Saab vs Alfa

I have a feeling there’s going to be a few philosophical pices about Saab coming up….


This isn’t one of those “I recently drove and XXXX and here’s why I’d still buy a Saab” entries. I wish it was. It’d mean I’d recently driven an Alfa, and that would be very, very good.

I’ve often mentioned that the only Saab I’d get out of the Viggen for is a 9-5 Aero. This would most likely be a 2002 or 2003 model and this is for two very good reasons.

1) I like them more than the current model, good as it is.

2) I can’t afford to buy new. If I could it’d be a V6 9-3 SportCombi.

If I wasn’t bent on getting another Saab after I get out of the Viggen I’d be after an Alfa. One of those MY2000 GTV jobbies with the V6. Now that is one sweet looking automobile.


Alfa and Saab both draw passionate crowds, though mostly for very different reasons. For Alfa owners, it’s the cuore sportivo – the sporting heart of the car.

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Saab nuts love the turbo rush and the ‘differentness’ of the cars. It’s the breathlessness of uphill travel. The quick overtaking. The brilliant seats and the fact that you don’t see one every few minutes. The fact that they’re SO well designed.

Alfa and Saab are at reasonably similar stages of their corporate development. Both are small brands with very nationalistic identities. I’d argue, though, that Alfa have several distinct advantages. They have a very strong brand identity and passionate following. They’ve also got sales levels that are already a little stronger that Saab’s – and they’re not in the North American market at all.

The other thing that they have on their side is some pretty decent investment from parent company, Fiat. It certainly doesn’t hurt Alfa that their parent company is from the same country. Fiat understand how important being Italian is to the long term prosperity of the brand.

There’s no “injecting Italian-ness” here.

PT found a very interesting article in Car Magazine. There’s no link available, so I’m going to have to type out the relevant bits myself. There’s some really relevant thoughts here for Saab, especially in markets where the dealerships are mixed with other brands and where sales are well under what they could be.

The make of coffee machine used in British Alfa Romeo dealerships could determine the success of the brand’s global turnaround plan. Are we being serious? Bear with us. Coffee is very important to Italians. Being Italian is very important to Alfa. So if, as a potential customer, the crema on top of you espresso isn’t an unctuous pale brown, the whole dolce vita spell will be broken and you might go back to BMW, again. So Alfa’s UK operation road tested five different coffee machines before choosing the one that will feature in all its dealerships (DeLonghi, since you ask).

Getting the coffee right is central to the correct dealer experience. And getting the dealer experience right is central to selling more Alfas to Brits. The new UK Managing Director Christopher Nichol has sacked 41 of the 70 dealers he inherited and told the remainder, plus 20 new ones, that they have to deliver a Lexus-like experience. Alfa sales in the UK have slumped from 16,000 in 2001 to around 5,000 last year. Nichol believes that Alfa can sell 30 – 40,000 cars each year in the UK, but only if the customer experience is right and if the brand is in the top rank of the JD power customer satisfaction ratings. It is currently twenty fourth, deep in the bottom third.

Increasing your sales at least sixfold (in the UK) by 2010 is is a staggeringly ambitious target, but these are the kind of gains Alfa needs to make if it is to meet its global target of doubling sales to 300,000 each year by the same deadline…..

…..But doubling your sales requires more than just good coffee. The almost painfully honest Baraville admits that Alfa is “in the middle of nowhere” unable to compete with BMW on service or product. The new coffee machines are helping to deal with the service problem. The auto-erotic 8C is getting people excited about the product again, drawing orders from countries where Alfas have never been sold. It may race at Daytona before the brand’s return to America. “A brand like Alfa Romeo must race”, vows Baraville.

But more importantly there’s lots more mainstream product on the way. In 2009 Alfa will launch the new junior, a Mini rival on the excellent Grande Punto platform with a direct-injected and turbocharged, 230bhp, four-wheel-drive range topper, but also an all-new 149 and a facelift for the 159. The following year sees the launch of a small SUV on the same platform as the 149, and the new 169 saloon, which Baraville would like to make rear-wheel drive for the US, but is almost certain to use a stretched version of the 159 platform.

Suddenly the doubling of Alfa sales doesn’t see so improbable – if by 2010 it has a five model lineup and is selling in the US and in China. Sales grew 10 percent last year, and Fiat boss Sergio Marchionne says the brand should break even next year.

But Baraville admits that Alfas still have a reputation for being temperamental. “once an Alfa was like a woman you would have as a mistress but not as your wife. Now I want to build cars you’ll want to marry, but still make dirty tricks with after 15 years together.’

And presumably they’ll make great coffee afterwards.

That was a long one, but the parallels are quite noticeable. If you take a market like Germany, for example, where Saab are way under-represented in the sales figures then talk of improved dealership service and a bigger model range certainly rings some bells.

Alfa have a shipload of heritage to draw on and if the cars are good enough, there’s a very good chance they’ll make it. With a parent company that’s willing to invest, they’ve developed and stayed true to their character and now have the halo car to light the way.

Does that sound remotely familiar to anyone?

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  1. I’m glad i’m not the only one who thinks that an Alfa 159 Sportwagon may just be a suitable compliment to my 9-3. I’ve been anxiously counting the days until Alfa’s triumphant return to the US – what the Italians call “2008”, or what we call 2009 or 2010.

  2. eggngrits, you have to see one ‘in the flesh’ as they are truly stunning looking cars. Honda can only dream about building a car with the style of an Alfa. Ever heard an Alfa V6? WOW!

    I never realised that Alfa was doing so badly in the UK?

  3. So, I’ve figured it out. Saab dealerships need to get just the *right* pickled herring. ;o)

    I’m with Swade on Alfas, and can’t wait ’til it’s 2008 in Italy, Grider. (Whenever that happens… maybe they’re still partying like it’s 1999?)


  4. Once upon a time, only a couple of years ago, GM owned Saab and chunks of Fiat and Subaru. And I thought that those could be very complementary brands, all kind of slightly upscale fwd/awd with distinct and separate outsider personalities that could share basic platforms. Alfa the sexy one, Saab the understated/dignified one, Subaru the wild one.

    I guess I can’t blame GM for thinking that what they were ever going to get from the Subie and Fiat investments was not worth holding on to them, but at some point I have to wonder if Saab is also duplicative if they already have Opel and global Caddy.

  5. And just to show you that there are many ways to skin a banana……my local BMW dealer has just branched out and now also carries Alfa Romeo! Renault too for that matter. Shhhh, no one tell the Poms or they might get confused. Shame he can’t get the Saab dealership as well to be honest as he’d probably do better than the current effort in his sleep.

    make mine a macchiato thanks!

  6. Responding to Adam:
    “Once upon a time, only a couple of years ago, GM owned Saab and chunks of Fiat and Subaru.”

    Imagine if the one billion dollars that Fiat got from GM had been divvied up over Fiat and the rest of GM Europe. Opel/Vauxhall would have gotten a chunk, Alfa might be in the States by now, and the new 9-5 would probably be ready by now. If only an enthusiast of European cars had any control whatsoever of General Motors…

  7. In addition to my 9-5, I also own an ’86 Alfa Spider. There’s something to be said for Italian cars… they may not build quality, but I’m always willing to overlook that. The cars are always so beautiful and passionate to drive. I anxiously await Alfa’s return to the US (although I am not holding my breath). I know that as soon as there’s reasonable proof that the automaker will return to our shores, I’ll be putting a deposit on a 159 (or whatever will make it here!).

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