Wed | Sep 20, 2017

Alfa Romeo, Maserati add SUVs to line-up

Published:Sunday | December 4, 2016 | 12:00 AM

LOS ANGELES - Sport utility vehicles are hot, and Alfa Romeo and Maserati want in on the action.

The two Italian nameplates are trying to raise brand awareness by each adding an SUV to their sports car and luxury car lineups. The hope is to attract new buyers by giving them a vehicle they find more useful than, say, an Alfa Romeo 4C racer or a Giulia.

Maserati's Levante appeared at the recently concluded LA Auto Show for the first time, while Alfa Romeo's Stelvio got its world debut at AutoMobility LA, the run-up to the auto show.

Reid Bigland, head of U.S. sales at Fiat Chrysler Automobiles and boss of the Alfa Romeo and Maserati brands, dismissed questions that the two brands are coming late to an expanding SUV market that may have expanded to capacity.

"We don't think it's too late by any means," he said. "The exodus away from passenger cars is not abating. The segment is hot."

Levante sales, so far, support his optimism. Maserati's year-to-date numbers for 2016 are up 16 per cent over 2015, Bigland said, while global September, October and November sales are showing rises of 50 per cent to 60 per cent over last year.

"Levante is playing a big role in that," Bigland said, even though the SUV has only been in some markets a matter of months, and hasn't yet debuted in Japan, South Korea and other principalities.

It has begun selling in Los Angeles, but Bigland did not supply local sales numbers. "Southern California is the most important market for our brand in the United States," he said.

There are also hopes for the Northeast and Northwest parts of the country, where snow and ice conditions may have led buyers away from Maserati and Alfa Romeo, and toward more winter-worthy vehicles made by Mercedes-Benz, Audi or BMW.

"We're opening up whole parts of the world to Maserati," Bigland said.

Bigland estimated that Maserati will sell 20,000 to 30,000 of the SUVs in 2017, and that Levante will account for 50 per cent of all Maserati sales next year.

Some of the buyers are turning in their Porsche Cayennes, Bigland said. A surprising number are female - including a high percentage of single women, who are not generally the target customer for a high-end, full-size luxury SUV. (The Levantes start at $72,000, and the price goes up quickly with options.)

All is not rosy for the executive. As head of FCA's US and Canada sales, according to published reports, he is at the center of a US criminal investigation into whether the company inflated sales figures in the past.

Bigland said he did not think there was any danger that the introduction of an Alfa Romeo SUV would eat into sales of its Maserati counterpart. Both vehicles are powered by engines derived from the companies' partnerships with Ferrari.

But the Stelvio is a midsize performance SUV, boasting massive horsepower and sports car handling, that should appeal to a younger, less affluent buyer. The manufacturer's suggested retail price has not yet been announced and the Levante is a full-size luxury SUV that appears to appeal to a slightly older, more affluent buyer.