This morning Automotive News Europe ran a story suggesting that Alfa Romeo will be split off to become a standalone company within Fiat-Chrysler, just like Maserati and Ferrari. The jokes about this being a prelude to selling the ailing Alfa brand to Volkswagen have already started.
Fiat-Chrysler boss Sergio Marchionne will reveal the absolutely, definitely, no-kidding final revival plan for Alfa Romeo next Tuesday. Despite pulling off the audacious merger with Chrysler, which has underpinned a Fiat brand that was in desperate trouble, Marchionne has been twice burnt by previous Alfa revival plans.
In 2010, Marchionne predicted Alfa would sell 500,000 cars per year by this year. It was pushed down by 100,000 12 months later, before being abandoned altogether. Last year, Alfa sold a dismal 63,000 vehicles, with the flawed Mito and ageing Giulietta the only mainstream showroom models.
Marchionne had no choice but to kill off the 159 and Brera models. They were built on a unique platform in small numbers, which is a recipe for big losses. Coming off the back of a huge recession and with product development money in short supply, the 159 family clearly couldn’t be replaced immediately.
To me, it’s rather more worrying that what was the best (certainly best made, safest and most reliable) Alfa range for many years didn’t sell well. If the 159 couldn’t make a sales breakthrough, what will?
Again, you have to hand it to Marchionne for scrapping previous, no doubt compromised, plans for new mid-size Alfa models and taking a risk on an all-new rear-drive platform.
There’s plenty of skepticism about the ability of Fiat-Chrysler to stump up sufficient funds to create what is expected to be a five or six-model mainstream Alfa line-up. But I think that’s overplayed. It seems likely that the two expected SUV models with have their roots in a Jeep model. A big executive saloon is thought to be a sister car to the new Maserati Quattroporte.
Certainly, the new platform for Alfa’s new mid-sized, BMW 3-series-rivalling model will not be cheap, but it seems likely that a version of the architecture will be used by Chrysler in the US. Overall, from what we know today, there seems to be a pretty sound industrial model underpinning the new Alfa plan.
Moreover, it also seems that Alfa will walk away from the A3/Golf and Mini markets. Fiat will not have a larger front-drive platform than the one used under the 500L MPV, so the front-drive Mito and Giulietta hatches will be the last of their kind with Alfa badges. But as these markets are crowded and barely profitable without premium pricing, it’s another wise move.
And with the Chinese premium market set to grow well beyond 1.4 million units per year and the country’s buyers keen on most things with a deep European heritage, there’s certainly a huge potential for Alfa to get a volume leg-up in the East.
The devil in Alfa’s potential revival lies – quite literally – in the engineering detail. Funding, volumes and platform strategies look viable, but the execution of the new products will, to me, be the real make or break issue.
The execution of contemporary BMW and Audi interiors has set a hugely high barrier to entry in the mainstream premium market. At the recent Geneva show, I couldn’t get into the cockpit of the new TT such was the queue of admirers for its astonishing build quality, classy simplicity and slick modernity.
Thanks to a lengthy gestation process, we can be pretty sure of the new Alfa exterior design. Rear-wheel-drive dynamics and weight distribution are a given. But the detail finish and interiors of these new Alfas have to be up there with the Germanic best, or this absolutely final last chance for Alfa will not gain the sales traction it needs.