way, while Ferrari took 26 years to double production to its current 7000 units, Maserati is planning an eight-fold increase in three years flat.

It seems implausible but stranger things have happened: Bentley grew its business ten-fold between 2003-07 thanks to the rapturous reception granted to the Continental GT.

But Maserati is trying to do something different. Bentley wasn’t trying to reposition its brand, it was trying to release pent-up demand among those who’d always have been happy to spend a six-figure sum on a Bentley if only there’d been one worth buying. Maserati, by contrast, is attempting to transform itself from a niche player into one still premium but entirely mainstream, like Jaguar. And it won’t get there by Quattroporte, no matter how capable it proves to be.

It needs at least two entirely new product lines to come on stream and be established in all major territories around the world, both selling for sums that people who have hitherto only ever dreamed of owning a Maserati can now afford. One will be a smaller saloon, the other an SUV.

The results will be fascinating. Maserati, a company that has carefully picked its way around the major market classes, is now apparently to go head to head with the cream of the German premium players and do so with cars that surely cannot have had a fraction of the development time or money spent on them. There must also be diesel Maseratis and four-wheel-drive Maseratis — all new ground for this most traditional constructor.

Will it get there? The plan seems staggeringly ambitious to me. Bentley was able to develop the Continental GT to Volkswagen standards of engineering excellence because it was based on an extant VW design, the Phaeton. Porsche was able to create the Cayenne because beneath the skin it was just a VW Touareg with Porsche panels, running gear and suspension settings. Where within the Fiat Group will Maserati find its equivalents? Chrysler may provide the answer: the new Jeep Grand Cherokee is based on the current Mercedes ML platform while the 300C has a rear-drive configuration of approximately the right size for the smaller saloon.

But perhaps Maserati will confound its doubters and produce a credible range of smaller, more affordable cars and let that name do the rest. A Maserati for the price of an Audi Q7? That’s a deal a lot of people will want to make. All Maserati has to do is give them the confidence that it’s as good an idea in practice as in theory. Which is, of course, the most difficult thing of all.

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