New Maserati ­Levante suits luxury SUV market

Maserati chief executive Harald J says the Levante is the most significant car in the marque’s 102-year history.

Maserati’s Levante. The top-spec of the Italian carmaker’s new SUV should hit 100kph in 5.2 seconds and 264km. Fabrice Coffrini / AFP
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It’s not quite boom-or-bust time for Maserati, although the Italian car manufacturer’s sales roller coaster in recent years may suggest otherwise. But its chief executive, Harald J Wester, says the company is counting on its first SUV to turn things around.

Speaking to The National during the global reveal of the ­Levante SUV at Geneva this week, Wester says it's the most significant car in the marque's 102-year history.

“I’m extremely glad this baby is finally available, because this is the most important opportunity Maserati has had. Being represented in this segment will guarantee us a bright future,” he says, adding that demand in the luxury SUV segment has grown by more than 40 per cent in the past five years.

Available with two V6, turbocharged petrol options and one diesel for the non-Middle Eastern markets, the Levante in 430bhp top-spec guise should get to 100kph in 5.2 seconds and hit 264kmh. Local pricing is yet to be specified, but it will cost from 75,900 francs in Switzerland (Dh279,081), and should be in UAE showrooms by Ramadan.

Wester says it will be positioned above the Porsche Cayenne and Range Rover, despite the lack of a V8 option.

“It’s not a matter of having a V8 [in the range]; it’s about selling a V8. Our competitors have them, but they can’t sell them,” he says.

“Range Rover needs V8s because they don’t have attractive V6s and their 5L V8 is for the museum. Theoretically, we could instal a V8, because Levante is built on the same Ghibli architecture, but Europe is more than 80 per cent diesel, the UK is more than 95 per cent diesel, and for the rest of the world, V8s account for less than 2 per cent [of worldwide sales].

“Even in the Middle East, the predominant engine in the Quattroporte and Ghibli range is the V6.”

It might be reasonable to assume that the Middle East will play a decent role in the Levante’s sales given the amount of hot-weather testing Maserati did in the UAE, but Wester puts the Middle East’s influence into a global perspective.

“The Middle East is important, but it could be more important,” he says. “I’m happy with the market share, but just as a market size, it’s rich in terms of mix, but it’s not huge volume, because there are issues of not being able to sell in some countries, even though last year was a good year for us.”

Maserati sold 36,500 cars globally in 2014, which was an increase of 136 per cent compared to 2013, and almost six times the sales figure for 2012.

However, the company’s operating profit tumbled 87 per cent to US$13.1 million (Dh48.1m) in the third quarter of 2015, as deliveries dropped 22 per cent, with the decline stemming from weaknesses in China and North America, which it plans to turn around with the Levante.

“The Quattroporte segment dropped 30 per cent in China last year, but it is still our biggest market by far. China may have fluctuated in recent years, but not in the SUV segment, which has seen constant growth.”

Early media reports suggested the Levante would be based on the Jeep Grand Cherokee, and would be built in the US, but Wester denies both claims, because Levante’s underpinnings are pure Ghibli, using the same torque-vectoring Q4 all-wheel-drive system. He says it will be built entirely at Fiat’s Mirafiori plant near Turin, at an initial rate of 30,000 vehicles per year.