The Australian - Wish Magazine - - MOTORING - STORY DAVID MEAGHER

Game changer is an overused term when it comes to de­scrib­ing a new prod­uct – but in this case it may prove to be an apt one. At the end of the year the Ital­ian sports car mar­que Maserati will in­tro­duce a new model to its lineup: the Lev­ante. It’s also a new class of ve­hi­cle for the leg­endary car­maker and one that would have been un­think­able a decade or so ago. The Lev­ante is an SUV and the very con­cept of an SUV is anath­ema to a brand built on speed and sporti­ness like Maserati – or at least it used to be.

Sales of sport util­ity ve­hi­cles are boom­ing, mak­ing it the fastest grow­ing cat­e­gory of the pas­sen­ger ve­hi­cle in­dus­try to­day. In Aus­tralia alone sales of SUVs grew by 15.9 per cent in 2015 and ac­counted for 35.4 per cent of all new car sales. Sales of large sedans by com­par­i­son have de­clined. Glob­ally SUVs ac­count for just over a quar­ter of all new car sales. Even lux­ury carmakers have come to re­alise that giv­ing cus­tomers what they want is good for busi­ness. Bent­ley, Jaguar and Tesla have all in­tro­duced SUVs into their line-up. Alfa Romeo is due to launch one next year, Lam­borgh­ini will fol­low with their in­ter­pre­ta­tion in 2018. In 2019 As­ton Martin’s ver­sion will be on the roads, or off them – ex­pect to see the next 007 leap­ing out of one – and even Rolls-Royce has said it has an SUV in de­vel­op­ment.

In fact the only lux­ury car mar­que with­out one might end up be­ing Maserati’s for­mer sta­ble­mate un­der Fiat Chrysler Au­to­mo­biles, Fer­rari (FCA sep­a­rated Fer­rari from the group and floated it on the New York Stock Ex­change ear­lier this year). At a public talk in Syd­ney in June, Fer­rari’s de­sign di­rec­tor, Flavio Man­zoni, was asked if the com­pany had plans to launch an SUV in the near fu­ture. His an­swer – to the dis­may of many Fer­rari own­ers in the au­di­ence – was a cat­e­gor­i­cal no. “At Fer­rari we are al­ways look­ing at re­duc­ing weight, low­er­ing the cen­tre of grav­ity … an SUV is heavy, very high, not bal­anced nicely. Why would we do that? It would not be a Fer­rari,” he said.

For Maserati, how­ever, it was more a ques­tion of why not than of why, ac­cord­ing to Glen Sealey, chief op­er­at­ing of­fi­cer of Maserati Aus­tralia. “Who would have thought prac­ti­cal­ity would come out of this brand?” he says. “This is not just an SUV that hap­pens to have a Maserati badge on it. This is a Maserati – so it is in­nately a sports car but it does have fea­tures that give it level of prac­ti­cal­ity com­bined with the func­tion­al­ity of a sports car. For one it of­fers the abil­ity of a quiet ride – some­thing new to Maserati. I like to say it’s not an SUV, it’s a Maserati. It’s a new model that de­liv­ers, like all Maser­atis, su­perla­tive style, per­for­mance, han­dling and road hold­ing, but at the same time it adds the space and flex­i­bil­ity of an SUV with real off-road abil­ity.”

Sealey be­lieves the new ad­di­tion to the Maserati fam­ily will ap­peal to a raft of cus­tomers. “We have cus­tomers who want an SUV in their garage along­side their ex­ist­ing Maserati, we have Fer­rari cus­tomers who would like an SUV along­side their Fer­rari and we will have com­pletely new cus­tomers to the brand who just want some­thing new.” The car is due to ar­rive in Aus­tralia in late De­cem­ber or early Jan­uary and will have a start­ing price of $139,990. “That’s an ex­cep­tional price when you con­sider where the brand sits in terms of its level of ex­clu­siv­ity, but we are also very care­ful to pro­tect that ex­clu­siv­ity.”

By ad­ding an SUV model fam­ily to its ex­ist­ing lineup, Sealey says Maserati will ef­fec­tively dou­ble its busi­ness in Aus­tralia. “In terms of the busi­ness and the vol­ume it will cre­ate, it will dou­ble our vol­ume overnight. We will go from 500 cars per year, give or take, to 1000 cars a year,” he says. “Do we lose our ex­clu­siv­ity with that? One thou­sand cars is 0.075 per cent of the to­tal Aus­tralian mar­ket. We are not even one per cent so this is still a very ex­clu­sive brand and we want to keep it that way.” The Lev­ante will en­ter the Aus­tralian mar­ket in three ver­sions: the turbo diesel en­try model, a Lev­ante Sport and a Lev­ante Lux­ury model, both priced start­ing at $159,990.

WISH re­cently vis­ited Maserati’s fac­tory in Mo­dena to ex­pe­ri­ence the car in ac­tion and also meet with the com­pany’s de­sign di­rec­tor Marco Ten­cone to dis­cover how a com­pany with the his­tory of sport and per­for­mance cars could get its head around an SUV. The key, he says,

“This is not just an SUV that hap­pens to have a Maserati badge on it. This is a Maserati.”

is to ap­proach the de­sign of this car in ex­actly the same way as any other Maserati. “It’s not a case that if we are work­ing on a new GranTurismo that we have to be very strong and, when we de­sign a Maserati SUV, we have to be more gen­tle. Ev­ery­one has to recog­nise it is a Maserati,” Ten­cone says. “Our cars have to be con­structed in terms of vol­umes, like a main body with added fend­ers, just like the old real sports cars. This kind of con­struc­tion is very im­por­tant to give the real feel­ing that the car is not a com­mon car, but some­thing very spe­cial and some­thing much closer to the world of su­per­cars than the world of tra­di­tional cars.”

The de­sign of the Lev­ante is based on the Ghi­bli and Qu­at­tro­porte plat­form. The car has an im­pos­ing front grille that in­stantly iden­ti­fies it as a Maserati, and the char­ac­ter­is­tic rear pil­lar de­sign that gives it a coupéstyle pro­file. Frame­less win­dows, an­other Maserati sig­na­ture, help give the SUV more of a sports car look.

It’s an im­pres­sive feat to cre­ate a car that is 5m long with a 3m wheel­base and for it not to look like a big and boxy truck. The ben­e­fit of the chas­sis size, how­ever, is that it’s in­cred­i­bly roomy and com­fort­able in­side. The rear can com­fort­ably ac­com­mo­date three pas­sen­gers thanks to the long wheel­base. But the real plea­sure of this car is not as a rear-seat pas­sen­ger. The driver’s seat has a wrap­around de­sign and 12-way elec­tronic ad­just­ment for max­i­mum com­fort. On a hot day the ven­ti­lated seats are amaz­ing. The Lev­ante comes in an op­tional Ermenegildo Zegna edi­tion with pre­mium Ital­ian leather and silk trim on the doors and head­lin­ers.

Maserati was es­tab­lished in De­cem­ber 1914 in Bologna when broth­ers Al­fieri, Bindo, Et­tore and Ernesto Maserati be­gan build­ing rac­ing cars and mak­ing spark plugs. In 1926, Maserati pro­duced its first car – the Tipo 26 – which scored a vic­tory on its rac­ing de­but in the 1926 Targa Flo­rio. It was around this time that an­other Maserati brother, Mario, an artist, cre­ated the tri­dent em­blem based on the Foun­tain of Nep­tune in Bologna. In 1937 the broth­ers sold their shares in the com­pany to the Adolfo Orsi fam­ily but re­mained work­ing in en­gi­neer­ing roles with the com­pany. Orsi moved the busi­ness to Mo­dena where it re­mains to­day.

By 1947 the re­main­ing Maserati broth­ers had left the com­pany owned by Orsi af­ter new tal­ent was brought in from Fiat and Alfa Romeo. Feel­ing side­lined by the com­pany they had founded, the Maserati broth­ers left to launch the OSCA Ital­ian sports car com­pany. Maserati con­tin­ued to fo­cus on mo­tor rac­ing un­til the 1957 Mille Miglia rally when a crash by Fer­rari near the town of Guidiz­zolo killed 12 peo­ple. Af­ter that, the em­pha­sis of the brand shifted to road cars.

The sec­ond half of the 20th cen­tury proved to be a tur­bu­lent one for Maserati on the busi­ness side. A deal Orsi made with Ar­gen­tinian pres­i­dent Juan Perón proved dis­as­trous: af­ter the ex­ile of Perón it be­came im­pos­si­ble for Orsi to re­ceive pay­ments and the com­pany faced fi­nan­cial pres­sures. Mod­els such as the Ghi­bli two-seater coupe and the Ghi­bli Spi­der, which de­buted in 1967 and 1969, were suc­cess­ful enough to keep the cred­i­tors at bay. How­ever, in 1967 Orsi sold a ma­jor­ity share of the com­pany to Citroën and by 1971 the French car maker had ac­quired Maserati out­right. Then the oil cri­sis of 1973 hit car sales hard. By 1975 Citroën had de­clared Maserati bank­rupt.

The com­pany was soon bought by Ale­jan­dro De To­maso who quickly set about launch­ing new mod­els such as the Kyalami, Qu­at­tro­porte III, Bi­turbo and Ghi­bli II. In 1993 De To­maso suf­fered a stroke and sold his stake to Fiat. Fiat in­vested heav­ily in the Maserati brand and in 1998 it launched the 3200GT – a two-door coupé – which proved to be a turn­ing point for the brand and gave it a much needed in­tegrity boost. Fiat later sold a 50 per cent share to Fer­rari, which in 2005 trans­ferred full con­trol of Maserati back to Fiat Chrysler Au­to­mo­biles – which means the two Ital­ian pow­er­house car brands now share own­er­ship with Alfa Romeo, Lan­cia, Dodge, and Jeep among oth­ers.

This choppy busi­ness his­tory is now in the rearview mir­ror. In some ways the in­tro­duc­tion of an SUV to the line up sig­nals an era of sta­bil­ity and growth for Maserati. See our mo­tor­ing ed­i­tor Stephen Corby’s re­view of the Lev­ante on page 34.

“It is not a com­mon car, but some­thing very spe­cial and some­thing much closer to the world of su­per­cars.”

The Lev­ante tests its on- and off-road chops on the Parma to Pog­gio di Berceto road, where the Maserati broth­ers and Enzo Fer­rari tested their cars in the 1920s and 30s

Maserati head­quar­ters in Mo­dena, top left; and a Lev­ante is as­sem­bled in the fac­tory at Turin

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