He Helped Reinvent Kia In America. Now He’s Doing the Same for Maserati

We talk to the CEO of Maserati Americas about the MC20, Grecale SUV, and what the future may hold for the Italian Trident.

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Maserati

A lot can change in a few years—just ask Maserati. Back in late 2018, as its then-owner Fiat-Chrysler tried to sort things out following CEO Sergio Marchionne's death that summer, company leadership was openly admitting it screwed up with the iconic Italian brand. Years of underinvesting and overpromising and generally treating Maserati like a mass-market afterthought led to a stale and unpopular lineup. Hell, the GranTurismo, arguably its most well-known car, dated back to 2007. "Mistakes were made," was the clear message from then-CEO Mike Manley as he stepped into Marchionne's formidable shoes that fall. 

Less clear was what should be done about it. Even in 2019, as Q1 sales dropped a staggering 41 percent, Maserati's then-CEO of North America Alistair Gardner gave a now-cringeworthy interview where he declared that Maserati would "never" go all-electric. "This is a brand that needs combustion engines. It needs that raw emotion," he said—all while reports circulated that Ferrari would soon stop supplying Maserati with its operatic V8s, potentially leaving the company without a halo powertrain. Grim times indeed.

Maserati

But jump ahead by a couple more years and the picture has improved drastically—frankly more than anyone expected, especially after the twists and turns of 2020. First, Maserati showed off the MC20, a mid-engine screamer with a bespoke V6 featuring fuel-injection tech derived from F1 cars; it's legitimately the most exciting thing the company's done in over a decade. (Drives pretty great, too.) Then it previewed an ambitious electrification strategy that will see a fully electrified lineup roll out by 2024, its product pipeline packed with dual combustion and BEV versions of its famous nameplates. Then it refocused its current crop of cars around a three-trim strategy—GT, Modena and hard-edged Trofeo performance vehicles—that it plans to apply to every new model going forward and carry through the rest of the decade. Hello, midsize Ghibli Trofeo performance sedan with a twin-turbo V8. Hello, compact Grecale Trofeo performance SUV. Oh yeah, that's happening.

And then perhaps most important, Maserati found itself as one of the crown jewels of the newly-formed Stellantis empire, with the resources and investment befitting that status. We know all that because, well, the new CEO of Maserati Americas William Peffer told us so during a conversation at Pebble Beach earlier this month. Peffer succeeded Gardner in January—Gardner is now vice president of a regional dealership group in Florida, and that's pretty much all I need to say about that switch. Peffer comes into the job from Kia America, where he helped reinvent Kia's image and propel it to its biggest sales year in history in 2020, so he knows a thing or two about big plans. Standing around an MC20 parked on the Concept Lawn at the Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance, he shared a few exclusive updates, talked about what the Stellantis merger has done for Maserati, and tried his best to refocus my attention on the car in front of us. He only partly succeeded.

Stellantis

William Peffer

The Drive: So when you’re starting out to design a bespoke mid-engine chassis for the MC20, what expertise are you drawing on given that it’s a singular effort in the company, and in Stellantis as a whole? That’s hard stuff.

William Peffer, Maserati Americas CEO: We’ve been around for a long time, right? MC12. This is a distant cousin of the MC12. So we have a rich heritage in racing and supercar development. We just haven’t had one on the market for several years. This is the return of that. This vehicle then becomes the gateway into the renaissance we go into next year, with a new SUV, which will give us two SUVs. Our objective is to get more consideration in the EV space; I don’t think a lot of people think of Maserati as an EV brand right now. And then the Gran Turismo comes back. Some of the design elements you see in this car will make their way elsewhere. This is the establishment of where we’re going with the design direction.

Karl DeBoer, Maserati America Brand Manager: Regarding the chassis, I think it’s also important to note that it’s one platform designed for three different iterations. So it’s the same monocoque that’ll be used for the coupe, Spyder and full electric. So we’ve kind of designed it around those three iterations, and in concert with Dallara. Over 2,000 hours were spent with those guys. It’s a first-rate chassis, but it’s also been designed for the future.

TD: Any special challenges making it EV-proof?

Peffer: I’m kinda new to Maserati, but one of the things I like about the brand is we have the resources that have allowed for concurrent investment in ICE—you don’t see that with a lot of manufacturers anymore, new ICE investment—and full electrification. Now we’ve made commitments that we will have electric variants in all of our vehicles by 2024. So no, there’s no limitation. That’s part of the plan.

Maserati

The electric MC20's chassis.

TD: Right, I meant specifically if there were any engineering challenges that had to be solved in making a monocoque that can be used with both an ICE and electric car.

Peffer: I’m not an engineer, but if there was I would’ve known about it.

TD: What is the thought behind transitioning existing models and nameplates to electric instead of making a brand new model to carry that torch?

Peffer: Look, we’re a niche manufacturer, and that dual investment gives us flexibility to adapt. I don’t know where the market’s going, I don’t think anyone can predict where the market goes—you can regulate it, legislate it, but… We’ll have to wait and see what becomes more popular. We’re known for the exhaust note, the raucous power, so this [points at MC20] is right where we need to be.

TD: We had a writer in Europe do the first drive in Italy, and he loved it. It’s interesting, you developed this whole new engine, and while some of the special tech will make it into other cars, this engine is only for the MC20.

Peffer: This specific engine is flexible enough where… Right now, our Trofeo V8s are Ferrari-built, so as we come out with new models we will be leveraging the Nettuno [injection] technology.

TD: But you’re not just gonna take this engine and drop it as in a future Maserati.

Peffer: No. And that’s consistent with what we’ve talked about. We’re going with a three-trim lineup. The GT, which has a six-cylinder at about 345 horsepower. The Modena is about 424 to 550, and then the Trofeo is the top of the line and it ranges up from there.

TD: So you mentioned the exhaust note earlier. With the GranTurismo, the GranCabrio especially, it’s such a part of the experience of that car. How have you developed the electric one to carry that same spirit without the noise being so integral?

Peffer: Stay tuned on that. We have a solution. We’ve watched other manufacturers come out with EVs and that’s the one area where—for us, a brand where that’s so important, you have to be able to hold onto that DNA. The solution, I can’t go into detail about it, but…

TD: You mean, like a signature electric sound?

Peffer: You can draw conclusions from there.

TD: Oh, I can draw my own conclusions all day, but I like to get the actual facts from people who know. Anyway, I’m curious about the Grecale. What are the benchmarks for that one? Who are you looking at in the competition?

Peffer: We have a lot of competition, we’re looking closely at what brands like Porsche are doing, as an example. It’s a DUV, so it’s a D-sized UV, which happens to be in the fastest-growing, most popular, and for most manufacturers most profitable segment. The one-two punch will legitimize us in that [SUV] space. We’ve struggled with that a bit, with people drawing similarity between Maserati and what it’s known for—Gran Turismo, sedan, and EVs. This year, we’ve changed the mix where the Levante is our core model. 

Maserati

TD: It’s a great car, especially the Trofeo version. It has everything you want a Maserati to have, just larger. But when you take what makes something like the Levante Trofeo feel like a “real” Maserati—the big V8, the handling, the luxury—and shrink it down a little bit to the Grecale, what happens? How do you capture that in a small SUV? That’s probably the most challenging form to make, you know, exciting and emotional for people beyond the mass-market appeal.

Peffer: One of the ways you do that is you’re consistent with that product within your lineup in having three trims. So we will have a Trofeo version of [the Grecale], we will have a Modena version of that. We will have a GT version. 

TD: With the same kind of performance upgrades in the Trofeo?

Peffer: Higher performance up through the trims, but that doesn’t mean exactly the same kind of upgrades [as in the Levante]. 

TD: Well, you’re not putting a V8 in the Grecale, I imagine. Much as that would be a welcome sight for a few hundred people. [Peffer laughs] So you talk about this three-trim strategy—is that also coming to the MC20?

Peffer: We’ll have multiple packages, but one trim, one powertrain across the board right now.

TD: No plans for an MC20 Trofeo?

Peffer: [Shrugs and grins.]

TD: Who can say, eh?

Peffer: Look…there’s a lot of flexibility within the alliance.

TD: Sure, sure, lot of flexibility. That’s a good line. As we move to full EVs, with the ability to shrink and split the powertrain, I have to ask. Will there ever be a front-wheel-drive Maserati? Do you think that would ever be in the cards?

Peffer: All I can say there is the creation of Stellantis gives us flexibility with resources to look to our future. And we’re gonna move where customer trends move. I’m not here to say today, no never absolutely not. But I’m also not gonna confirm we have anything front-wheel-drive in the works. We’re not known for that. We’re a RWD, we’re traditional luxury performance. This [points to MC20] is the epitome of what we stand for. 

Maserati

From left to right: Quattroporte Trofeo, Levante Trofeo, and Ghibli Trofeo. All powered by a twin-turbo V8.

TD: Speaking of the merger, obviously the MC20 has been in the works since before that happened, but did it impact the development or finalization at all?

Peffer: No. What it did was ensure… The group is 14 brands. We’re the only luxury global brand within that group, so it gets consideration and it gets the resource load and it gets the support that we need in order to, you know, bifurcate the powertrain lineup, to grow in the direction we want to go, to bring new products to market, refreshing the lineup. It’s done nothing but help where we’re going. We’re healthy, and on top of that we’re profitable right now. I mean, that’s big.

TD: That’s key. You can’t make cars without making money.

Peffer: No, you can’t.

TD: I’m curious to see the convertible version of this—you’re gonna have to put the roof somewhere, change the structure, and it’s always interesting to see how that’s executed. When’s that coming, next year?

Peffer: We haven’t announced firm timing on that because we want to see the 22s get delivered and see where they go, so no firm timing on either the electric or Spider. We said we’ll electrify the lineup by 24. Between now and 24 we don’t have a firm date on either of those yet.

TD: What’s the reaction been like from prospective buyers here [at Pebble]? I bet dealers are psyched to have a halo car again, too.

Peffer: They’re excited. The minimalist design is pleasing to everyone’s eye. Then we get to the price and they’re like, you gotta be kidding me. Then we start talking about best-in-class features it has like this low weight to horsepower ratio. We’re pulling 621 hp out of a three-liter engine. And they want it, they want to know where they can get it. We have to tell them hey, we have 115 dealers in the network, you gotta go see one of them, but the cars we have allocated for 2022 have all been reserved. All of them.

TD: Is there a production cap on the MC20?

Peffer: We don’t talk specifically about what the numbers are, production or sales, but our objective is to build production to demand, or maybe even a little bit behind. 

TD: Gotta get that hype going. I know what you’re saying.

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This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. Got a tip? Send us a note: tips@thedrive.com