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Maserati Gets Its Groove Back

A special-edition car is intended to show Maserati knows something about exclusivity, as well as flexible manufacturing.

DETROIT – Maserati SpA unveils a special vehicle at the North American International Auto Show here, a super-luxury car intended to show the 94-year-old Italian auto maker has its groove back.

The car is the Collezione Cento, a dressed-up version of the Pininfarina SpA-designed flagship Quattroporte sedan, which even in basic form is up there in the ultra-luxury segment of cars over $100,000.

Like all Maseratis, the Collezione Cento is elegant and fast, with a top speed of 180 mph (289 km/h).

But it isn’t intended to break any sales records. Only 100 will be made, featuring amenities such as mother-of-pearl inlays and rear-seat Internet access.

It is intended to drive home a couple of points, Maserati executives say.

One is that the legendary company is confident enough and in good enough shape financially – after some dark years during the 1980s and 1990s – to produce a hand-crafted limited-edition vehicle.

The Collezione Cento also demonstrates the flexibility of the auto maker’s recently modernized factory in Modena, Italy, to build derivative and niche vehicles for affluent consumers seeking exclusivity.

“We’ve created a system so that the factory is focused on what the customers want,” Maserati CEO Roberto Ronchi tells Ward’s. “Fundamentally, it is a craftsmanship operation that takes three months to produce a car.”

Maserati delivered 7,350 cars in 2007. That is something close to a resurrection, considering the company sold 598 cars 10 years ago as it struggled with serious quality problems.

The 2007 sales are a 33% increase over 2006, during a time when many other luxury-car companies struggled, says James Selwa, president of Maserati North America Inc.

Ronchi attributes much of the sales surge to Maserati last year introducing a Quattroporte Automatic with a V-8 engine and a new 6-speed automatic transmission developed largely for driving preferences in North America, Maserati’s leading market, followed by Italy.

“The automatic makes it easier to enjoy the car, but without jeopardizing performance,” Ronchi says. “But it was hard to do; it’s not an easy job developing an automatic e-box for an engine with 7,200 rpm.”

Since 2005, Maserati’s parent company has been Fiat SpA. Ronchi credits Fiat CEO Sergio Marchionne for “believing in Maserati and allowing us to make a huge investment in the company,” particularly in developing the automatic transmission.

Maserati has 272 dealers worldwide and 54 in North America, an 18% increase in three years. More dealerships are due to open this year.

“It’s hard finding the right dealer for Maserati,” Selwa tells Ward’s. “You need someone who is passionate about the product but not someone depending on high-volume sales.”

Maserati customers require a lot of personal attention as they consider their purchases and custom-order their vehicles.

“It may take time before someone is ready to buy, so it is a different sales environment than the typical dealership,” Selwa says.

Although the current U.S. economy has curbed some people’s spending habits, “the super wealthy continue spending, and we think they will buy limited-run cars offering exclusivity,” he says.

He adds: “We work to attract the biggest spenders.”

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