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Maserati holds its own in a rough market

Maserati cars evoke a strong emotional reaction from customers, says Marti Eulberg, CEO of Maserati North America, who has some quasi-scientific evidence to support her contention.

Maserati cars evoke a strong emotional reaction from customers, says Marti Eulberg, CEO of Maserati North America, who has some quasi-scientific evidence to support her contention.

With previous management posts at BMW, Volvo and Jaguar, Eulberg, 44, knows U.S. luxury buyers. She has been head of Maserati's North American unit since June.

Maserati cites a study by British insurance company Hiscox on the reaction of men and women to the sound of car engines being revved. The saliva of 20 men and 20 women, ranging in age from 22 to 61, was tested before and after they listened to a Lamborghini, a Maserati, and a Ferrari, as well as the Volkswagen Polo subcompact.

"One hundred percent of the women showed a significant hormonal increase," when listening to the Maserati, Eulberg says.

Science? Maybe not. But you get the point.

And it isn't just the noise a Maserati makes. "The difference in Maserati styling and performance -- the package you are able to give that customer -- it evokes a reaction," Eulberg says.

At least, that's the goal. Eulberg says that the ability to stand out at the country club, the big-bucks restaurant or the posh hotel is a major reason Maserati is holding its own in a tough environment. Maserati's 2008 U.S. sales were down just 1.2 percent from 2007 (see box at right).

With just two cars, both over $120,000 -- the Gran Turismo coupe and the Quattroporte sedan -- Maserati sales rose from 853 units in 2002 to 2,509 last year.

Eulberg expected a flat 2008, a consequence of the economic meltdown and lack of consumer confidence. Despite the sales, Maserati expected to make a profit in the United States last year, she says.

The prediction for this year isn't as gloomy as that of a volume or near-luxury maker. Eulberg expects 2009 sales "to be about even."

From Texas to Maserati

Eulberg, who speaks with none of the drawl you'd expect from a Texas native, was previously executive vice president of sales and marketing for Jaguar North America. Before that, she was vice president of sales in Europe for Volvo Car Corp. She spent 10 years at BMW of North America in various sales and operational jobs before going to Ford Motor Co.'s Premier Automotive Group in 2001.

Last spring she was wooed by Sergio Marchionne, CEO of Maserati parent Fiat, to replace James Selwa, who left after his three-year contract expired.

Compared with the more staid Ford-owned companies, at Fiat and Maserati meetings in Italy, "there is a lot more passion," Eulberg says. "The things that drive the company are styling and performance."

She also has had to get used to Maserati's small advertising budget. Maserati limits national spreads to publications such as the The Wall Street Journal and GQ magazine.

GQ did a joint campaign with Maserati late last year. Those viewing the Maserati ad in the December issue of GQ could take a picture with their cell phones and download that engine sound as a ring tone.

Those kinds of interactive campaigns as well as Internet and direct-mail are mainly how Maserati markets its vehicles, Eulberg says. Dealers also partner with local businesses in event marketing to get buyers in the showroom for a test drive, which Eulberg considers key to selling a Maserati.

"These cars have a racing heritage," she says. "The handling and performance are key."

More models?

How long can Maserati survive with just two cars? Eulberg isn't willing to talk about future product. Maserati has a technical alliance to share technical components and platforms with Fiat sister-brand Alfa Romeo. If Alfa Romeo shares a rear-wheel-drive platform, Maserati could get a smaller sedan and coupe. That isn't likely to happen until 2011, at the soonest.

Seven Maserati dealers are selling 84 units of the limited-edition Alfa 8C Competizione in the United States. They are expected to be among the first Maserati dealers to get Alfa franchises when the brand returns here.

But talk of Maserati dealers selling a new generation of Alfa Romeos in the United States has turned to a whisper as the date for relaunching that brand here keeps getting pushed back. The latest target is 2011.

Eulberg says she's focused on Maserati and refers Alfa Romeo questions to Italy.

Maserati has a comfortable number of dealers, she says. With the addition of three points in 2008, it has 58 dealerships in the United States, of which 37 are paired with Ferrari (also a Fiat brand). Only two are stand-alones.

"What we want is sustainability in today's market. We have to be careful on how fast we grow and what we do," Eulberg says. She adds that "the relationship with the dealer market, how we go to market and the one-to-one relationship, is very much a boutique operation."