Special Coverage

New York Int’l Auto Show

NEW YORK – Despite the weak dollar, Maserati SpA expects to see a 15% increase in its U.S. sales for 2008.

The Italian premium auto maker will break through the 3,000-unit barrier this year, compared with year-ago’s 2,600, Maserati CEO Roberto Ronchi predicts on the eve of the New York International Auto Show here.

“We’re willing to grow (in the U.S.),” he says in an interview with Ward’s, insisting Maserati needs to sell in this market, the brand’s second biggest behind Italy. “We can’t predict the strength of currencies.”

Although Maserati competes in a segment that accounts for about 90,000 sales globally, it’s a small player, with only 7,500 deliveries last year, Ronchi says. Competing brands include the BMW 6- and 7-Series, Mercedes SL and S-Class, Jaguar and even Bentley and Aston Martin.

“We love to be considered small,” he says. “There’s no high (customer) loyalty in this segment,” which results in unexpected conquest sales. The Porsche Cayenne is the car most traded in on a Maserati, but the Italian luxury brand wins sales away from the other high-end German makes, as well.

Ronchi is confident of continued growth this year, even though he says there exists a “wait and see attitude” on the part of potential car buyers.

“Our customers want to see what’s going on (with the U.S. economy), but we’ve been able to grow in this environment,” he says, adding Maserati U.S. sales were 15% ahead of year-ago through February.

“There’s a good possibility to attract more customers through word-of-mouth recommendations and test drives,” says Ronchi. However, he laments the level of brand awareness remains low. “The test drive is the key for us. Either drive (our cars) or visit our factory in Modena, Italy.”

Ronchi says Maserati currently is in discussions with its shareholders to fund the development of new engines and a third model for its product portfolio, which only includes the Quattroporte sedan and Gran Turismo coupe in its lineup.

The auto maker also is embarking on a strategy of limited-edition variants. Ronchi unveiled the latest, the Gran Turismo S, at the brand’s Park Avenue showroom here recently.

The performance model is powered by a 4.7L V-8 engine that generates 433 hp at 7,000 rpm, generating 361 lb.-ft. (489 Nm) of torque at 4,750 rpm. The vehicle accelerates from 0-60 mph (97 km/h) in 4.8 seconds and has a top speed of 183 mph (295 km/h).

The standard Gran Turismo sold only 200 units last year, and Maserati plans to build the Gran Turismo S in low numbers as well. Ronchi says the plant has no robots and uses a hand-made type of production that allows great flexibility in model builds.

Maserati sells in 58 markets. About 40% of deliveries are in North America through 57 dealers, including five in Canada. The Collection in Coral Gables, FL, is the largest U.S. dealer, but 40% of Maserati’s sales are on the West Coast.

The average transaction price for both the Quattroporte and Gran Turismo is $125,000.

Maserati dealers soon will be offering their highest-priced model – the new Alfa Romeo 8C, which will cost $265,000. All 84 units destined for the U.S. already are sold.

An Alfa Romeo Spyder also will be sold in the U.S. in the future, but no price has been set for the halo model yet.

Ronchi declines to discuss plans to import lower-priced Alfas in the U.S., noting it will be a big job to re-establish the brand here. Plus, a much larger dealer network would be required to sell the volume models.

Current Maseratis are subject to the gas-guzzler tax. Ronchi says the auto maker is working to achieve a 9% reduction in fuel consumption in the next few years. However, Maseratis are driven an average of 4,000-5,000 miles (6,437-8,047 km) annually, he says, limiting their environmental impact.

Meanwhile, Maserati is working on a new generation of cars that will further reduce consumption. There won’t be any diesel models offered, despite the fuel-economy advantage. “We don’t sell cars to taxi drivers,” Ronchi says.