AnalysisIt is getting increasingly difficult to tell the players without a scorecard following the latest slew of management changes at Fiat Auto SpA.

The Italian auto maker this month gave the boot to former CEO Herbert Demel, replacing him with the hard-charging CEO of corporate parent Fiat SpA, Sergio Marchionne.

Marchionne and his team quickly orchestrated a plan to move Maserati SpA under Fiat’s auto unit, bidding newly installed Maserati CEO Martin Leach a hurried “arrivederchi.”(See related story: Fiat Plays Musical Chairs With Maserati, Ferrari Execs)

The most telling strategy to date is the nod to Ferrari SpA chief designer Frank Stephenson to take over design efforts for Fiat and Lancia brands and Fiat’s Commercial Vehicle operations, as well as Ferrari’s Product Development Director Giuseppe Bonollo’s appointment to lead Fiat product strategy.

While Marchionne is credited with these bold management strokes, there is more than meets the eye here.

Marchionne, sources tell Ward’s, likely is taking his marching orders directly from Fiat Chairman Luca Cordero di Montezemolo, one of Italy’s most respected businessmen.

Montezemolo directed Ferrari’s day-to-day operations from 1991 before moving up the corporate ladder last year.

During his tenure, he managed to right the flailing Italian sports car maker in quick and profitable fashion. Ferrari today leads Formula 1 racing, winning its 4th consecutive championship in 2004, while customers wait up to two years for one of only 4,900 cars built annually.

Fiat SpA Chairman Luca Cordero di Montezemolo

Montezemolo now is looking to repeat that success on a much bigger scale at Fiat Auto.

For example, Stephenson, who penned the Mini for BMW AG, is free to flex his considerable design muscle without tiptoeing around famed ItalDesign SpA and Pininfarina SpA design houses, both of which objected when he attempted to take risks with Ferrari.

Bonollo has the same opportunity to spread his product-development genius into more mainstream vehicles. The goal is to target segments of the market in which Fiat needs to gain a presence, while developing product that exudes Italian design flare.

Montezemolo, therefore, is expected to push for Fiat’s presence in untapped key global markets, most notably the U.S. The Italian auto maker’s Alfa Romeo brand was the last to close up shop in the U.S. in 1995.

It appears the progressive Fiat chairman plans to reintroduce Americans to the company’s upscale Italian vehicles with the pairing of Maserati under the Alfa Romeo brand. The joining of the two provides Fiat with a segment that ranges from Alfa’s mid-luxury models to Maserati’s luxury sports cars.

Maserati Quattroporte

The vision goes something like this: Convince upscale customers to move up from the Alfa 147 and Spider to the pricier Maserati Coupe and Quattroporte as their wealth grows.

Such a strategy likely will work more effectively than Maserati’s most recent pairing with Ferrari, which has caused some potential customers to look past Maserati, thinking its vehicles carry sticker prices on par with the more prestigious Ferrari.

Equally important, Maserati wants to grow its annual global volumes to 10,000 units by 2006, more than double the 4,700 units reportedly sold in 2004. That’s a tough task to accomplish with only 50 dealers in the U.S. market.

Alfa Romeo’s mainstream reach no doubt would capture the attention of more franchisees, while the addition of the Maserati marque would provide icing on the cake.