Alfa Romeo to sell the dream – but will enough people want it?

Via TTAC, we come across an article in Autocar that discloses Alfa Romeo’s conscious decision to leave out the newest generation of electric safety devices.

Alfa Romeo doesn’t intend to fit much next-generation advanced safety equipment, such as adaptive cruise control and emergency braking, to its cars.

Alberto Cavaggioni, Alfa’s marketing boss, said, “We can look at our cars from an emotional point of view or from a technical point of view. We give the Alfisti all that’s needed [in electronic aids], but not more. At Alfa we give the maximum fun to drivers.

“We don’t put safety into the discussion, apart from our NCAP scores.”

Maurizio Consalvo, the manufacturer’s head of product planning, said, “Customers want a mechanical car with minimal electrical interference.”

Big call, Alfa.

I’m one of those old-fashioned types who takes a long time to accept some of the newer safety and convenience devices. Some devices actually replace skills that I think should be important to a parking-fail-smartcar1driver. I think every driver should have the skills to park their own vehicle, for instance. I think drivers should be able to regulate their own speed according to the conditions and the traffic around them. I think they should know how to brake safely in the shortest possible distance.

In fact, I think every driver should develop every skill needed for car control in all situations, just in case the electronic nanny fails.

I know that I’ll always have to have one relatively modern car for our family. However, I’ve vowed in recent years to always have at least one predominantly mechanical car (I can accept a computer for fuel injection, but that’s about as modern as I’d like to go with such a car). That’s partly because I really like old cars. But it’s also because I value the man-machine connection that a mechanical car gives and I admire the old-school engineers who broke new ground with a much smaller knowledge and experience base than what we have now.

Personally speaking, I welcome this decision by one of my favourite brands to stay away from the newer electronic nannies. I’m sure it’ll still have ABS, airbags and a bunch of other proven doo-dads. But enhancing that connection between the driver and the road and removing anything that takes away from that (as much as possible) should be the aspiration of every company that makes a driver’s car.

My question, though, is whether or not the market will accept this decision in sufficient numbers. The more companies give, the more the market wants. Alfa Romeo has had such a muddied identity in recent years that it’s expected to be a passenger car these days, albeit one with some sporting style.

Are there enough punters out there looking at Alfa as a higher-end sports car, the type of niche where you can get away with charging more and delivering less technology? Will the mechanical product be good enough for them to get away with it?

Alfa Romeo 4C Launch EditionTalk is cheap. As always in the car business, it comes down to the product. Alfa hasn’t had a compelling, ground-breaking driver’s car for some years. The future looks better with the 4C on its way and a new Spider with a good pedigree to follow. Every news story I see about Alfa Romeo, however, seems to include some sort of delay or a new twist that contradicts previous stories. The plan for Alfa seems confused and while they sort themselves out, the market is moving on.

I simply hope that Alfa can get its products out soon and stake a claim in some area of the market with a coherent range of emotionally charged products that actually deliver on it’s long-held brand promise – cuore sportivo.

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5 Comments

  1. Amen brother!

    i’ve come to grudingly accept things like ABS and scarebags as they do act in the “background” and pretty much with little impact on normal operation of a vehicle.

    The electronic geegaws, TCS, Stability Control, active speed control and the like only make marginal drivers better. These nannys allow the current crop of texting, cell phone talkers, make-up-put-er-on-ers, eating, drinking, and whatever else peeps do to pass the time continue their unsafe practices.

    When the push to TCS, “stability control” and “adaptive speed control” come into play, that’s getting to go over the line into self-drive. The mandate for tire pressure monitoring (TPMS) and stabilty control was the wrong/weak way of solving a problem for a single class of vehicle (SUV) which really have been more of a marketing success than a real engineered solution. AFA, the SUV many/most of the owners don’t really use these beasts for work or hauling stuff. Some time ago, I insulted a CUV owner (some sort of Dodge thing) by suggesting she would be better served by getting a minivan for her suburban Mom and au ‘pair/nanny duties. She said “I can’t have a minivan!!!! it’s just not big enough for what I need!”, in addition to the evil look for the unfashionable minivan in her neck of the ‘burbs. She lived and worked in the North Shore (Lake County), the wealthiest ‘burbs in the Chicago area.

    A friend who sold cars in the same area, was always amazed by folks who would drop $60-70k on a full zoot Land Cruiser or Land/Range Rover and use it for little more than a train “car” or grocery getter. Once they got these beasts they would complain about fuel economy and the cost of maintenance, especially the high cost for new tyres.

    I will admit to using cruise control on the highway as it makes long drives much easier, but also for managing fuel usage. If the CC does go bad, it gets fixed ASAP, but if the TCS or ABS go in the tank, they’ll most likely stay in the tank, mainly the because of the repair costs, especially on early cars with those systems. An exmaple would be the ABS system in the 9000 and c900 from ’87 to ’93 or so. Repair parts are expensive and getting hard to find. With “antiques” the early versions of these systems, could make the decision to scrap the vehicle when the computers/ECUs “wear out”. I’m planning on scrapping a ’93 9000CSE mainly because of the wonky TCS & “electronic” throttle (ETS) systems. The TCS/ETS are hard to diagnose (needs ISAT, Tech II has problems communicating with the ECUs) and the ECUs are expensive, even if “rebuilt”. This 9000 has served me well and has 412,000 miles but the 20 year old ECUs are similar to a XT class PC. When was the last time you worked on/used a XT PC??????

    1. I generally have the same opinion. Kudos to Alfa for aiming to build drivers’ cars. I think many others will feel the same especially as we get more and more close to self-driving cars… there will be a backlash for sure. It’s not just you and me!

      WRT existing/older electronic aids, they are mostly somewhat useful, but really the features have next to no impact during ordinary spring/summer/fall driving… It is winter where they come into play…

      Example 1: I have 2 c900’s one with ABS and one without. In some conditions in winter, the older one without ABS is actually much better than the newer one, even with the same tires (I’ve compared this using the same wheels even). It stops faster. All ABS does is remove the need to threshold brake perfectly in a panic situation… however, that is somewhat helpful and it is statistically a good safety feature… and I will admit, there are a couple times I’ve locked up the brakes when I didn’t mean to (through my own fault)… most of the time I prefer non-ABS as it gives me more flexibility.

      Example 2: The 9-5 has TCS on by default (ESP – supposedly it knows what I’m thinking!). I rarely see the light come on in summer. In winter… it is blinking on and off very regularly! What I find is that I can accelerate faster with a c900 than the 9-5 in the same conditions, and I don’t get wheel spin on the c900 until well after the TCS light comes on on the 9-5. Both cars have Nokian Hakka winter tires, but the 9-5 has newer better ones with deeper tread depth (the c900 has narrower tires, an advantage in snow). The c900 also stops faster and it handles beautifully around corners in snow – I can toss it around and it behaves exactly as you’d want. With TCS on, the 9-5 does fine in snow, but is slower. With TCS off it is remarkably hard to control around corners, bordering on dangerous, and still not faster than the c900. Now this may be that I’m just not used to driving the 9-5 with TCS off, or the weight difference vs the c900… but it does serve to highlight my main point:

      Building a good simple car with good dynamics (like the c900) is at least as good for a reasonably competent driver as a more complicated/expensive car with a bunch of electronic handling features.

      WRT the SUV/Minivans… many here drive Honda Pilots, even going so far as to call them “their truck”… it is a raised minivan without sliding doors… all the manufacturers know minivans are not cool so they are selling disguised minivans (eg Flex, Venza, etc)… They probably drive better than a real SUV, so fair enough. None of this stuff is necessary though unless one has a lot of kids…. otoh, many contractors prefer to work out of a minivan than a pickup… unless you need to haul dirt, the long minivans are good because you can fit sheet goods in them without exposing them to the elements. Most SUVs are too short to haul sheet goods. Then again, many other contractors drive the biggest truck they can buy just to commute to the site… makes them look “more professional”.. all different types I guess! My Saabs have hauled more building supplies than most contractors’ pickups!

  2. Well how refreshing to hear your view on too much electrickery. I own four Saabs but my favourites are my 1985 900 single carb and my 1980 900 twin carb they are so simple to look after and very little to distract you from actually driving .

  3. You can tell by the comments here that this marketing position strikes a chord with Alfa’s target audience.

    I wonder how far Alfa will go with this. The statement implies that they won’t exclude any system that counts toward NCAP scores. That means that they won’t be selling Alfas without ABS, ESP, and (soon) Autonomous Emergency Braking (AEB) systems.

    What I would like to see is a real effort to engineer these systems so that they don’t get in the way. I’ve already mentioned that I turn off the ESP on my Abarth when roads are slick. I consider that system dangerous because it takes control of the car at the precise moment when you should be paying full attention to driving. I can understand having a system that tries to stop you from doing a full spin, but ESP interferes whenever the front wheels aren’t pointing in the direction that the car is turning. The system has some lag, so it isn’t even trying to correct what you are doing right now, but rather what you did a few seconds ago when you were setting-up for a corner. I’m sure that Alfa (and Fiat as a whole) can do better than that.

    1. I don’t know the EU requirements in terms of a minimum NCAP score for market certification. Something I should look into.

      But I’m waiting for a company to say “screw it, we’re going to build the car that our buyers want, not what the regulators want”. Maybe Ferrari et al already do that. I just wonder if Alfa still has the market presence to join that sort of company. I’m not sure they do.

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