If you’ve begun to think the return of Alfa Romeo to the U.S. will happen about the time we enjoy a return to civil political discourse (i.e., never…), then we’re happy to report relief – after a fashion – is in sight. And no, it won’t be achieved via the presidential candidacy of Hillary Clinton. Rather, the wait for Alfa will be ameliorated by the imminent introduction of an all-new Mazda3. And while this new Mazda platform precedes the upcoming collaboration between Mazda and Alfa on spider derivatives (spiderivatives?), the new Mazda’s perceived goodness would seem to support more widespread collaboration.
We’ve been paying rapt attention to the ‘imminent’ return of Alfa Romeo since Sergio Marchionne (CEO of Fiat and Chairman/CEO of Chrysler) first raised the possibility, sometime during the first Bush administration. Our personal interest – if not passion – in Alfa dates back even further, consummated with the purchases of a new Alfa sedan in 1976 (a leftover ’74 Berlina) and a pre-bumper Spider at the end of ’82. Neither ownership period was particularly long, but the visceral experience supplied by Alfa’s 2.0 liter four, in combination with the overall competence of the platforms, provides warm memories some three decades later.
More recently, the purchase of an ’05 Mazda3 eight years ago confirmed the greatness of Mazda. Although we’ll never bond with the folds and creases adorning the second-gen Mazda 5-door, the updated sheetmetal doesn’t in any way diminish the hatchback’s overall goodness. With the arrival this fall of the 2014 Mazda3, Mazda wraps all-new (and all-seductive) bodywork around an updated platform and new SkyActiv powertrains. With these significant revisions, those waiting for a new Giulietta will have soon found it – on a U.S. Mazda showroom.
Of course, the stated reasons for the ongoing delay of returning Alfa to the U.S. are commendable. They want to ‘get it right’, and we certainly wouldn’t disagree. As the manager of an Alfa showroom in the late ‘80s I was witness to the marketing mayhem brought by the ill-conceived Milano. But in creating an Alfa appropriately ‘upmarket’, Fiat’s brain trust has allowed time for mid-level carmakers to effectively match the features and performance of near-luxury entrants.
That narrowing of the mid-level and near-luxury gaps is certainly evident in Mazda’s new Mazda6, and we think it will be clearly demonstrated in the new Mazda3. And although the Mazda3 won’t appear in U.S. showrooms with the same degree of visceral appeal historically evident in Alfa’s 5-door Giulietta, I suspect that appeal could be duplicated by an owner with little more than revisions to intake, exhaust, suspension and (perhaps) braking capability.
So, while one or two Alfa purists (at last count, a realistic approximation of those surviving) might be aghast at the suggestion, I think the wait in the States for Alfa Romeo is largely irrelevant. And before you shoot the messenger, take a drive this fall in the new Mazda3.
True fact: Mazda in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s was threatened with oblivion, as Japan’s Ministry of International Trade and Industry wanted to fold it into Toyota—as would the small carmaker Prince, for example, be absorbed by Nissan—to reduce the number car companies in Japan to improve the Japanese automotive industry’s competitiveness worldwide. The Matsuda family, which had owned Mazda since World War I when it was known as Toyo Kogyo and made artificial cork, wasn’t eager for that to happen, and casting about for a reason to survive as an independent company. Indeed, MITI didn’t consider its status as the second largest manufacturer of vehicles in Japan enough, mainly because Mazda’s vehicles were mostly three-wheeled truck used by Japanese industry. Mazda settled on the rotary engine, got the blessing from MITI for this “technological charter” and never looked back.
Another company with roots reaching back to the beginnings of the last century began as Anonima Lombarda Fabbrica Automobili, or A.L.F.A., and founded in 1910 entered its first race, the storied Targa Florio, in 1911. After a wartime interlude, automobile manufacture resumed in 1920, and having been purchased by Nicola Romeo, the company gained its current name. Alfa’s finances were always shaky, but the carmaker was famous for its competition machines, even launching the career of Enzo Ferrari, and its world-class luxury sports cars. Alfa Romeo would stumble from the rubble of World War II, return to the world of international grand prix racing, only to see it end in 1958 at the hand of Ferrari in a son-kills-father plot worthy of Shakespeare. Alfa survived to still make expensive high-performance automobiles, but it was mostly on the shoulders of the more modestly priced Giulia and Giulietta sports cars and sedans.