Alfa Romeo have a plan to enter the US market (really, sort of)

Saab people will remember all the discussion and hand-wringing that went on about Saab’s various model launches – whether they were too early or too late, poorly advertised or otherwise.

Well, at least they happened.

Sergio Marchionne, the head of Fiat (and therefore, Chrysler) has hinted a modified launch cadence for Alfa Romeo vehicles in the United States. Yes, another one. I’ll get to that in a minute. But first, Car and Driver have an excellent graphic covering Fiat’s ever-changing plans over the years for Alfa Romeo in the United States.

According to this, Alfa’s launch plans have more-than-bookended the rise and fall of Hummer as an automotive brand – by several years at either end. Heck, Alfa’a comeback plan even pre-dates George Dubya Bush becoming President of the United States!! In fact, I remember starting Trollhattan Saab in 2005 and enjoying it so much I created an Alfa Romeo website shortly thereafter with a view to getting content established prior to Alfa’s US launch. Oh, the foresight.

Click to enlarge.

Alfa timeline

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Last year, Alfa were locked down to build the large Guilia sedan using a stretched version of the platform that debuted with the Dodge Dart in the US a few years ago (the same one the Giulietta is built on now).

Now – according to the new new plan – Alfa are developing a new (or modified) platform for the Giulia because they need something more refined, more capable of competing with the Audi A4 et al. The new new sale date is “2015”, which is effectively two full years away because it’ll probably come as a 2016 model, meaning a launch in late 2015.

Until that time, Alfa Romeo will only have the MiTo, the Giulietta and the still-launching-and-extremely-niche 4C coupe. That’s not much of a range, regardless of how exciting the 4C might be. Oh, and the 4C was meant to launch in the US this year, but is already delayed until early in 2014. Not a good start.

The new vehicle platform than engineers in Modena are working on for Alfa will be the basis of the Giulia sedan and wagon as well as a larger sedan model and an SUV. It may well see service as a base for a new Chrysler 300, as well, which would definitely help with the amortisation.

In addition to these models, there’s the roadster that Alfa are developing in conjunction with Mazda, which will be built at Mazda’s factory but featuring an Alfa engine and Alfa-specific bodywork.

The final riddle on Marchionne’s to-solve list is how to market the cars in the US when they finally get there. The premium option is to preserve the brand position that he’s trying to create for Alfa and market them through Maserati dealerships. The problem? Maserati only has around 70 dealers in the US. Marketing through Fiat dealerships won’t offer quite the same level of panache, but it’ll offer much greater exposure as there are more than three Fiat dealerships for every one Maserati dealership right now.

Questions:

  • How long does a company have to be out of a large market before they basically become unknown as an entity to their target market?
  • Will the aspirational young American buyers that Alfa Romeo would like to attract, those in their 20’s and 30’s, have a properly formed idea as to who Alfa Romeo is as a company? I know the 40-something-and-older crowd will, but what about the ones that will carry the brand forwards? Will they have any sense of Alfa Romeo’s real legacy?
  • How long until the next launch plan?

As a former Alfa owner and a long-suffering Alfa fan, I choose to see it as a positive that Sergio is taking the extra time needed to do this re-launch properly.

The new platform they’re working on will be RWD and AWD capable. The RWD part of that is very important because it’s what Alfa Romeo should be if it’s going to be true to its historical brand promise. That’s positive.

I just hope there’s still an interested market in the countries that count when it the new new Alfa Romeos finally arrive.

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13 Comments

  1. Alfa are so far behind everyone else it is a joke! The SUV was meant to come years ago as was the 166 replacement. I will believe Alfa are back in the US when I see it. The way things are going at the moment, if they don’t start producing something, I doubt Alfa will remain anywhere much longer!
    And I say this as an Alfa owner.

  2. I wouldn’t worry about young buyers. Fiat did just fine, and they were gone even longer. Sure, some old-timers dusted-off their “Fix it again, Tony” jokes, but that had no impact on the target demographic.

    The dealership situation should be interesting. Going through Maserati could be a big mistake, because the new sedan will be based on the same platform as the Ghibli. I’m sure that the two cars will look different, but selling them side-by-side tells the Maserati crowd that they’re getting a tarted-up Alfa, and it tells the Alfa crowd that they are settling for a compromised car. Nobody benefits from that forced marriage. Audi-BMW-Mercedes thrive on the perception that they are the “best” (within their own bloodlines). Hard to sell the same customer an Alfa that is second-best to the Ghibli parked next to it.

    Going through Fiat dealers will be problematic as well. Fiat has done a decent job establishing “Fiat Studios” as distinct entities within Chrysler dealerships, but you’re in the Wild West as soon as you leave the Fiat area. Your typical dealer makes money by selling wax jobs on Viagra trucks, and six year financing on five year minivans. It’s not a pretty picture; it’s a Jheronimus Bosch painting come to life.

    Still, it will be good to see new Alfas on the streets, at some unfixed point in the future…

  3. Well, if they do ever show up again here in the U.S., there is a Maserati dealership on the other side of town and a Fiat dealership less than 10 miles from my house….so at least I could go look at whatever they have to offer.

  4. Wow, I had no idea the discussions had been going on that long.

    As said above, I think that Alfa’s appeal will not be dimmed by market absence, but could be with mediocre product. Bring the ‘A’ game!

    As far as dealerships go, I think that many Maserati dealerships will not be equipped for the volume required to make a brand like Alfa successful. As you say, Fiat/Dodge/RAM dealers aren’t exactly in keeping with the brand, either.

    I’d like to see Alfa pursue an unconventional strategy for dealers in the US. Showrooms in downtown areas and/or prominent shopping or vacation destinations. Test drives, etc. available there. The cars are then delivered and serviced by a Chrysler or Fiat dealer. Perhaps even market those cars alongside the Viper, which Chrysler has taken out of the Dodge brand. Alfa-Romeo / Viper showrooms would be awarded to only the dealerships with the best service record in each major city.

    I know exactly where I’d put the showroom in my city. EXACTLY.

    1. Thylmuc,

      That’s something you hear often enough, but I wonder at what point you think that Alfa died.

      Some people go back only a few years, with the lack of new product post-2000. Some go back to the 164, some are still mourning the last RWD Alfas, some curse the industrial compromises that led to the Alfasud, some point to the Arna. There’s even a small contingent that think that the “real” Alfa didn’t survive the Second World War.

      On a related note, I read a review of the new (refreshed) Giulietta yesterday, and the conclusion was that it was a better-looking, sportier competitor to the A3 and 1-Series, albeit with a slightly worse interior finish. I’m sure that 1960s reviewers said the same thing about the Giulia, compared to the BMW 1600.

  5. To me, the difference in a company, as contrasted by a mere brand, lies in the following:
    1. Own development
    2. At least some own technology
    3. Own plant

    re. 1: No own development any longer. Even the design centre has been given up. This is now down at Fiat.

    re. 2. The last model that was based on something “own” was the 166. The 159 was based on Saab’s big platform. But even there, you could argue that this was still particular to Alfa, since Saab (nor anybody else) used it. This has now been finished. The two models in production are based on Fiat models, the 4c will be based on Mazda. It is the same with engines, always an important part of the Alfa identity. With the demise of the V6, the last Alfa engine died.

    re. 3. With the demise of the 159, the last Alfa dedicated plant was gone. It will furtheron be used to produce Fiat cars.

    So, it somewhat depends on how many of the above one considers essential. Apparently, a lot of buyers did not accept the 159, since it was not “alfaoid” enough. So, one could probably draw the line with the model change from 156 to 159, or the end of the production of the 166.

  6. It seems to me that people at Alfa need to sort themselves out before they try to implement any of their big but ever changing plans. What do they really want to do? Small slightly sporty versions of Fiats or do they want to take on BMW or even Porsche. I bet that an average consumer doesn’t have a clue what to think of them.
    If they trully mean to go RWD and start a whole new chapter, I think, they should do it first in Europe and position their cars on the market. This will not happen in one year, nor will it be easy to accomplish, so they better prepare to take some losses and stick to their plan for a long run.
    Trying to take a world in a blitz will only gain them similar results as Opel achieved in Australia, I think.

    1. Spin,

      Right now, it looks like they will offer sedans based on a Maserati/Chrysler platform. They are not starting from scratch, so there’s no pressing reason to keep them out of world markets.

      If anything, they may want to launch the “new” Alfa abroad before taking-on the hyper-competitive European market. That’s what Citroen did with their DS lineup (launched in China before France).

  7. SpinM: right, except that there are no “people at Alfa”. The correct statement, as sad as that is, must be “people at Fiat”. And Fiat’s problem is that they don’t have components “on their shelves” that would be able to catch the spirit of a true Alfa. Actually, Fiat apparently has no lightweight premium platform. The Chrysler 300 is but a Mercedes E class platform, and I assume that it simply lacks agility. All other platforms have been cancelled. There is no Thesis any more, nor the 159, nor the 166, nor even the Fiat Chroma which all had slightly larger platforms than what Fiat presently still has. The idea to develop a common platform for a premium brand and a super premium brand worked for Vokswagen with the Phaeton and the Flying Spur, (and much below that for the Passat and the Superb), but will it also work for Maserati and Alfa? Or with any other shared platform?

  8. Latest stuff I read (in German): Giulia to be released in 2016 (as a Grand Master Plan of ressurection of everything; with Fiat investing 9 billion/milliards Euro. Where will this money come from?). Well, let’s see.

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