Struggling Alfa Romeo Proves Sex Appeal Doesn’t (Always) Sell
Just pronouncing the name is a pleasure for the tongue, and the company’s cars have their own designer label in the shape of the classy Alfa badge with its two symbols of the style-obsessed city of Milan: the serpent emblem of the Visconti family, and a red cross on a white background.
After a 14-year absence, the plan is for Americans to experience the magic of Alfa Romeo again next year as part of a plan to double overall Alfa Romeo’s global sales to around 300,000 annually within three years. Currently they are stalled with many European buyers loving the appearance and prestige of the cars but suspicious of persistent problems with quality and reliability.
Sexy styling is one definite plus for Alfa, exemplified by its new “halo model”, the gorgeous $200,000 8C. Only 500 examples of this sporting flagship are being made. The name consciously pays homage to Alfa Romeo’s heritage, recalling the legendary pre-war 8C designed by Vittorio Jano, one of the greatest automotive engineers of all time.
Alfa could certainly do with all the good publicity it can get just now. The Fiat-owned company is currently said to be losing an estimated 1 million euros ($1.47 million) each day. Most Alfas are no longer made in Milan, and the main Alfa assembly plant in southern Italy is closed until March, underlining how grim things are looking just now.
By rights Alfa Romeo should have died long ago. For years it limped on, propped up by the Italian government and lurching from disaster to disaster. Back in the 1970s Alfa Romeo launched the brilliant handling and technically advanced Alfasud small car, which should have been a world beater but was ineptly built at the-then brand-new plant near Naples by a cheap-to-hire but inexperienced and strike-prone workforce.
Alfa’s real low point came in 1984, though, when they launched possibly the most miserable product of a joint venture ever, the disastrous Alfa Romeo Arna and its equally unspeakable twin the Nissan Cherry Europe.
In theory it should have been a world beating small car – as good-looking and fun-to-drive as an Alfa but with the reliability of a Nissan. Unfortunately it all went horribly wrong and the unfortunate citizens of Europe were faced with the blandest-looking Nissan body imaginable powered by dodgy Alfa mechanicals and all loosely screwed together by the workforce in Naples. Both versions bombed hugely and Nissan quickly abandoned its Italian adventure forever
After that, things could only go up. With the government finally off-loading Alfa on to Fiat a new era began. Whilst Fiat’s resources have been useful to Alfa Romeo and have resulted in major investment in new models, Alfa also acquired Italy’s other prestige volume make, Lancia, as a corporate sister. This has not been to the advantage of either of the two former rivals, with both persistently performing below their potential.
Today’s staple Alfas are the 147 hatchback (which costs around $30,000 in 1.6-litre form in the UK) and the 159 in saloon and sportwagon models, aimed directly at the BMW 3-series and starting at around $37,000. The 147 is now ageing and will not be replaced for another year, whilst the 159 hasn’t been as big a success in Europe so far as Alfa had hoped.
Further up the range are two wonderful coupés, the Bertone-styled GT and the Giugiaro-styled Brera, both of which in their different ways look as Italian as can be and every inch worthy of the badge, although as they are close in size and price the marketing is somewhat confused. There’s also an attractive open-top Spider.
Looking to the future, Alfa is pinning hopes for significant sales growth on a new small hatchback, dubbed Junior, which is seen as a Mini competitor. Derived from the successful Fiat Grande Punto, it is likely to be a reasonable hit and could add 70,000 sales.
Americans may be more interested in plans for an SUV by 2010 – not the usual sector of the market for Alfa or any Italian marque – and a replacement for the company’s moribund large saloon, the 166. Plans for the US market suggest an initially modest sales target of 20,000 units for Alfa as a whole, rising quickly to 50,000.
If that’s ever going to happen Alfa’s management need to get to grips once and for all with the Naples factory – there’s talk of retraining all 5,000 staff – as well as upping standards for the quality and service offered by dealerships. So many times before with new car launches Alfa Romeo has nearly been there but failed to deliver.
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