In The Driver’s Seat

If Maserati's sleek Quattroporte sports car looks vaguely familiar, it should. In the last few years, the car has made guest appearances in hit TV shows like "Desperate Housewives," "The Sopranos" and "Nip/Tuck." The Quattroporte has also made a coveted appearance in the Neiman Marcus holiday catalogue, which resulted in a sellout of 60 limited-edition coupes. Movie producer Jerry Weintraub recently bought his own Maserati Quattroporte to use as a prop in "Ocean's 13." CEO Roberto Ronchi says Maserati's goal is "to always create the demand for five cars more than we can create," and these days it's hitting that mark, easily.

Five cars may not sound like much, but when they go for up to $150,000 a pop, it adds up. The positive press has been a big shift for this suddenly sexy Modena, Italy-based carmaker, which, until a few years ago, was tottering on the verge of bankruptcy. After a string of near-ruinous management decisions and bad designs, Maserati actually stopped selling in the U.S. market (currently its largest). Now, thanks to an infusion of cash from its new owner, Fiat, and an edgy new design aimed at boomer banker types who consider Mercedes too common and Bentleys too pricey or stuffy, Maserati is back on the fast track. This year, Quattroporte global sales increased by 29.8 percent, while competitors like the Audi A8 fell 31 percent and both Mercedes S-Class and 7 Series fell 18 percent. The slumps have been blamed on American housing-market woes—historically, luxury car sales track the housing market rather than stock prices. Maserati has succeeded by positioning itself as more of a bespoke luxury good than just an upscale car, appealing to higher end consumers less pinched by the credit crisis.

The turnaround hasn't yet affected Fiat's bottom line, but it has bolstered its stock price—analysts say that the increase from €4.53 in 2005 to more than €20 today is due in part to renewed investor confidence following the Maserati revamp (Fiat is now trying to orchestrate a similar turnaround with its namesake cars, as well as Alfa Romeo). Maserati is a niche brand, to be sure—it will likely sell 7,000 cars in 2007, compared with BMW's expected 1.6 million. Yet, its global growth has outpaced those competitors by 50 percent this year, in large part because of its exclusivity. The Quattroporte and the new GranTurismo, which just hit the streets in October, are increasingly seen as exotic alternatives to the big three German cars, now deemed too commonplace in America and Europe (rather like Louis Vuitton handbags, which lost their luster after being toted by one too many secretaries). Milton Pedraza, CEO of the Luxury Institute, a market-research firm, calls Maserati "one of the most prestigious cars to be seen in today," precisely because it is not on every street corner.

In an era when even midmarket cars are offering luxury features like top-end electronics, onboard computers and custom upholstery, gadgetry is not enough. Maserati stays upscale by hand-crafting every car. The automobiles are priced between $100,000 and $150,000, a logical choice for those who want something a little more special than a Mercedes, but who don't want to pay $100,000 more for a Bentley or Aston Martin (or aren't yet in the chauffeur-driven age range).

Maserati's turnaround was engineered by the Fiat Group, itself on the verge of ruin just a few years ago. After GM gave Fiat a $2 billion goodbye kiss nearly three years ago, the company poured some $343 million into revamping the Maserati brand, leveraging the strengths of its corporate stable. Maserati cars now come with a Pininfarina body, a Ferrari V8 engine and the possibility of 4 million different personalized combinations of Poltrona Frau leather, carved woods and even a choice of stitching yarn. The company also installed automatic transmission in the Quattroporte, to appeal to the U.S. market, which represents 45 percent of sales.

Likewise, Maserati plays up its provocative edge, never advertising airbags ? la BMW or Mercedes. "This car is only for the passionate driver," says Ronchi.

In fact, the brand's legacy is in racing. In its heyday from 1937 to 1967, it won big circuits like the Indianapolis 500 and the Italian Grand Prix. Then things started going wrong. In 1968, Citro?n took over Maserati and produced a string of mass-market cars. By the 1980s, the Italian government was in charge, and made a near fatal error by teaming up with Lee Iacocca, chairman of Chrysler, to produce a Maserati car with a Chrysler engine—one of the worst marketing disasters in automotive history.

Ronchi, who personally signs a welcome letter to each new Maserati owner, believes that the now recharged Maserati will reach an annual production level of 15,000 to 18,000 customized cars by 2011, up from 7,000 today. But the company isn't out of the woods yet. Fiat, which has a history of instability, is enjoying its 11th consecutive quarter in the black, but it's unclear whether that will continue after the GM payoff money runs out (last week, there were rumors that CEO Sergio Marchionne would soon step down). Maserati is making a big marketing push in high-growth markets like China, Saudi Arabia and the UAE. But as with any luxury brand, there's a limit to how big Maserati can become while still maintaining its allure. As ever, class and mass may be mutually exclusive.

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