DETROIT – Maserati North America Inc. now has its own “captive” finance firm created to offer auto loans, stimulate sales and increase lease rates for customers of the ultra-luxury brand.

“Maserati Financial Services was formed to enhance overall Maserati ownership,” Roberto Ronchi, commercial director of Maserati SpA, says at the North American International Auto Show here, where the Italian auto maker debuted a new version of its Pininfarina SpA-designed flagship Quattroporte.

The Quatttroporte Automatic with a V-8 engine features a new 6-speed automatic transmission, developed largely for driving preferences in North America, Maserati’s leading market, followed by Italy.

Maserati Financial will offer innovative leasing and financing programs designed exclusively for Maserati customers, says James Selwa, president of Maserati North America. “Our customers deserve a committed effort that provides favorable financing and leasing terms.”

Of Maserati’s 259 dealers, 47 are in the U.S. Until the creation of Maserati Financial in November, most Maserati vehicle financing and leasing was through various financial institutions, such as Chase Bank.

Many captive auto finance companies also offer dealers floor-plan loans for wholesale inventory purchases. There are no immediate plans for Maserati Financial to do that.

“But it is a skill set we have,” says Steve Bierman, president of CNH Capital America LCC, which administers Maserati Financial.

A major financier of agricultural-equipment purchases, CNH Capital has a $13-billion portfolio and is part of CNH Global, a majority-owned subsidiary of Fiat SpA, Maserati’s parent company.

“We have a reputation of serving highly specialized segments,” says Bierman. “And we are used to working with dealers.”

Maserati vehicles retail from $108,000 to about $150,000, Paul Faletti, Maserati North America’s vice president-sales, says.

After serious quality problems in the 1980s and 1990s, Maserati – founded in 1914 by five brothers in Bologna – became almost non-existent in the U.S. market and struggled virtually everywhere else.

In 1993, Fiat Auto SpA acquired the ailing brand, selling a 50% share in 1997 to Ferrari SpA, itself controlled by Fiat. In 1998, Maserati sold 598 cars.

In 1999, Ferarri acquired full control. A new factory replaced an aging facility. In 2005, Maserati separated from Ferarri and returned to Fiat’s full control.

Experiencing something of a renaissance, Maserati has regained its footing with a global “strategy of stabilization” on all fronts, while increasing sales and expanding its worldwide dealer network to 259.

North America accounts for 45% of worldwide sales that totaled 5,700 units in 2006. Last year, U.S. sales increased 5%. In 2005, they increased 90% compared with 2004.

In the works is a certified pre-owned program that, among other things, will remarket vehicles coming off-lease. Bierman says the creation of Maserati Financial is expected to increase the brand’s lease penetration.

Faletti says the No.1 trade-in at North American Maserati dealerships is the Mercedes-Benz S Class, followed closely by the BMW 7-Series.

Maserati’s U.S. dealers are primarily in the Northeast, Northwest, Southeast and Southwest. There is also a strong presence in the Midwest.

Most Maserati dealers are dualed with another brand, mainly Ferarri.

Two high-profile Maserati dealers opened in 2006 in Southern California, a region accounting for 35% of U.S. sales.

The top-selling Maserati dealership is The Collection in Coral Gables, FL.

The Southeast is the second-leading region, followed by the New York tri-state area.

New retail points are expected to open this year. “We’re growing, and as we grow we need the dealer body to grow with us,” Faletti says.

sfinlay@wardsauto.com