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Maserati to arrive late to crowded luxury SUV party

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As competitors gear up to put on display new luxury sport utility vehicles at the Frankfurt auto show, Maserati keeps its fans waiting a little longer as it makes final tweaks to a model meant to reverse falling sales of the Italian brand.

[FRANKFURT] As competitors gear up to put on display new luxury sport utility vehicles at the Frankfurt auto show, Maserati keeps its fans waiting a little longer as it makes final tweaks to a model meant to reverse falling sales of the Italian brand.

Bentley's Bentayga and Jaguar's F-Pace will be shown in Frankfurt and deliveries of Tesla's electric Model X are due to start in two weeks.

The love affair with SUVs and their higher ground clearance have also prompted Lamborghini, Aston Martin and Rolls-Royce to seek to compete in the popular segment.

Forecaster IHS Automotive expects global sales of premium and luxury SUVs to grow by more than 40 per cent to 1.4 million vehicles between 2008 and 2018. Overall SUV sales are expected to triple to more than 25 million over that period.

"With gas prices low, it's a good time to launch an SUV... my only concern is that Maserati may get lost in the clutter because there are so many luxury crossovers coming out at the same time," said Lincoln Merrihew, an industry consultant at Millward Brown Digital.

Set for a 2015 launch according to a growth plan announced last year, the Maserati Levante SUV is now expected to debut by the end of the first quarter of 2016, most likely at the Geneva auto show in March.

Workers at the Mirafiori plant in Turin, northern Italy, are preparing for commercial production which Sergio Marchionne, chief executive at Maserati parent Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA), expects to start by January.

"It's a complex car and we need to test it before launching it," Mr Marchionne said this month.

A Maserati SUV has been in the making for more than a decade since the first concept was presented in 2003.

Maserati hopes the Levante will help it emulate the success of Porsche, which set the standard for multiplying sales of an expensive brand without damaging the exclusive image that reaps big profits.

Mr Marchionne is betting Maserati can still offer something unique: Italian design and engines made by sister brand Ferrari.

Key to Levante's success will be its reception in North America, home to 40 per cent of Maserati's sales last year.

Maserati has a strong image in the United States, combining a recognised racing heritage with Italian luxury, said Jane Nakagawa, managing director at US-based product and market strategy consultancy Portia Consulting.

"The chances are always good for luxury brands that don't have to sell a lot of cars," she said.

Analysts expect the Levante to cover a price range of between 70,000-140,000 euros (US$79,051-US$158,102), similar to Porsche's Cayenne, but wonder whether the Maserati SUV will stand out sufficiently to match the success of its German rival, especially as it comes more than a decade later.

Mr Marchionne is counting on the Levante to halt a fall in Maserati sales in recent quarters.

They fell 11 per cent in the first half of the year as higher sales in Europe failed to offset weaker demand from China and the United States.

"(The Levante) will certainly change the earnings generation capability of Maserati," he said. "We need to wait until then."

The brand's profitability was also hit by worse pricing arrangements for imported vehicles in China and as customers turned to the entry-level Ghibli model at the expense of the higher-margin Quattroporte Coupe.

Its operating margin, the rate of underlying profit on its sales, fell to 7 per cent in the first six months from 8.7 percent a year earlier.

IHS analyst Ian Fletcher said the SUV will do "reasonably well and it may prove better than the Quattroporte purely because customers increasingly (are making the) transition to SUVs".

But Maserati will struggle to meet its goal of growing brand sales nearly five-fold to 75,000 between 2013-18, analysts said. IHS sees Maserati selling just under 48,000 vehicles in 2018, with the Levante contributing around 17,200 vehicles at peak.

The performance at Maserati is watched for clues about the potential success of a revamp at sister brand Alfa Romeo which is seen as even more crucial to FCA's global expansion plan.

Alfa's first new model, the Giulia sedan, will be shown at the Frankfurt auto show.

"If Maserati serves as a template for FCA's rejuvenation efforts at Alfa Romeo it is worth noting that Maserati's own renaissance seems to have run out of steam after just 24 months," said Arndt Ellinghorst, an analyst at Evercore ISI.


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