Fiat and Alfa Romeo chart their future in the U.S. with new models

1964 Fiat 1500 Cabriolet ad

Fiat sold the sizzle with this ad for the 1964 Fiat 1500 Cabriolet. (click to enlarge)

Fiat and Alfa Romeo, thanks to the “merger” of Chrysler and Fiat (now FCA, for Fiat Chrysler Automobiles), are making their return to the United States, and Italian automobile enthusiasts are, well, enthusiastic. It’s not that Italian cars haven’t been available in the U.S., but those for sale here have had big numbers on their price tags. The average guy—or even the average-plus guy—has less chance of owning one than having a young Gina Lolabrigida perched on the back of his Vespa. Lamborghini? Ferrari? Ciao, baby.

Ferrari is part of the Fiat empire, and is still priced so high you need to be on the top floor of an oil sheik’s skyscraper to read it, and you don’t shop Ferrari. Ferrari shops you. It really operates as a separate entity.

Maserati has changed that somewhat. Although traditionally Maserati has been high-priced/limited production and just as traditionally, barely hanging on to profitability and sometimes not, the new Maserati Ghibli sedan has a starting price in the upper $60k range. It’s a price point that makes it easy cross shop against the BMW 5-Series, Audi A6 and Cadillac CTS/XTS, and guess which will get more attention at the, well, just about anywhere. Maserati has designs on a total production of 50,000 Ghiblis per year. BMW will build a lot more 5-Series, but for Maserati, that’s revolutionary.

1971 Alfa Romeo Spyder 1750 Veloce ad

A 1971 Alfa Romeo Spyder 1750 Veloce ad served up the dream. (click to enlarge)

The return of Fiat and Alfa Romeo to the U.S. means everyman can own an Italian car. Fiat introduced the Fiat 500 subcompact two-door sedan for the 2012 model year, following that up with the 500 Cabriolet and then in short order the pint-sized performance car, the Fiat 500 Abarth. After that the four-door Fiat 500L debuted at a 2014 model, and the Fiat 500X sport-utility coming soon.

The Fiat model line has grown rapidly, giving the budding Fiat dealer more than a single model to sell, as well as make Fiat in the U.S. more than just a one-trick pony. However, yet another Fiat model tis coming soon, and something of a surprise. The sport car developed along with the new Mazda MX-5 Miata had been slated as an Alfa Romeo, but it’s not to be so. According the FCA boss Sergio Marchionne, “our joint-venture with Mazda to build a small roadster will now yield a Fiat product, not an Alfa.”

That makes sense. Alfa sells small cars around the world, perhaps most notably the Alfa Romeo MiTo, a luxury B-segment car model. While Alfa released the MiTo to increase Alfa Romeo sales in Europe, it’s not a likely candidate for Alfa’s reentry to the American market, considering America’s general equating size and value.

1994 Alfa Romeo 165LS ad

The 1994 Alfa Romeo 165 was the last Alfa sedan sold in the U.S. (click to enlarge)

According to Marchionne, “We’re going to be pretty much dead-on with BMW. The first sedan we’ll see June 24, 2015, in Milan.” Alfa’s goal is to sell 400,000 cars annually world wide by 2018. The United States is crucial to Alfa making that number, however, and certainly not a dalliance, as plans are to sell 150,000 cars per year here. And it won’t get there by selling just the Alfa Romeo 4C.

Alfa hasn’t revealed the name of the new sedan, whether Giulia, Giulietta or something else, but it’s expected to be competitive with the BMW 5-Series. When Alfa left the U.S. market in 1995, it was selling the Alfa Romeo 164 sedan and the Alfa Romeo Spider Veloce. The latter was a two-seat sports car, which began its run in 1966. You’ll remember it as Ben’s red sports car in The Graduate. By the time it left the states, it was well into post-doc work. The Alfa 164 was what the Brits would call an “executive sedan,” built on a platform shared with Saab 9000, the Lancia Thema, with a body designed by Pininfarina, front-wheel drive, and power from one of several V-6 engines. It’s unfortunate that more people didn’t get to enjoy it, but by 1995, Alfa had fewer than 30 employees in the U.S., and had sold just 523 cars here in 1994.

1969 Fiat 124 Spider ad

Minimalist 1969 Fiat 124 Spider ad didn’t have any copy at all. (click to enlarge)

However, Fiat had left ten years earlier after facing a more precipitous decline. Annual sales in the U.S. went from about 100,000 vehicles in the mid-seventies to around 15,000 by the time it hung up the “close for business” sign in 1984. Fiat had sold a variety of sedans, coupes and sports cars here, but rust, particularly of the Fiat 850 Spider—which had the first recall for corrosion—and a reputation for unreliability that had made “Fix it again, Tony.”

Fiat, however, had a history of building sports cars since shortly before 1960, peaking with one that became its most popular model in the U.S., the 124 Spider, along with its hardtop version, the 124 Coupe. Both were based on the Fiat 124 sedan, although with different bodies—the Spider by Pininfarina, the Coupe by Bertone. Both cars had sophisticated double-overhead cam engines, a five-speed manual transmission (remarkable then) and supple sports car handling, along with refinement lacking in, say, British sports cars of the era. Fiat also made the mid-engine Fiat X 1/9, which Road & Track called the best handling car in the world.

Sports car credentials? Fiat has ‘em. Marchionne’s decision to market the new sports car co-developed Mazda as a Fiat is in keeping with the make’s heritage. A rebirth, perhaps, of the Fiat 124 Spider? One could do worse. We’re ready when they are.

UPDATE 3/7/15: FCA honcho in chief Sergio Marchionne has confirmed in Geneva that the coming sports car from Fiat will indeed be named “Fiat 124 Spider.” Expect it to arrive in about a year.