To paraphrase Top Gear’s former host Jeremy Clarkson, you can’t be a true petrolhead until you’ve owned an Alfa Romeo. But for the past two decades, that’s been a tall order for the brand’s American fans. When Alfa left the U.S. in 1995, it was yet another victim of the German-Japanese takeover of the import market. Yet its loss hit harder in the automotive world then that of other fallen brands: For decades, Alfa Romeos represented the ideal Italian car. Yes, they began rusting almost immediately, and yes, dodgy electrical systems could lead to spontaneous combustion, but they embodied all those clichés people use when they talk about Italian cars: passion, lust, soul, and beauty. Because when you had one running right, its superb handling and free-revving engines made them unlike anything else in the world.
Now, we Americans are getting the chance to fall in love with Alfa Romeo all over again. Parent company Fiat Chrysler Automobiles has some big plans for an ambitious return to the U.S., and they started this month with the newly unveiled 2016 Giulia sedan. With its unmistakably Italian looks, and an optional 510 horsepower V6 that’s rumored to be shared with the upcoming mid-engined Ferrari Dino, it puts the BMW M3 on notice, and should give the company instant credibility in the sports sedan segment.
For those who may have missed it, Alfa has already been back in stateside for about a year with its 4C sports car. With a price starting under $55,000, the 4C is just about the most exotic car you can buy for the money, but it’s been slow to catch on. Unlike the Porsche Cayman, Chevrolet Corvette, Jaguar F-Type, and other rivals, the 4C eschews trivialities like comfort, ergonomics, and ride quality for a mid-mounted turbocharged inline-four, cutting-edge carbon fiber construction, and near-supercar levels of performance. Unlike other sports cars in its class, it’s a pretty tough sell as a daily driver, and as a result, Alfa has only moved 215 4Cs in the U.S. through May.
But FCA plans for Alfa to appeal to more than just sports car buyers. By 2017, the Giulia and 4C will be joined by a crossover SUV, and in 2018, another five models will be added to the stable, bringing Alfa’s offerings from one to eight in just two years. With this new lineup, FCA chief Sergio Marchionne plans on selling 400,000 Alfas worldwide in 2018, up from the 68,000 cars sold last year. In order for FCA to reach its ambitious goal, America needs to fall head over heels for Alfa Romeo – and doing that means wooing buyers away from established giants like BMW, Mercedes, Audi, Jaguar, and Lexus.
Despite Alfa Romeo’s heritage and success in sports car segments, breaking into the American premium market will be no easy task. Even though it enjoys high esteem in the automotive world, the 4C has proven that strong performance numbers and positive press rarely translate into sales. To make things worse, the last lingering traces of import car phobia seem to be concentrated on Italian brands. The 1970s-era stories of atrociously-built, rust-prone money traps that spent more time in the garage than on the road seem to have been passed down from older generations, and could give Alfa a tough time luring buyers away from more established premium brands.
But as anyone who has owned a premium car knows, they can be a handful no matter where they were built, and those tales of Malaise-era Italian cars should have about as much bearing on new Alfa Romeos as the Pinto does on new Fords. If FCA sells Alfa’s mass market models with an aggressive warranty – say, something like the one it just discontinued for its Chrysler models – it could go a long way in establishing trust in the brand pretty quickly.
Despite the many, many obstacles Alfa Romeo faces in it’s return to the U.S. market, FCA is optimistic that the brand will become a contender in short order. At the Giulia’s launch last week, Marchionne linked the company’s growth plan to the recent success of Jeep. In 2009, in the depths of the recession, Jeep sold a paltry 200,000 cars. This year, on the strength of a diverse, modern lineup and an aggressive global sales strategy, the rugged brand is on pace to sell 1.2 million vehicles. In The Detroit News, columnist Daniel Howes points out that within the span of about seven years, Jaguar has gone from being on life support to the biggest post-recession comeback story in the industry. So while its sales goals may seem like a tall order, don’t count Alfa Romeo out. If you’re lucky, an Italian car just might be in your future.