I love Alfa Romeo. I’ve had four of them over the years. A Sprint, two 16V Alfa 33’s and my current GTV6. I hope to own more Alfa’s in the future, too. The 4C is now on my in-the-future list. I’m invested in this company.
So it’s with some degree of trepidation that I approach a persisting story, one with both a dark cloud and a silver lining attached to it.
First, though, there was another story through the week that prompted my concern. Fiat launched a new vehicle in Australia, called the Freemont. You can see a picture of it at the top of this story. Those of you reading this from the United States might recognise that vehicle. Where you live, it’s called the Journey and it has a Dodge badge on the front.
Here’s the Journey. Compare that with the car at the top.
This, of course, is some of the fruit of the new Fiat/Chrysler relationship. Some sharing of engines and architectures is to be expected, I suppose, but this is flat-out re-badging in a style not seen since the bad old days of pre-bankruptcy GM.
All this makes me wonder about Fiat, the company that owns my beloved Alfa Romeo.
Alfa Romeo currently has the rather unexciting MiTo and the much more interesting Giulietta in its range. The brand’s recent history includes a series of absolutely beautiful cars that weren’t quite able to drive as good as they looked. A driver’s brand devoid of a true driver’s car.
Fiat make all the right noises about being dedicated to an Alfa Romeo resurgence and the new Alfa Romeo 4C is the first evidence of that, creepy headlights and all. Fiat are promising a reintroduction of Alfa Romeo to the United States, a new Spider that will be developed in conjunction with Mazda’s new MX-5 and, as is seemingly compulsory these days, a premium SUV.
On the other hand, Fiat are basically just holding on thanks to Chrysler’s new-found success in the US. European sales have tanked. Fiat need a couple of home runs and as much as I love Alfa Romeo, Fiat are taking the brand upscale and a newly upscale Alfa isn’t the lifeline that Fiat needs. One can easily get the impression that Fiat are fattening the Alfa cow just prior to slaughter.
All of that leads us to a story that just won’t go away, despite public denials from people connected to the companies involved – the talk that maybe Volkswagen buy Alfa Romeo. The rumours first surfaced a few years ago and the story is still hanging around, covered again on several prominent motoring websites in just the last few weeks. Here’s one excerpt, from Ward’s Auto:
TURIN – Alfa Romeo is at the core of top-level negotiations between Audi and Fiat and might be near to a sale, reliable sources here and in Ingolstadt, Germany, say.
Sources close to both Fiat CEO Sergio Marchionne and Audi CEO Rupert Stadler confirm the two are in talks over a major deal.
The top subject reportedly involves the sale of Alfa, but this time not only the brand but Fiat’s Pomigliano assembly plant also is on the table.
I do worry for the future of Alfa Romeo under its current owner. I worry because of Fiat’s short-sighted badge engineering as well as decisions like shutting down the Alfa Romeo museum, as they did a few years ago.
Fiat took Alfa Romeo off the Italian government’s hands in the mid 1980s. The cars have become more modern since then, but they’ve also become a bit more generic. Most have had beautiful styling, but then most have also been front-wheel drive.
The Alfa strategy also seems a little bit scatter-brained. The MiTo and Giulietta have their fans but they’re entry-level premium European cars. The Giulietta, especially, is a fine car but neither are banging down the door of the specialist or luxury car segments. Fiat seem to want to spark an upscale revival for Alfa, a focusing of the brand’s identity that’ll start with a car that looks like a true driver’s car – the 4C. Upscale Italian sportiness….. hasn’t Fiat already got Maserati for that? I know Maserati is more of a true luxury brand, but then Fiat did just announce a new Maserati Ghibli, priced down to fit under the Quattroporte at a point intended to make Maserati more accessible.
Alfa and Maserati are approaching one another, it seems.
So you could say I’m not opposed to a sale of Alfa Romeo, even if it’s to a non-Italian company like Volkswagen. But then you have to ask the question – are Volkswagen the right company to take Alfa Romeo into the future?
Here’s a graphic of the car brands currently owned by the Volkswagen Group. Well, nearly all of them. You can add Porsche into this picture, too, now.
There’s no doubting the success of the Volkswagen Group. They are currently the most profitable car company in the world and will overtake GM as the #2 car company in the world based on sales. Toyota won’t be far away in the #1 slot, either.
Their cars are all very well regarded with the possible exception of Seat, which is a rare VW failure so far. Skoda are making good quality, good value small cars and family cars. VW themselves range from the bland to the sporting. Porsche are Porsche. Audi have taken a place at or near the top of the Teutonic table. Lamborghini and Bugatti are hallmarks in the supercar and hypercar segments.
But here’s the thing that rubs me the wrong way.
The Volkswagen Group have made a success out of all of these brands but aside from Lamborghini, and Bugatti, is there anything in the range that has been built to really inspire? To me, the rest of the brands scream …….. competence. And I guess you could say that Lamborghini and Bugatti scream extreme competence.
What I’m wondering is whether or not Volkswagen have got the ability to build passion into their cars, because that’s what Alfa Romeo has traditionally had and that’s what Alfa Romeo needs to become great once again. That mad focus on one particular aspect of a vehicle, even at the cost of incompetence somewhere else. Will a German-owned Alfa Romeo allow poor ergonomics in order to have the car look just right, if need be? Will they make you skew your number plate to one side in order to preserve the symmetry of a heart-shaped grille? A great Alfa has flaws that accuentate the great things about it. Sad, but true.
Bottom line: Fiat are making a few dumb moves and they might need to sell Alfa Romeo to survive and focus. Can Volkswagen make an Alfa Romeo that a passionate person can truly fall in love with?
My tip: BMW could.