Fiat Chrysler Automobiles' (NYSE:FCAU) luxury Maserati brand showed off its all-new Levante SUV in New York on Wednesday. It was the new Italian SUV's first appearance in the U.S., Maserati's largest market.
What it is: The Levante is Maserati's first-ever SUV. While FCA owns the iconic Jeep SUV brand, the Maserati isn't based on Jeep bones. Instead, it's built on the rear-wheel-drive architecture that was developed for Maserati's Quattroporte and Ghibli sedans. Like the Ghibli, the Levante will be offered with a twin-turbocharged V6 available in two states of tune, making 350 and 430 horsepower.
Your humble Fool had a chance to sit in one of the preproduction models. I can tell you that the interior appears to be very well-designed and equipped, and the Levante's fit and finish (at least of this preproduction show vehicle) inside and outside was very good. Past Maseratis have been let down by less-than-perfect construction; if the Levante I saw is any indication, the brand has made a step forward.
Why it's important to FCA: Simply put, the Levante is a big deal for FCA. It needs to give Maserati's global sales and presence a big boost, and in today's markets, a well-executed luxury SUV is a must-have for any premium auto brand.
FCA earned net income of just 377 million euros (about $421 million) for all of 2015, with an EBIT profit margin of just 2.4%. By contrast, General Motors (NYSE:GM) managed a 7.1% margin last year, while Ford's (NYSE:F) was 7.2%.
That's thin. It's especially thin given that the profitable U.S. market was very strong last year, and given that FCA's truck-and-SUV-heavy product mix should be generating fat profits in current market conditions.
What does that have to do with a Maserati? It's this: CEO Sergio Marchionne knows that he needs to boost profit margins before the next global economic downturn. The company has had several efforts to boost profitability under way for a few years now, and the effort to build out Maserati as a global brand with a complete product lineup is an important one.
If reviews of the Levante are favorable, it could roughly double the brand's sales and revenues. Consider the example of Porsche: Loyalists were skeptical when the German sports-car brand added its first SUV, the Cayenne -- but before long, Cayennes accounted for roughly half of Porsche's global sales. (Porsche has since added a second, smaller SUV called the Macan. Demand for both has been very high recently.)
For investors, the Levante's launch later this year will be a key moment in Marchionne's five-year plan to remake FCA. If it fails to sell well, it will be a worrisome sign. We'll be watching.
What's next: The Levante will go on sale in the U.S. "at the end of August," the company said. Prices will start at $72,000 for the 350-horsepower version, and $83,000 for the 430-horsepower model. We should know by the end of the year whether FCA's top-tier brand has a new hit on its hands.
John Rosevear owns shares of Ford and General Motors. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Ford. The Motley Fool recommends General Motors. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.