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Maserati and Alfa Romeo CEO Talks Future Cars, Future Powertrains

Motor Trend logo Motor Trend 7/24/2015 Scott Evans

Warm and approachable, Harald Wester is the easygoing chief technology officer at Fiat Chrysler Automobiles and head of the Maserati and Alfa Romeo brands, where he walks a fine line between enhancing performance and luxury stats without diminishing the driving experience. He spoke with Motor Trend as head of Maserati and enlightened us on the brand's near and distant product and technology future.

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Harald Wester© Provided by MotorTrend Harald Wester Motor Trend: Maserati's reached further down the market than before. Will this continue?

Harald Wester: We will never, ever compete on price. Because you never come back. Once you spoil the brand, you are done. Our objectives are ambitious, are aggressive, but not overly. 2015 will be tough because without a complete new product in the range, we don't only want to consolidate our numbers, but in the NAFTA market I'm still dreaming of a slight increase.

MT: So the Ghibli is as small as you'll go in price and size?

HW: No, not in size, because we will offer a sports car which will be more compact. Regarding sedans, we will not go to a compact sedan. That would be Alfa area, no? The perfect range, from our point of view, for the time being — might change over the future — but full-size, large sedans, luxury SUV, sports coupe and convertible, plus a GranTurismo because, let's say, that is one of the products, one of the iconic products of the brand.

MT: The GranTurismo has been out for a while now. Is it due for a replacement soon?

HW: GranTurismo and GranTurismo Convertible are still doing well. This is always our objective when we start something new: It's a timeless beauty. If you look at the car today, it doesn't — it still doesn't look old. The coupe was launched in '07, the convertible in '09, and we are working on the model years '15 and '16, and then I think we're going to carry these forward to autumn 2016 at least. Then we should be ready with Alfieri, and then soon afterward a successor of the GranTurismo, which is foreseen to remain an important part of our product range.

MT: How will the Alfieri be positioned in the lineup?

Maserati Alfieri Concept Front Three Quarter 01© Provided by MotorTrend Maserati Alfieri Concept Front Three Quarter 01 HW: From my point of view, the Alfieri is, or will be, positioned slightly below the current position of the GranTurismo, even if details still have to be determined and to be worked out. I don't know if I should give you a number — difficult to say. I don't remember the global peak volume of cars like the GranTurismo. It would have been in the range of 4,500 to 5,000. If we could do similar numbers times 1.5 as a peak for both versions, coupe and convertible, I wouldn't be unhappy. You know for sure that this segment of the sports luxury vehicles is one of the few segments in the global luxury car markets that didn't grow. It went just the opposite direction over the last decade.

MT: With this new sports car, do you foresee a greater emphasis on racing in the future?

HW: To be honest, the Alfieri, depending on how we're going to precisely make the technical layout, would be a pretty well-shaped and dimensioned base for a next-generation GT racing car.

MT: In the opposite direction, you have a luxury SUV coming out, and the segment's hot. Could it be your best-seller?

HW: Yes, I think so. It should be based on the figures. The global luxury car market this year should be in the range of 1 to 1.5 million globally. The SUVs are the most important portion of this, in the range of 50 percent, predominantly in the two biggest markets: the U.S. and China. In our plans and our dreams, the Levante would, should, could go slightly beyond the Ghibli.

Maserati Kubang concept© Provided by MotorTrend Maserati Kubang concept MT: Given that, do you see the need for another SUV in the lineup?

HW: One is enough for the time being. And if — just to be clear because of what we talked about earlier — if anything — but I repeat, no plans, but just for clarification — it would be beyond, not below [Levante].

MT: Is there resistance among your customers to the idea of a Maserati SUV?

HW: No.

MT: And when can they buy one?

HW: The real production cars will leave the factory at the beginning of '16. We will start sales in Europe, and you will see the cars for sale in Europe, I think, between the end of the first and the second quarter next year.

MT: Similarly, has there been resistance to the downsizing of engines?

HW: No. They are too good. No one complains. I don't remember precisely, but I think actually in the Quattroporte range in the U.S., we sell 85 percent V-6.

2014 Maserati Quattroporte S Q4© Provided by MotorTrend 2014 Maserati Quattroporte S Q4 MT: Will you need to invest in even smaller engines in the future for fuel economy and emissions reasons?

HW: No, we will further improve our engines, and the next step will be hybrids. But I don't see us, for the time being, selling four-cylinder Maseratis. You should never say no. These are for certain times and for certain moments. These seem to be psychological barriers that you can't even discuss or talk about, so it doesn't make sense to discuss them or to say no or to say yes. See what happens. And maybe if you asked the customer today, they would say no, but based on what will happen in terms of CO2 and the addition of legislation of many other issues now — dependence on oil, political situation — let the gas prices go to European levels like we had last summer. To refuel a Quattroporte on an Italian highway, you spend 200 euros. If we would get there — we were at 2 euros a liter, which for the times, at the euro-dollar relations, was $1.38 or $1.40, so 4 liters…eight times 1.4…10 bucks. A gallon. Everybody would love a four-cylinder Ghibli. Potentially. Because the entire industry will go there. Because 26, 27 mpg — no, I want this car, but I want it with 38, 40 [mpg]. The only answer we would have would be a plug-in hybrid or a four-cylinder or even worse, a four-cylinder plug-in hybrid.

MT: But you do see the hybrid as the solution?

HW: Intermediate, yes. The distant future is fuel cell.

MT: Over batteries?

HW: Absolutely. What the hell do you want with 400 kilos (882 pounds) of battery driving around? No.

2015 Maserati Ghibli Q4© Provided by MotorTrend 2015 Maserati Ghibli Q4 MT: Fuel cells, a battery, and an electric drivetrain all add up. …

HW: Small. It can be made small. You need to bring the fuel cells not only to a certain technical and performance level so that you can keep the buffer battery relatively low. You also need to bring it to an affordable economic level. But then it's the future. The fuel cell should generate, in low energy demand situations, everything you need to run the vehicle, and in other situations you buffer what it can't supply in the battery.

MT: But then you need hydrogen refueling stations.

HW: Not yet, no.

MT: And there are electrical outlets everywhere.

HW: "Everywhere" is not true.

MT: Semantics.

HW: And don't forget, on this planet we are still producing between two-thirds and 70 percent of the electric energy with CO2-emitting, non-regenerative fuels. The growth in energy demand just for growth of the population, the growth of the emerging countries, is enormous.

2014 Maserati Granturismo MC Centennial Edition Coupe Badge© Provided by MotorTrend 2014 Maserati Granturismo MC Centennial Edition Coupe Badge MT: But we also need electricity to harness hydrogen and pressurize it and transport it.

HW: True.

MT: Do you see a bigger challenge here for your brand, which is known for performance?

HW: Well, this is 20 years from now and beyond. For the time being, we will be fine with this. I believe we will have the coexistence between various technologies for a long period of time, so if you are the super performance freak, it's feasible you go to a high-performance hybrid like LaFerrari. If you are the super performance freak, you will potentially take the hybrid Maserati, which gives you a decent Maserati-like performance but not over the edge.

MT: "Not over the edge." Is that how you'd describe Maserati's style?

HW: I think so. We always pointed on the total package because if you are in the race to be the quickest and the most powerful, you will be only in the lead for a week. And then somebody else comes along and creates something fantastic like the Charger Hellcat.

Maserati and Alfa Romeo CEO Talks Future Cars, Future Powertrains

2015 Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat© Provided by MotorTrend 2015 Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat MT: I never would've imagined you'd be able to buy a family sedan with 700 horsepower for $60,000.

HW: Me neither.

MT: It's just absurd, but it's kind of wonderful at the same time.

HW: That's true.

MT: Maserati's made it clear you focus on driver involvement and don't invest as much in driver assistance.

HW: We are, and we will offer — we will go with the Levante with the first rollout of more advanced systems. Adaptive stop-and-go cruise control, the first step of autonomous driving, and so on. Because it's part of the safety strategy of the future, and it's becoming an indispensible attribute of any type of product. Usually people who are choosing our cars, they want to drive, they want to be involved, they don't want to be driven. Step by step: We will never be a full front-runner on these gimmicks. Autonomous driving is around the corner. It will be beneficial to all of us for safety reasons. A lot of questions remain, but from my point of view, it will become kind of a standard.

Maserati Alfieri Concept Show Floor Front Side View© Provided by MotorTrend Maserati Alfieri Concept Show Floor Front Side View MT: And there's room for autonomous driving in a Maserati?

HW: To a certain extent, yes. With traffic. Getting here this morning, it would be beneficial, autonomous driving.

MT: Are Maserati customers asking for these aids?

HW: Not yet. But in the future, it will just become a standard. It's not a differentiator. It will become a kind of a knockout factor — you have to have it. Nobody will drive a Maserati because it has the best autonomous driving features. Maybe people will reject to buy one because they don't want to have something like this, but maybe they will want it in an absolutely annoying situation you are potentially in every morning and every evening. I still have difficulties to imagine myself sitting in my car behind my steering wheel and reading a newspaper. Can you imagine? It will be a generational change — our children, or the children of our children.

Maserati Alfieri Concept Rear Three Quarter 06© Provided by MotorTrend Maserati Alfieri Concept Rear Three Quarter 06
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