Whither Alfa? Fiat’s upmarket brand takes the slow boat to the U.S.

Alfa Romeo Giulietta

Alfa Romeo’s Giulietta is racing to North America. Appearances can be deceiving.

Some thirty years ago two BMW salesmen and a financial backer aggressively kicked the tires of Alfa Romeo, hoping to secure an Alfa franchise in the center of Dallas, Texas. Pitches were made, a rendering of the proposed showroom was rendered, and tours of the planned in-town location were given. Take the results of the year-long pitch, throw in two bucks and you could buy a tall drip at your neighborhood Starbucks. The BMW guys were pitching but the Alfa execs weren’t catching. Some thirty years later those ‘pitchers’ would still enjoy having an Alfa franchise, and somewhere they still have the rendering.

The most likely candidate for the Alfa Romeo sales point is your neighborhood Fiat dealer, as both Fiat and Alfa are part of today’s Chrysler/Fiat consortium. Despite a succession of delays in the return of Alfa to the U.S. marketplace the timeline is now close enough to at least smell; there’s just a hint of anchovy in the air. Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchione is reportedly comfortable with a U.S. introduction of Alfa Romeo sometime in the next 18 months, which puts it in the spring/summer of 2013. And while there shouldn’t be a downside in the resumption of Alfa sales in the U.S., after an absence of almost twenty years the success of its return to U.S. showrooms remains anyone’s guess.

It would be good, of course, if Alfa’s return could be built upon Chrysler’s established success with Fiat. And although the Fiat picture hasn’t been what Chrysler had originally hoped (and publicly projected), over 25,000 Fiat 500 sales in its first abbreviated sales year is nothing to be embarrassed by. Of course, those numbers are only half of what Chrysler execs had envisioned, but with little more than a ‘this is what we’ll do’ to guide them, Chrysler’s regions and dealers did a credible job in getting showrooms established and deliveries ‘down the road’.

Sales volume is tougher to achieve when you have but one model to sell, and that has been Fiat’s Achilles’ heel from the git-go. Nor does it help that the Fiat 500 is more ‘cute’ than brute. As the industry has long known, you can sell a girl a ‘guy’ car but you won’t be selling (many) ‘girl’ cars to guys. And despite a growing aftermarket for tuning the 500 from SEMA regulars like Road Race Motorsports, Fiat marketing and showrooms seem geared more to style than driving substance. That will change with the spring intro of Fiat’s Abarth, but it won’t change the showroom dynamics – or lack of same – over the last year.

Although Alfa’s first model to mark its official return is still TBD, speculation centers on the production version of Alfa’s 4C concept, a mid-engine sportster first shown at the Geneva show in 2011. And that is an attractive opener (they’ll have many enthusiasts at ‘ciao’), but won’t begin to supply the volume sales today’s Fiat network so desperately needs. More beneficial – we’ll guess – to the Fiat dealers’ bottom line is the rumored intro of the 5-door MiTo, which can go toe-to-toe with the multitude of Mini variants already in the marketplace.

Beyond that – and, again, relying on as much speculation as established fact – Alfa intenders wait for Signore Marchione to sign off on proposed sheetmetal for the Giulietta hatch (competing for GTI/Audi A3 prospects), a Guilia midsize sedan and (possibly) a compact crossover sharing a Jeep platform and built in Illinois(!).

Will the addition of Alfa represent a truly substantive change in the Fiat showroom? Matt Bauer, an assistant sales manager at Fiat of Dallas, believes “people in the market for smaller BMWs (3-Series) and Benzes (C-Class) will take a serious look at the Alfa lineup as well.” If Mr. Bauer’s prediction is accurate, the presence of Alfa could represent a sea change for Chrysler, its dealers and bottom line.

Beyond manufacture and distribution is the importance of careful brand management. Mercedes and BMW have  demonstrated their cars can be built anywhere if, of course, that relocation isn’t mixed with a dilution of core brand attributes. While BMW and M-B have succeeded, Saab – under GM management – failed miserably in maintaining those brand attributes despite its Swedish manufacture. Alfa’s brand team can build the brand like Audi, or diminish it like Saab. We hope they do the Audi.