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.