By on May 19, 2006

Benjamin Braddock (and Alfa Romeo) ran out of gas.According to Alfa Romeo's website, Henry Ford used to doff his hat whenever he saw an Alfa Romeo pass. More credibly, the Italian automaker claims Enzo Ferrari cried like a baby on the day his race cars finally beat Alfas'. Yes but– Alfa Romeo's distinguished portfolio of elegant motor cars and racing heritage may be glorious beyond compare, but that history also includes ignominious defeat. In 1995, after selling just forty-four cars to [long-suffering] American enthusiasts, Alfa withdrew from the US market. And now, once again, the company that gave Dustin Hoffman's graduate his getaway car wants back in.

Emboldened by Maserati's North American comeback, reinvigorated by GM's $2b payoff, corporate parent Fiat believes that the Alfa Romeo brand is finally ready to launch its own US re-invasion. Initially, Alfa plans to sell and service a small range of vehicles through some of its 40 former American dealerships and most of Maserati's current US franchisees (recently liberated from the Fiat's Ferrari dealers). Fiat management refuses to commit to a timetable for the move, which has been postponed three times since 2003. Rumor has it we could see Alfas stateside by late '07. But is there a seat at the table for Alfa? Where does today's Alfa fit in the world's largest automotive marketplace?

3.2-liter V6 Brera: 'puro spirito Alfa' on GM's Epsilon platformThe American car scene has changed a great deal since the mid-90's. Generally speaking, American automotive consumers have divided into four distinct camps: truck-lovers, horsepower-mad pistonheads, reliability fanatics and mileage-seeking tree huggers. Whether it's 5000lbs. towing capacity, 500bhp, five-year warrantees or 50mpg, all four market slices are well-served by all the major manufactures; from Ford's sublime F150 and Explorer, to DCX' brawny behemoths, to Honda's legendary Accord, to Toyota's frugal Prius. If Alfa Romeo thinks it's in a position to compete with distinction in any of these categories, they may be about to proven wildly, sadly mistaken.

Alfa's press release promises Americans the Alfa 159, Brera and Spider. Judging from the lineup's sporting orientation, the company is taking aim at US automotive enthusiasts. Again, it's a crowded market filled with highly-skilled, deeply-entrenched competition. Honda, Mazda, Nissan, Pontiac and Saturn all offer sexy mid-market drop-tops. BMW's 3-Series owns the $30K sport sedans (where Alfa's Quadrofoglio once struggled). For more than a decade, Infiniti and Lexus have failed to knock the Bimmer off its perch. What hope does a newcomer have?

Alfa Spider and GTV, reborn at the '06 Geneva auto showAlfa may have a peerless racing pedigree, but Americans are notoriously uninterested in such things. If mainstream US buyers think Italian sports car– and that's a big "if"– they think Ferrari; followed, perhaps, by Maserati. Alfa's adrenalin-oriented image builders will have to start from scratch– with front-wheel-drive cars whose relatively small engines are not likely to tempt US power mongers. As for the reliability side of the equation…

Alfa's build quality, fit, and finish may have improved since their departure, but their cars will have to overcome a great deal of residual distrust. Many Americans have vivid memories of Alfas that fell apart mid-route and/or rusted into thin air. What's more, Alfa will be facing some of the world's best-built products (thank you Toyota) in a litigious country (God Bless America) that expects a long, comprehensive warranty (kudos Hyundai) and distinctly non-Italian levels of customer service (all hail Lexus). In short, Alfa will have zero wiggle room for excessive panel gaps, condescending or indifferent dealers and the odd failure to start– especially in the all important $20K-$40K segment.

The Alfa Romeo 8c Competizione concept car. As for the "green" angle, Alfa's decision to leave its econoboxes and diesels on the other side of the pond pretty much takes them out of the running in that category. In short, there's only one way the Italians can possibly hope to compete in the US. It's the same way Jaguar manages to stave off oblivion: style.

If anything is going to drive customer to Alfa, it's sex appeal. Alfa's management's decision to restrict its US dealers to the company's most comely performance cars is a tacit admission that Alfas will have to trade almost entirely on their looks. It's also no coincidence that Alfa's relaunch will coincide with the '07 debut of their elegant new GTV and Spider. (Eventually, Alfa Romeo will bring forth the drop-dead gorgeous 8C Competizione.) It sounds crazy, but it just might work. All of these cars possess enough easily-identifiable Italian flair to attract automotive alphas who want to stand out, or simply distance themselves from Bangled excess or Japanese invisibility.

In fact, America needs Alfa Romeo. A healthy infusion of Italian style could be just the thing to wake-up risk-aversive US and foreign car designers, to lead them away from their bland, cookie-cutter sheetmetal, to push them towards a more artful and dramatic aesthetic. In fact, were they alive (and kept away from each other's throats), I'm sure Henry Ford and Enzo Ferrari would welcome the competition.

[Gunnar Heinrich publishes <a xhref='http://www.automobilesdeluxe.blogspot.com'>automobilesdeluxe.blogspot.com</a>]

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