Looking across a short section of the halls at the 2016 Geneva motor show last month, Jaguar faced off against Maserati with its F-Pace SUV aimed at the new Levante off-roader from the Italians.
Two of the most evocative names in the automotive world were staring each other down with two-box, five-seat family haulers as their headline acts.
What is the world coming to? Simple. Demand from customers in the luxury SUV segment has grown by over 40 per cent in the past five years, so it’s a matter of jumping on the bandwagon or being left out.
Maserati could have used the might of the Fiat Chrysler Auto (FCA) empire to borrow technology from the Jeep family, which was originally mooted when the first SUV concept was shown in 2010, but didn’t, and according to Maserati CEO, Harald Wester, the speculation was all our fault.
“No, that was you and your colleagues saying this. It was always the plan to base Levante on the Maserati Ghibli and not on the Jeep Grand Cherokee,” he says rather bluntly when wheels caught up with him in Geneva.
Given the parameters of designing a family-capable luxury SUV, which needs to seat five people, have ground clearance, approach and departure angles, and yet somehow still look cool and suave, how difficult is it to break the SUV mould and make something different?
Immediately upon reveal, its styling was brought into question by the media hordes, much like Bentayga when Bentley slipped the covers off or even Porsche going way back with the Cayenne. It seems that an SUV from a luxury car manufacturer polarises opinion when it comes to how it should look.
“We don’t do styling clinics but I’ve lived with the styling of the Levante for nearly three years,” Wester says.
Its Maserati nose is handsome, but according to some, an Infiniti-esque C-pillar has dulled the wow-factor most petrolheads were expecting when the silk drapes slipped off. Wester admits that its styling is subjective and is open to suggestions.
“Due to the processes, when we approve the styling as a team, it’s usually been more than two years before we start production, and then the process from conceptualising to the approval is another nine months.
“So when I come here and present to you something you’re seeing for the first time and I’ve seen it for the past two-and-a-half to three years, it would be totally unnatural if I did not have ideas and changes that I would like to make to improve it. But that’s life and therefore there is a facelift planned, like all cars, in time. There is a life cycle and we are going to improve its looks over time.
“I would do a thousand things differently today but I cannot, so we will bring these into the product after this life cycle,” he said.
With styling comes packaging, and on face value looking at the F-Pace and Levante, the Italian seems to falter with cabin room. Rear legroom is a squeeze and luggage space is compromised by the shallow floor compared to some of its rivals like the Cayenne and Range Rover.
“With the packaging we need the elegance of a Maserati but the functionality of something that is already well accepted in the market. But somebody who is 1.9m tall can easily sit in the back seat.”
When the first Maserati Kubang SUV concept surfaced in Frankfurt in 2010, then Dubai and eventually Detroit in 2011, the intention was for it to be manufactured in the United States. But plans have changed and it’s now 100 per cent Italiano, being made by Fiat-owned Mirafiori in Turin.
“The biggest investment in our industry is always the paint shop and we are talking several hundreds of millions of euros, especially on this car because it is a huge body. It is very long, slightly longer than the Ghibli, but it’s also wide and tall.
“Mirafiori satisfied these requirements because it has been successful over many years and has carried the Fiat Multipla, which was wide and tall, as well as the Alfa Romeo 164 and the Lancia Thesis, which were both very long, so that was the place for us.
“The entire production of the car will be carried out at Mirafiori and in terms of volume, we are not restricted (by its capacity) in any way. There is no influence from us as they can produce to our investment target of 30,000 units per year over a two-shift operation.
“I’m biased but I’m extremely glad this baby is finally available because it is the most important opportunity Maserati has ever had, and being represented in this segment will guarantee us a bright future.”
The Levante was tested on five continents from minus-38 degree temps in the Arctic Circle to 50-plus degrees in the UAE deserts. Being based on the Ghibli it uses the same Q4 torque vectoring all-wheel drive system but is predominantly an on-road performance-based car with the ability to venture off road occasionally.
The company claims that in its top-spec, 3.0-litre twin-turbo 430bhp V6, Ferrari-built form, mated to an eight-speed auto ’box, it can get from zero to 100kph in 5.2 seconds and top out at 264kph. The Levante also has perfect 50:50 weight distribution and has the most aerodynamic profile in its class with the lowest centre of gravity.
“In terms of on-road performance, there is nothing like this in its segment. The guideline was always to not compromise and offer the best of two worlds.
“To know that you could go off road if you wanted to is of interest to many people. I was in Dubai a few months ago and we did some crazy driving in the desert and on the race track.”
Deliveries to Europe begin in May with Asian markets following in July and North America in September. Local pricing has been announced; the base model will cost Dh316,150 and Dh363,150 for the Levante S and they’ll be available in the Middle East from Ramadan. It’s priced above the Porsche Cayenne (which starts from around Dh280K) even though Maserati won’t offer a V8 option.
“Theoretically, obviously we could take a V8 because the Levante is built on Ghibli architecture and we have not said ‘no’ to the V8, it’s just that we have said ‘not yet’ to the V8. It’s not a matter of having a V8 alternative, it’s about selling a V8, and our competitors have them but they can’t sell them. Range Rover needs V8s because they don’t have attractive V6s. Their 5.0-litre V8 is for the museum.
“However, Europe is over 80 per cent diesel and the UK is more than 95 per cent, while for the rest of the world, V8s do not even account for two per cent, and even in the Middle East, the predominant engine in the Quattroporte and Ghibli range is the V6.”
While much of the development has been carried out in the Middle East, when it comes to cold, hard sales numbers, this region is low on the company’s priorities especially compared to the sleeping giant that is China.
“Its biggest market will be a battle between China and the United States. China may have fluctuated in recent years but not in the SUV segment, which has seen constant growth and it remains our biggest territory.”
By fluctuated, Wester means that Chinese sales of Quattroporte have slumped by 30 per cent as that market’s focus shifts to SUVs.
“The Middle East is not important enough in terms of sales. It is important but it could be more important.
“I’m happy with the market share, obviously the UAE is big within the region but there are issues of not being able to sell in some countries even though last year was a good year for us in the Gulf.
“If I ask my son, who just finished university, if he believes the Middle East is more important to have volumes than South Korea, the UK or Japan for Levante, he would answer, ‘By far the Middle East.’
“But even considering it as a region, it is not a huge volume and that’s simply a fact.
After selling 8,000 units globally in 2013, FCA CEO Sergio Marchionne gave the company the ambitious target of hitting 50,000 sales next year and 75,000 in 2018, which, given the recent Chinese slump for Quattroporte, seems a job too far for the foreseeable future at least.
“It doesn’t matter if we achieve these numbers in 2017 or 2018 and don’t tell Sergio, but what’s more important to me is how we achieve these volumes. You don’t sell on price, don’t push on volumes and don’t push on market share. With a brand like Maserati you need to grow into these volumes and do nothing that could damage the brand.”
Not once in our chat was heritage, motor racing, tradition or Fangio mentioned, and it pains me to admit this, but perhaps finally, Maserati is facing the brave world of selling volume cars, and has shelved those blotchy black and white films of Ascari and the high speed banking of Monza for good.