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Levante may open Maserati range in Australia

Premium puzzle: Maserati’s Levante will drop into a hard-fought segment of premium SUVs, and pricing will be crucial.

Incoming Maserati Levante SUV due late next year, may undercut entry-level Ghibli

17 Apr 2015

AS MASERATI’S Levante SUV nears production readiness, its potential positioning in the Australian market is putting importer European Automotive Imports (EAI) in a difficult spot.

The prestige-SUV segment is set to ramp up from 2016, with Jaguar’s F-Pace, the Levante and other players including Bentley going up against established marques such as Porsche and Audi.

The Levante will be built in Maserati’s Mirafiro factory in Italy on the company’s Quattroporte platform, alongside an Alfa Romeo-branded SUV.

The Levante was originally scheduled to be based on Jeep’s Grand Cherokee platform and be built in the United States, but streamlining of worldwide factory operations across the Fiat Chrysler Automobiles group late last year resulted in the switch back to Italy.

After a record year in 2014, general manager of Maserati’s EAI operations Glen Sealey told GoAuto that the Levante would certainly add volume to the brand, but its price and positioning was far from decided.

“If you look at SUVs generally in the Australian, New Zealand market particularly, you see the equivalent SUV with more metal and more size, priced less than the sedan equivalent,” he said.

“That could present a challenge to us, because we’ve always said Ghibli would be the entry point to our brand. We need to look at how we manage that, how we manage that expectation, as well.

“We’ll always be at the very high end of, say, the Germans (BMW, Mercedes-Benz and Audi). Car to car, we’re more expensive. There's no doubt about it. We will be the same for SUV. It will be a more high-position product.”

The three-model Ghibli range starts at $138,900, plus on-road costs for the diesel and extends through to $169,900 for the S.

Despite the sales success of recent times – the brand’s 401-vehicle total in 2014 almost exceeded the efforts of the previous four years combined – Mr Sealey is aware for the need to have a stake in the SUV game.

“Levante is vital for this market,” he acknowledged. “There's no doubt. The SUV segment is a burgeoning segment. There's a real transformation in the marketplace, a global movement in fact, moving from passenger cars to SUV. The Australian, New Zealand and South African markets are very sympathetic towards SUVs. They like them. For us to get Levante here is vital.”

EAI recently obtained the rights to the Maserati franchise in South Africa, which is also a right-hand-drive market. Mr Sealey said that the extra purchasing power will assist the local arm, but the new territory needed some work.

“It's about half the size of the Australian market,” he explained. “In saying that, though, there is a propensity to purchase high-end vehicles. If you look at Maserati sales there over the last few years, they’ve been around between 60 and 65 a year, and last year they finished with 26. There is scope for improvement.

“If we add up the scale of New Zealand, Australia, and South Africa, that gives us just that little bit more to turn around and get products that are unique products for our market.”

With prototypes in mule stage being spied testing, Mr Sealey said the change of platform hadn’t changed the outlook for the Levante’s launch.

“We’ve always looked for the fourth quarter of next year (2016) for the arrival here in Australia,” he said. “For that to occur, you need to see left-hand drive production start very early next year. If left-hand drive production starts early next year, we’ll see it in the final quarter of next year. That’ll be exciting for us.”

Obtaining a sample vehicle from early production will be a focus for EAI.

“Like Ghibli, we expect there to be a strong order bank. If the car is shown late this year, early next year, and we can get a left-hand drive version of the vehicle here to tour throughout New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, we see the order bank just build like it did with Ghibli,” Mr Sealey said.

He is also confident that the Levante will hit the marks with local buyers.

“What you will see from our SUV is some terrific design language,” he said.

“You’ll see some dimensions that will be very much towards the Maserati values.

Maserati from 1914 to today has always been what I would call an authentic brand. There's been no airs or graces about it it is what it is.”

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