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Alfa, Maserati await Marchionne makeover

Not kidding around: Jodie Kidd with Maserati's new GranCabrio.

Crucial new models from Alfa Romeo and Maserati depend on new Fiat industrial plan

Alfa Romeo logo8 Feb 2010

THE fate of a wave of new Italian models – including replacements for Alfa Romeo’s Brera coupe, Spider roadster, 156 medium sedan and 166 luxury sedan, plus an all-new entry-level model from Maserati – should be revealed by Fiat Group chief executive Sergio Marchionne on April 21.

That is when Fiat reveals its restructuring plan for the entire group out to 2014 – including the loss-making Alfa Romeo brand, which in a worst-case scenario could be wound down before it celebrates its 100th anniversary in June.

Alfa has been subject to the same product freeze as the rest of the Fiat group since the start of this year, when Mr Marchionne put all but a handful of new models on ice ahead of a strategic review across all brands.

While a replacement for Fiat’s volume-selling Panda city-car and the image-leading 500C convertible escaped the probation notice, the 147-replacing Giulietta, which will be launched at the Geneva show on March 2 and goes on sale here in November, could be the last new model to emerge from Alfa Romeo – ever.

While Alfa product planners naturally hope that is not the case, reports suggest the historic Italian brand is the most vulnerable within the new Fiat-Chrysler alliance because it remains unprofitable and earned 110,000 sales in 2009 – less than half its total in 2000.

“This year is make or break for Alfa,” said Mr Marchionne at last month’s Detroit motor show. “We need to be realistic with what Alfa can and should do. It plays in a very difficult market because it has an ambition to go after higher-end German cars.

“We need to work a lot harder on Alfa to make an intelligent decision that effectively preserves the highest possible value to Fiat.” Despite the uncertainty, Alfa is believed to be developing replacements for the 156, Brera and Spider, with concept versions of each model understood to be in the works by Giorgetto Giugiaro’s ItalDesign, Bertone and Pininfarina respectively.

While images of the Giulietta have already been released, a Pininfarina design sketch of a Spider concept – based on a current Alfa platform but not officially destined for production – has also been issued ahead of the show car’s reveal at Geneva.

Reports from Europe suggest all three models were to have been based on Fiat’s new front and all-wheel drive C-Evo platform, which underpins the Giulietta.

However, the recent appointment of Harald Wester, who retains his roles as the Fiat group’s chief technical officer and CEO of Maserati and Abarth, to also oversee Alfa could see those plans replaced.

Reports now say it is possible a new Chrysler-derived rear-drive platform forming the basis of everything from the 156 and discontinued 166, to the next Chrysler 300C, Dodge Charger sedan and Challenger coupe, and even an all-new entry-level Maserati.

News of the latter was revealed by Maserati’s global commercial director Raffaele Fusilli in Sydney last week, when he attended the official opening of the new Ferrari Maserati Sydney dealership.

 center imageLeft: New chief of Alfa Romeo, Maserati and Abarth, Harald Webster. Below: Maserati commercial director Raffaele Fusilli (left) and Ferrari Maserati Sydney dealer principal Edward Butler unveil the Maserati GranCabrio at Waterloo last week, as James Morrison plays trumpet. According to reports, the move could allow large Alfa models to be built in the US at Chrysler factories, before being shipped to Europe at more competitive prices, while at the same time returning Alfa to its sporting roots and giving the 156 an even chance at rivalling its rear-drive German competitors.

The plan supports reports earlier this year that suggested next-generation versions of Dodge’s Avenger and Chrysler’s Sebring would be rear-drive.

While both the Alfa’s 156 and 166 (the latter has been out of production for almost two years) are based on the premium joint-venture platform developed by Fiat and General Motors, GoAuto understands Fiat has targeted weight reductions of up to 200kg both new models.

Already in the Alfa pipeline for Australia this year are mild 100th anniversary upgrades for the current Brera and Spider, a twin-clutch auto that is expected to at least double sagging sales of the manual-only MiTo from April, the mid-year MiTo Quadrifoglio hot hatch (upon which Maserati Europe's new limited-edition service courtesy car is based) and the manual-only Giulietta in November – followed in the first quarter of 2011 by a dual-clutch auto version.

Asked what Mr Marchionne’s positioning of his brand alongside Alfa meant for Maserati and its relationship with Ferrari, Mr Fusilli, the most senior executive solely responsible for Maserati said: “For now, nothing”.

“There is nothing to say right now in terms of organisation – nothing has changed,” said Mr Fusilli. “We continue to share where it’s possible synergies. We continue to work with Ferrari for engines, transmissions, technology.

“We will see. On April 21 Mr Marchionne will explain the 2010-14 industrial plan and we will be more clear then.” Mr Fusilli said investment in research and development at Maserati had “absolutely not” been impacted by the product freeze at Fiat.

“For sure, the engineer has to be more clever than in the past, but the big savings have been done in terms of production pipeline, processes and a lot of other things that we cut.

“Also the marketing and commercial spend has been cut off according with the sales, because it’s the turnover that finances for everything else and if the turnover dropped by 48-50 per cent you have to cut – but research and development absolutely has been saved.” Worldwide, Maserati sold about 4900 cars in 2009 – down from about 5600 in 2008. In Australia – the ninth largest market for Maserati – sales were also down more than 40 per cent, with just 120 Maseratis sold, down from 201 in 2008.

Maserati’s commercial chief said every sale of the GranCabrio, which made its Australian debut last week and goes on sale here in May, would lift profits in 2010, when the company will remain profitable following a “maniacal” cost-cutting campaign in 2009 – a year in which 20 per cent of Maserati’s workforce was laid off.

Mr Fusilli said that as a result – and despite a 40 per cent global sales slump in 2009 – Maserati turned an operating profit of €11 million ($A17.39m) last year.

“Every single unit on top of the 2009 figure will be a profit,” he said. “Our strategy is no matter what keep your costs at the level you can survive with the same volumes as 2009.

“We are forecasting to make profit this year, because we are managing to keep our costs. Volumes will remain stable with 2009. We have to continue to be flexible right now. Our flexibility saved us in 2009 and allowed us to make profit despite the fall down in terms of sales and turnover.

“We are reducing costs at every level, to be ready for any profit because I see the opportunity in the world. (We have paid) maniacal attention to every single aspect of the business.

“We have been affected – yes. We lost money – no. So we are ready to fight,” he said.

Mr Fusilli said that despite promising sales growth in Asian markets like China, Hong Kong and Singapore, he did not expect the premium vehicle sector to emerge from the current sales slump quickly.

“We probably had worse times than this one,” he said. “And the good news for us is that with the convertible we will revamp the interest in all the (premium) brands.

“There are markets that are showing some signs of recovery … (but) other countries, Europe and North America for example, are not strongly recovering.

“To be honest I personally don’t believe too much the gurus that are saying there is a big light at the end of the tunnel … but we are at the bottom of the situation.

“What we have to do is continue to work as we did in 2009 to take care of every single area in the world, to look what is really happening, to listen to the importers, to watch customer trends.

“The obsessive attention to the customer puts us in good shape in 2010, but for me we are not out of the crisis yet,” he said.

The senior Maserati executive said Germany was key to increasing sales for the brand because it is one of the world’s major premium sedan and convertible markets – yet Maserati commands only a 2.3 per cent market segment share there, despite attracting 40 per cent in Italy, 25 per cent in France and 12 per cent in the UK.

“Germany is the most important,” he said. “Germany, to be honest, it’s a pain in the arse. They are very loyal, tough guys.

“Mercedes, BMW and Porsche as well are very tough (rivals). It is difficult to convince them that a non-Italian brand is reliable and probably we made mistakes in the past because if we are honest the first Quattroporte was not at the top level for quality.

“Germany is at the top level in the world for the convertible, so we hope this kind of car can make a very good job.”

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