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Maserati Sees Key Niche in U.S.


FRANKFURT, Germany — For lovers of Italian performance sports cars there's great news on the horizon: They won't have to spend a minimum $142,000 for a Ferrari or $290,000 for a Lamborghini.

Maserati--the Modena, Italy, auto maker with a storied racing history in the 1950s and that later evoked passion and elegance with such models as the Vignale, Mistral and Ghibli--is returning to America.

The 2003 Maserati Spyder will be unveiled for the U.S. market at the Greater Los Angeles Auto Show in January and will go on sale in the first quarter of the year; the Maserati Coupe will have its world unveiling later in January at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit and arrive in showrooms in May. Both cars will have a 4.2-liter V-8 engine that pounds out 385 horsepower, with a top speed of 176 mph, and will be priced in the $85,000-to-$95,000 range.

Maseratis haven't been sold in the U.S. for 10 years. Plans are to come back modestly, through 33 dealerships, mostly existing U.S. and Canadian showrooms of sister brand Ferrari.

"Now we are ready," said Ferrari's ebullient chief executive, Luca di Montezemolo, here for the recent Frankfurt International Motor Show. "We spent years of hard work reorganizing, rebuilding, relaunching: engineering, working with management, dealers, quality and product. We have worked very hard on our dealer network in the U.S."

The United States is expected to be the largest market for Maserati, which plans to quickly outpace Ferrari, which sold 1,200 vehicles in the U.S. last year.

The question is whether Maserati can serve its customers once they buy its cars.

"The key is they have to have a lot of commitment to buyers that they will be around and not withdraw from the market," said Greg Salchow, senior auto analyst with investment bank Raymond James in Detroit. "If they don't have the quality right, then there will be big problems, which have plagued all Italian cars."

Di Montezemolo, 54, insists he is confident that quality and service will do Maserati and its triton logo proud.

Maserati dominated the Grand Prix racing scene in the 1950s, and it was only when it left racing in 1957 that its street cars began to be taken seriously.

Fiat Group of Italy acquired Maserati in 1997 and merged it into Fiat's Ferrari unit, the roaring king of performance sports cars. That gave Di Montezemolo a chance to develop a more affordable, luxurious yet sporty performance car without diluting Ferrari's image.

"For Ferrari dealers, we wanted another car--but not a smaller Ferrari, because that would mean less content," Di Montezemolo said at the Frankfurt show, where the Spyder was unveiled.

"These are two companies, not marques, with completely different strategies," he said. "Ferrari means extreme performance, prices, exclusivity. We will never build more than 4,000 cars a year. Maserati is not extreme; it's a very competitive sports car: two-seat, two-door and four-door. It's expensive, like Porsche, but not extreme.

"Maserati does volume but not so extremely low volumes. Therefore they are two different companies."

Maserati fits comfortably between Ferrari at the super-high end and Alfa Romeo, another Fiat brand, at the near-luxury end of the passenger car business.

"We seek U.S. sales from the BMW, Porsche, Jaguar and Aston Martin driver, people 30 to 60 years old who have an interest in cars, who'll take it as a second or third car," said Stuart Robinson, chief executive of Ferrari Maserati North America.

He is encouraged by the recent rise in the market for $80,000-plus sports cars, which include the Jaguar XK8 and XKR, the Porsche 911, the BMW M5 and the upcoming "baby" Aston Martin.

Robinson said he expects to sell 1,500 Maseratis in the U.S. next year, rising to 4,500 in 2005. The mix probably will be 75% Spyder and 25% Coupe--the mirror image of sales in Europe, where hardtops are favored.

Maserati will come out with a new four-door in 2003 designed by renowned Italian auto stylist Sergio Pininfarina, long associated with Ferrari. (Giorgietto Giugiaro, who designed Maserati's famed 1966 Ghibli coupe, collaborated on the 2003 Spyder and Coupe.)

The forthcoming pair of Maseratis "will put some pressure on the Porsches of the world, coming in at a lower price," said Jeff Schuster, director of North American forecasting for J.D. Power & Associates in Detroit.

"There's been a resurgence in the fun, sporty, 'I-want-to-drive' experience as opposed to getting from Point A to Point B," Schuster said.

Gloomy economic forecasts in the wake of September's terrorist attacks shouldn't cloud Maserati's plans, he said, because those wealthy enough to afford such cars will spend the money anyway.

"By the time the vehicles hit the market we'll probably be faring a little better than now," Schuster said.

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