Fiat struggles, but Italy still has hopes with Maserati image

With the Italian automaker now the full owner of Chrysler, Fiat and Marchionne – the chief executive officer of the group – is shifting away from the European mass market and, in the process, reshaping Italian industry.

In Grugliasco, a suburb of Fiat’s hometown of Turin, in a plant Fiat bought in 2009 from Bertone, workers in trim blue uniforms turn out about 150 Maserati sedans a day. Paolo Rapana, head of the final inspection team at Grugliasco, says this plant is the only one working at full speed in Italy.

The same can’t be said for Fiat’s mainstay Mirafiori plant in Turin, a sprawling complex that in the 1970s churned out 600,000 autos a year. Today, it’s almost abandoned, a vast zone of dilapidated buildings and weed-choked parking lots, as Fiat shifts its Italian operations from basic transport to upscale cars for wealthy Americans, Chinese and Europeans. For Mirafiori, that means production of a new Maserati crossover.

“The first encouraging signs of the potential of the premium strategy have now become visible with Maserati,” Marchionne said on a conference call with reporters yesterday. The brand “had higher operating margins than Ferrari.”

Maserati, which targets selling some 50,000 autos next year, more than doubled deliveries to 15,400 in 2013. The brand’s fourth-quarter profit surged to 123 million euros ($168 million) from 13 million euros a year earlier.

If Marchionne is to reach his goal of making the new company one of the globe’s top five automakers, he can’t afford to abandon Fiat’s Made-in-Italy cachet. The plan is to woo buyers from BMW, Audi and Mercedes-Benz with sporty models that ooze Italian zip and Dolce Vita insouciance.

Maserati’s high-end sedans, starting from $66,000 to $142,000, will attack the top of the Germans’ lineups, while a rejuvenated Alfa Romeo will take on their mid-level offerings. Ferrari will continue to make its hyper-horsepower racers, and Fiat’s new 500 will round out the mix with small cars featuring the same combination of pizzazz and retro-cool as BMW’s Mini.

Via Bloomberg