“People know Maserati — but very few know that we have an SUV”

Exquisite and powerful

Maserati carves out a luxury niche for itself in Japan

Text by Tim Hornyak /  Photos by Benjamin Parks

I’m driving down Shinjuku-dori and tapping the accelerator very gingerly. There’s a 410-horsepower Ferrari engine under my foot and it growls at the slightest touch, like a beast ready to pounce. It’s a shame to be behind the wheel in a Maserati Quattroporte S in the middle of Tokyo, where there are stoplights and rivers of pedestrians at every corner. But then I turn onto Route 414 and there’s nothing in front of me for 100 meters. I give the 3.0-litre twin-turbo V6 engine some gas and we’re off, the car a cobalt-blue rocket soaring over the road — just in time to see a police car in my rear-view mirror and another traffic light looming ahead. It was fun while it lasted.

The joyride came courtesy of Maserati Japan, and as we head back to the dealership in Chiyoda ward’s Kioicho, President Guido Giovannelli takes the driver’s seat. He puts the car in manual and changes gears by fingering the paddle shifters behind the wheel, making the engine purr or roar at will while threading the narrow backstreets behind Sophia University. Maserati goes to great lengths to craft the sound of its engine, and it’s easy to hear the result of their hard work.

“The Quattroporte is our flagship model — it’s like a limousine, but very powerful,” says Giovannelli, who has headed Maserati Japan since last November. “The way to drive a Maserati is dynamically, but you don’t have to be on a track.

“You have to enjoy the panoramic view and the road trip you’re taking,” he adds. “Driving a Maserati is very therapeutic. You enjoy every moment.”

Starting at ¥12 million, the Quattroporte is one of several recent Maserati models at the Kioicho showroom. There’s also the Ghibli, another mid-sized luxury saloon that has a pedigree dating back to the original 1960s sports car; the Levante, a crossover SUV that was launched last year; and the GranCabrio, a two-door coupé. Depending on buyer preferences, these models can have exquisite interior furnishings. For instance, the Quattroporte is available in GranLusso trim, with an interior styled by fashion house Ermenegildo Zegna that features silk upholstery, a wood and leather steering wheel, and wood trim. With a 530-horsepower V8 engine — that can take you from zero to 100kph in 4.5 seconds — the GranLusso option boosts the price to ¥19.5 million.

Japan has imported Maserati cars since the 1960s, but the company itself didn’t set up shop here until 2011. Italian engineer Alfieri Maserati and his brothers founded the automaker in 1914 in Bologna; the city’s 16th-century statue of Neptune bears a trident that inspired the Maserati logo. Its headquarters are now in Modena, home to the factory where 10% of the 42,000 Maseratis produced last year were made. The other 90% were produced at two factories in Torino. Maserati’s parent company, Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA), is the seventh-largest automaker in the world in terms of annual sales. In 2016 Maserati sold 1,300 cars in Japan, up from 300 in 2012. The company has grown rapidly, establishing 24 dealerships in cities throughout the archipelago, including five showrooms in the Tokyo metropolitan area. Maserati Japan is one of five independent national companies in the world and it buys cars directly from Italy.

“Japan is a very important market because we have a long history here and one of the oldest Maserati clubs in the world,” says Giovannelli, who began his automotive career as an engineer. He joined FCA in 1999 and later worked on tractors and trucks before heading Maserati’s Western Europe operations in Paris. “Japan is also a kind of image country for Asia — for places such as South Korea and Taiwan that are influenced by Japan. It’s not a big market for us because 94% of automobile sales in Japan are domestic brands, but it’s a very important market.”

Japan’s luxury auto market is fiercely competitive, with German, British and other Italian brands vying for that 6% slice of the pie. That means paying maximum attention to customer demands. Giovannelli says Japanese Maserati owners are typically company owners in their late 40s to early 50s who know the brand inside out and want high-quality products and service — but the company’s best-selling model, the Levante, is attracting more and more women to its showrooms.

“Our owners are changing because our product range is becoming wider,” explains Giovannelli. “The Levante targets users who are doing things like going skiing, playing golf or just commuting to work every day.”

The number of female car owners is increasing in Japan, as it is elsewhere in the world. As a result, Maserati’s focus has shifted slightly with the introduction of the new model, but its values remain the same — sportiness and Italian design.

“It’s true that Levante is an SUV,” notes Giovannelli, “but it’s also true that you recognise it as a Maserati.”

To meet buyer expectations, Maserati Japan double-checks all its cars at a special facility after they complete the one-month sea voyage from Italy. Only then can they be released to the market. The company will also be producing more limited editions of cars for the Japanese market, something that it started this year with the Ghibli.

“I’m looking for customers who are younger, so sportiness is very important,” says Giovannelli. “The main problem we have is not enough brand awareness — people know Maserati — but very few know that we have an SUV, and of course they don’t know the price. We have to enlarge our vision and improve our communication efforts.”

Giovannelli is now focused on meeting an annual sales goal of 2,000 vehicles, and developing custom models for Japan.

“I believe that if we have the capacity to put together the perfectionism of Japanese people and the passion of Italian people,” he says, “this combination can be incredibly powerful.” 

“Driving a Maserati is very therapeutic. You enjoy every moment.”