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BBC World Service

Italy’s Fiat speeds Alfa Romeo’s US return

Russell Padmore Sep 1, 2014
BBC World Service

Italy’s Fiat speeds Alfa Romeo’s US return

Russell Padmore Sep 1, 2014

Two years after Fiat rescued Chrysler from bankruptcy, the Italian automotive company is using its control of the Detroit automaker to sell its own vehicles to American drivers.

The modern version of Fiat’s iconic small car — the 500 — is proving a winner, but re-launching the sporty Alfa Romeo brand in the United States could prove a tougher test, because it will have to compete with rival European vehicles, especially BMW or Audi.

The Image of a Sporty Italian Car

Ask people to conjure up an image of Italian culture and they might recall the beautiful Bay of Naples, or perhaps scenes of scooters zipping through the traffic of Rome past the Vatican City, not to forget Hollywood images of gladiators doing battle in the ancient Coliseum. However, people with octane fueled minds are more likely to think of stylish, powerful Italian sports cars.

Kings of their imaginary hometown drag strip, but Main Street in the real world, are drivers who hanker after a car that will stand out from others. Those who blip the gas pedal, waiting for the stop light to turn green, might be just the kind of customer Fiat Chrysler is targeting for its Alfa Romeo brand.

The Giulia model is due across the Atlantic soon and the rear-wheel drive sedan will probably have a price tag to match the BMW 3 Series and the Mercedes C-Class.

Fiat knows that image matters to sports car drivers and even though it is beyond the wallet of most, the sleek lines of Alfa Romeo 8C will be used to help sell the brand.

BBC Top Gear’s outspoken Jeremy Clarkson has a unique take on Alfa’s top car: “The 8C is horrid. It feels wayward, it feels uncouth, it feels like an American car and sounds like one as well.”

That review might be sweet music to the Fiat Chrysler marketing team in Detroit.

Fiat plus Chrysler: Who is in control?

The company’s chief executive, Sergio Marchionne, knows control of Chrysler could make the group more competitive with General Motors and Ford in the American market.

“Chrysler has done a tremendous job of opening the door to make sure the American market was sufficiently attuned to receive Fiat,” he said recently. “Jeep and Alfa Romeo are the true international brands of the Fiat Chrysler Group and we need to leverage their huge potential.”

Automobiles with Alfa badges first arrived in the U.S. in the 1950s, but by the time Fiat took control of the company in 1986 its fortunes were stalling and after acquiring an unfortunate reputation for poor quality and reliability the Turin based firm pulled the plug on the brand.

But now Fiat Chrysler’s Alfa Romeo marque is back in the US, but are the Italian suits really in control in the Motor City?

“People essentially thought this was going to be a Fiat takeover and in some ways it’s almost like a surreptitious Chrysler takeover”, says Paul Eisenstein, the publisher of the Detroit Bureau.

“Chrysler is now the more successful side of the company and it seems like the Fiat management is more and more leaning towards being an American company,” he said.

Will There Be Sales Success?

Success in the U.S. for Alfa Romeo will depend on a network of dealers and people like Silvana Gulla, whose family-run business, Fiat of Larchmont, has been selling Italian cars in New York since the 1960s.

“We’re looking forward and really anticipating more news from the people in Italy and the people in Detroit, as far as to the timing and what models are going to be introduced,” she said.

She is also confident that getting Alfa Romeo cars in their showroom will lead to more sales.

“It will because Alfa Romeo does have that racing prestige. It is perceived as a bit more upscale than the Fiat, so we are going to be more competitive with people that are buying in the luxury sporty segment, such as BMW or Audi,” she said.

Fiat’s compact 500 is becoming a familiar sight on America’s freeways and now the company’s marketing team is going into overdrive to sell Americans a sporty Italian alternative.

Control of Chrysler is giving Fiat a second shot for Alfa Romeo in the United States and pretty soon the guy blipping the gas pedal of the sporty European model, waiting next to you at the stop light, might be driving an Italian car, not a German one.


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