By Jennifer Clark
NICE, France (Reuters) - Italian carmaker Fiat is investing 1.2 billion euros in luxury brand Maserati, hoping technology and dealerships from its tie-up with Chrysler will help it to take on German rivals BMW and Porsche.
While previous attempts to grow its Maserati and Alfa Romeo brands have fallen flat, Fiat hopes Chrysler's 2,300-store U.S. dealer network will make the difference, raising its share of the luxury market, which enjoys double-digit profit margins, many times Fiat's likely 2 percent mass-market returns this year.
Its platform-sharing with Chrysler also lets the Turin-based company tap the U.S. carmaker's expertise at making bigger cars and save on development costs.
Maserati brand chief executive Harald Wester said on Monday that Fiat would invest in three new Maserati models in a bid to lift sales to 50,000 cars in 2015.
The brand aims to sell at least 13,000 of its new four-door Quattroporte sedans in 2013, compared with a total of about 4,700 cars Maserati sold in the first three quarters of 2012.
The new Quattroporte is the second car built from a shared car body to be launched by Fiat since the start of its 2009 tie-up with Chrysler. It competes with the BMW 7 Series and Porsche's Panamera.
The Quattroporte is priced between 100,000 euros and 150,000 euros each, the top of the range about 20 percent below an entry-level Ferrari, while a Porsche Panamera runs from 77,000 euros to 166,000 euros.
The launch is being watched by enthusiasts and investors alike to see how well Fiat executes its ambitious plan to leverage Chrysler's market access and technology to build up the Maserati brand in the United States.
Bernd Buechner, head of Germany for brand research group Millward Brown, said the Maserati brand - "aspirational, and with a strong appeal for car buyers in the Asia-Pacific region" - was positioned a little higher than BMW, but couldn't match the cachet of its sister brand Ferrari, with its Formula One racing credentials.
The sleekly styled new sedan is built on a Chrysler 300-derived chassis, and is powered by an engine designed and manufactured in Italy by Ferrari.
"This is a totally different product, and it speaks to a much broader customer base," said Wester when asked how he intends to meet his aggressive sales target.
The Quattroporte is built at a new Turin factory refurbished by Fiat at a cost of around 1 billion euros.
LONGER AND WIDER
Wester said he was targeting Quattroporte sales of 80,000 over the seven-year life of the new model.
Maserati will increase its dealerships worldwide to 425 by 2015, from 250 at the end of this year.
The brand had sales of 472 million euros in the first nine months of this year, up 6 percent from a year ago. This compared with combined Fiat-Chrysler revenues of 62.14 billion euros for the period.
Later next year, Maserati will launch a smaller sedan called the Ghibli, priced from 50,000 to 100,000 euros. A new sports utility vehicle, the Levante, likely to be made at the Fiat factory Mirafiori in Turin, will follow in the third quarter of next year.
The new Quattroporte has been completely redesigned, said Lorenzo Ramaciotti, head of design centre Centro Stile Fiat.
This new version of the Maserati 1963 classic has a four-wheel drive, which should also help to appeal to drivers in Canada, Russia and Scandinavia, Wester said.
It comes in V6 and V8 versions. At 5.26 metres it is longer and wider, meaning it can also be chauffeur driven, and is 20 percent more fuel efficient than the model it replaces because 35 percent of its body is made of aluminium.
Maserati may add a third shift at its new Turin factory to deal with demand, said Wester. (Reporting by Jennifer Clark; Editing by Mark Potter and Will Waterman)