By on February 10, 2011

Chrysler and Fiat CEO Sergio Marchionne has given Forbes’ Joann Muller what I believe to be one of his best interviews since arriving on the US scene. In it, Sergio dishes on everything from the bailout (“I risked everything – I got 35 percent of something that was worth nothing”), to Chrysler’s 2011 sales target (“a very, very tough uphill battle”), to its new product

I couldn’t have done more from a product standpoint than I’ve done. I mean you know, I tried every trick in the book that I knew and I invented some, but you know, 16 products in 12 months – at least that part of it was a record. The rest of it is to be proven.

But the strangest revelation from Sergio is that Alfa Romeo’s future success will be, in a manner of speaking, “Imported from Detroit.” Read the whole thing over at Forbes, or hit the jump for Sergio’s vision for his red-blooded Italian brand.

Look, I’ve been in this business now – in Fiat — for seven years. Every time I talk to somebody they tell me, you know, Alfa is just a wonderful brand. Well, Alfa’s been a money loser inside Fiat now since I’ve been around. They’re exactly the opposite of what we are institutionally; they over-promise and under-deliver every year. And the problem is it’s a great brand with a long history. I’m not sure if it ever really made any money. Even before Fiat ownership I’m not sure it was a great deal. But it always had this sexy – it raced Formula One — I mean it’s got this incredible appeal which goes back, you know, to the time they used to be on the racetrack, and it’s the embodiment of a lot of things which are typically Italian; sportiness, lightweight, and everything else. And what happened is that when Fiat bought them back in the end of ’86 we Fiatized Alfa. Fiat was front-wheel drive; Alfa was rear wheel drive. So now all the Alfas are front-wheel drive. And we put Fiat engines inside the Alfas, and Alfa started losing more and more of its DNA as a car company.

And of all the things that we had to play with since 2004, you know, I kept saying if I can get to 300,000 vehicles I’ll be happy because it’s a re-launch of the brand. We were selling over 100,000 cars in Europe. We have done two significant things since then; we’ve launched the Mito, which is a B segment car. And then we launched the Julietta, the C segment car last year. These are true Alfas, both of them. I mean they have the right engines, the handling, everything else. The real opportunity for us is to try and take this architectural development that we’ve done in the U.S. with the C-segment Dodge sedan coming out next year and using that basic architecture to develop the next evolution of Alfa Romeo and really turn it into a global brand.

We need Chrysler to get that done because we need to share the cost of development of an architecture with them. So without Chrysler, to be honest, Alfa Romeo would have been a nearly impossible task because the cost…would have been prohibitive. So we had to find a partner to do it with. We could have found it over time but the fact that we had access to Chrysler; it benefited Chrysler tremendously because they could also reduce the cost of the investment, but we needed a guy to do it with and Chrysler is the guy. And so the future is pretty good. Strangely enough, I actually think that Alfa will have, at least initially, will have a better success story in the U.S. than it will in Europe. Simply because – I’ll tell you why, because a lot of people know Alfa here in the U.S. because of “The Graduate.” But there’s a history there which I think we need to go revive, and I think we can come back into Europe and play a much stronger hand in Europe once we have an established U.S. base.

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36 Comments on “Alfa Romeo: “Imported From Detroit”?...”

  • avatar

    Wow. Just wow. Why do we listen to this guy? Because of the chain smoking and sweaters? Seriously. Alan Mulally actually presents a coherent plan for his company. Carlos Ghosn too. So why does Sergio get a pass, along with the keys to one of America’s most storied automakers, with nothing really backing him up besides some derogatory comments and rather obvious misconceptions about the American market?
    As much as I want Chrysler, Alfa, and (yes, even) Fiat to succeed in the American market, he gives me less and less confidence as to that every day.

    • 0 avatar

      Considering that Chrysler has become profitable — and the quality of their vehicles has improved — since the Fiat deal was finalized, perhaps your lack of confidence is premature?

      Besides, his successful efforts to turn Fiat around are well known in the automotive industry, so it would seem that he has a lot more than mere comments to back him up.

  • avatar

    The Graduate – a 44-year-old movie?!  You’re banking on that dim memory to ensure the success of Alfa’s US return?!
    How about reliability, value, performance, and support as real keys to success?  Emotion only gets a carmaker so far, then there’s gotta be substance.

    And there’s something unsettling about mentioning “Dodge” and “Alfa” and “global brand” all in the same sentence.

    • 0 avatar
      John Horner

      Alfa renamed the Spyder “The Graduate”, so I’m pretty sure it is the vehicle he is talking about.

    • 0 avatar

      Wikipedia says the car was an entry-level version of the Spider, and was named after its appearance in the movie of the same name.  I didn’t know any of this.

      I haven’t seen the film (was 4 at the time), and Alfa’s been gone so long I barely remember most of their US cars.

    • 0 avatar

      Gslippy:  Go see the movie, it is a classic.  Alfa’s used to be very ahead of their time technologically speaking, be it fuel injection, disc brakes, first use of variable valve timing in the US (’84 Spider I believe).  Fantastic history, beautiful cars. 

    • 0 avatar

      Seriously, John?  Please tell us you’re joking.
      gslippy, you are correct. He’s talking about the movie, and it is ridiculous.

  • avatar

    “I risked everything – I got 35 percent of something that was worth nothing”

    This dude has a lot of Chutz pah, he paid SFA for Cryslur.
    No difference than u take over some toxic mortgage, u buy( inherited the deed, title )  the house/bldg for a dollar, u do have to assume the duty of keep making payments, should market turn around u gain with nothing down. Ofcourse the mortgage payment will be on your neck.
    U do have control of how many, well the cars being built though, if u keep building Garbage, then God help u. Should u improve the quality your cars will sells like hot cakes too. IE the mini & Dodge Neon share the same block not sure how much shared components inside, but Minis sold like hot cakes, whereas Neon was so so, not exactly flying off the shelf.
    To revive Alfa & FIAT in N America, I really cant put a wager on it, perhaps 2000 to 1 odds, not even Jimmy The Greek Snyder will want to bookie the bet.
    If i were Sergio, I would just build up Cryslur, if u give Corlolla quality, u aint going to lose. Just like good old Ayatolla/Iacocca did with the K cars, magic wagens.
    When u introduce a new brand people will wonder what exactly will it do. Plus many folks got burned are still around, unlike the Great Depression crowds many have bought the farm already.

  • avatar

    It is good to see Sergio being so enthusiastic about the Dodge brand.

  • avatar
    John Horner

    All he is saying is that platforms need to hit certain minimum volumes before they are globally competitive. Look at how many vehicles VW, Honda or even Nissan/Renault build off one basic platform to get the idea.

  • avatar

    Wow, did someone slip Sergio some sodium pentathol?  That’s as an accurate assessment of Alfa as you could ask for from anyone.  Though I don’t buy the 35 percent of nothing complaint, if he’s going to use Chrysler to develop the platform that gets Alfa off the bottom he’s gotten quite a lot more than 35 percent of nothing

  • avatar

    Come on. Give the guy a break.  We’re talking Chrysler here.  He didnt create this Mopar mess.  He is about as well off as the guy that relieved Captain Smith of the Titanic for the night watch.  The alternative was to sell Chrysler off by the pound.

  • avatar

    Reviving Alfa is as making sense as the other dude namely FIAT ex-executive who is going to transform De Tomaso into  newly SUV.
    I wanna to get a hold of their wacky tobacky too when I need to dissociate from the harsh reality.

  • avatar

    I’ll be in line for the C segment Alfa.  Its to old story of one person tells 5, those 5 tell 25 more, etc etc.
    There are still plenty of us Alfisti around after all these years.
    Blowfish:  Check out “Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing”.

    • 0 avatar

      I guess I would be one f those Alfisti still waiting for my new Alfa to arrive.
      I’m not totally sold on a Dodge based Alfa. They tend to be heavy and slow. But if it’s a ground up redesign with both markets planned from the beginning it might work. But they better put an Italian engine in it. I wont be showing up to buy an Alfa with a Hemi in it.
      I think he is a little detached with the American market and customer if he thinks “The Graduate” is going to help bring Alfa’s back to the U.S. He should go and see how well that worked for Volvo when they tried to use “The Saint.”
      If it were up to me I would advertise on Alfa’s early race history, innovation, and sexy design. And then produce a car that can actually prove it deserves to compete with the ultimate driving machine.

  • avatar

    Personally, I never cared for “The Graduate”, so I can’t buy an Alfa/Chrysler anymore? What’s next?

  • avatar
    Educator(of teachers)Dan

    Hand to God, I think he’s right.  Let’s stop for a minute here and consider what sort of company Chrysler was during the “good times” in its history.  (Styling triumphs of the 50s, technological inovations of the 60s, hell they ever tried primitive computer controls “Lean Burn” before anybody else, torsion bars, and the K-car was a decent idea combined with awesome marketing, cab forward… ect.)  Diamler robbed the company and left it for dead… nobody wanted to help… stuck their noses in air… (remind you of a biblical story?)  Fiat and Marchionne were the good samaritan who saw value in helping. 

    Wow I’m reading too much into this, it’s late, I’m going to bed. 

    • 0 avatar

      They were also the first of the Big Three to full embrace unitized construction, way back in 1960.  Mopar was always a little different, and they seemed to do the worst when they tried to chase/beat GM and Ford (i.e. the mistakenly downsized ’62s, the late-to-the-party ’70 Challenger, etc).  They did have a reputation as “the engineering company” thanks to the torsion bars and push buttons, not to mention some of their non-automotive endeavors.  But their disastrous ride through the seventies pretty much ruined that.  They did manage to pull the K-car and minivan out of thin air, though (thanks to a little help from a lot of ex-Ford talent).
      Oddly enough, it’s scrappy AMC that helped lead Chrysler’s ’90s product revival.  AMC’s unique platform team approach to engineering under Francois Castaing was very effective at developing vehicles with minimal resources.  The group was responsible for the ’84 XJ Cherokee, the original ZJ Grand Cherokee (which was essentially complete at the time of the Chrysler buyout in ’87) and the Eagle Premier, which would become the basis of the LH cars.  This approach was so successful that Chrysler completely scrapped its own engineering operations, put Castaing in charge and instituted the AMC product development system.
      As a result, Chrysler greatly cut down on product lead time and management bureaucracy.  They also had a stunning product lineup by 1995.  Lutz liked to brag that Chrysler was the lowest-cost auto manufacturer in the business at the time of the merger.  Too bad Bob Eaton and Daimler had to come around and screw all that up.

  • avatar

    Maybe I’m alone in this, but I’m really impressed by Marchionne.  I can’t remember the last time I saw an auto executive be so candid and so engaged in product development.  And don’t say Lutz; his was a career based entirely on smoke and mirrors – an endless string of hyped-up, underperforming vehicles.
    Best quote, on the Grand Cherokee being supposedly based on a Mercedes platform:  “You know what, if I called the head of product development here and you told him it was a Mercedes, he would just kill you.”  Moreover, he wants to build a Maserati out of the GC:  “For the same reason that Porsche sold the Cayenne…Look, that Grand Cherokee platform deserves a Ferrari engine.  It’s that good of an architecture.”  Come on, if a Ferarri-engined Jeep isn’t full of win, I don’t know what is.
    This company hasn’t had this much potential since before Daimler bought it.  Look at how well the Renault-Nissan alliance has worked out under Ghosn.  And I think the Fiat-Chrysler tieup is actually a stronger one, because of the complete lack of market overlap; Chrysler needs small cars and Fiat needs big cars, etc.  Fiat’s shown a strong turnaround under Marchionne (don’t forget, prior to Sergio showing up, Fiat tried to unload the car business on then-partner General Motors, who eventually handed over $2 billion to not buy Fiat).  I think they’ve got to talent and desire to turn Chrysler around.  And if they keep rolling out improved products, the sales will really pick up.  For all the talk about how GM is “back,” their current lineup is unremarkable, and the new product cadence is crap…GM management is as intellectually bankrupt as ever.
    Even if Chrysler fails, Sergio’s mouth and ego will at least make it an interesting ride.

  • avatar

    Come on, if a Ferarri-engined Jeep isn’t full of win, I don’t know what is.
    It had been done called Jerrari, when Late Mr. Bill Harrah decidedly his jeep didnt have enuf Chutz pah to lay rubber, he did dropped a V12 in it.
    I was told folks dropped a V10 viper snake engine into a J too to race up Pikes peak.

    Fiat tried to unload the car business on then-partner General Motors, who eventually handed over $2 billion to not buy Fiat
    I would not exactly say that was a bad deal! U know how many metals on has to move inorder to net 2 bil?

    Selling Alfa perhaps a bit off focused, I do agree Sergio is a pretty sharp cookie.
    That brand does not command the same presence as a Bugatti.
    If he has to re-surrect perhaps Lancia maybe more suitable, atleast it had not been on this shore since the 60s.  Most Alfas were temperamental, those SPICA fuel injections were as reliable as the Lucas electrical , his Royal Highness Prinz Darkness.
    If he can build reliable cars, one doesnt need to have so many brands.

  • avatar

    Heck with alfa.  Bring back DeSoto and Plymouth

  • avatar

    What does he mean by Chrysler’s C-segment infratstructure? If that’s the 200/Sebring segment I don’t like the prospect of Alfa’s being build on Chrysler platforms at all. Don’t see how it’s different than building them on FIAT platforms.

    So I suppose he means the RWD 300 platform?

    • 0 avatar

      It is my understanding that a new C segment car to replace the Sebring/200 is due in 2 years.  The new 200 is just field surgery.

    • 0 avatar

      Right, in Europe the Sebring/200 would be classified as a D-segment car so I was confused. Still, will the next ‘200’ be RWD then, cause otherwise it still doesn’t address the glaring problem of not having RWD.

  • avatar

    to the time they used to be on the racetrack

    And while you are at it Sergio, restart the Alfa racing team would ya?  Do words like Autodelta, Nuvolari, Tipo 159, mean anything to you?  You are Italian right?  Alfa has always been about racing. Where do you think Enzo Ferrari learned the trade?

  • avatar

    The new C architecture is the same that Fiat just rolled out with the Giulietta.  I have read that the new dodge will be an enlarged version of C architecture and to be used for the upcoming Giulia.  We are talking FIAT design and technology, Chrysler modified for North America and assembled by Chrysler.  Fian can then use the same assembly line for an Alfa version, presumably Giulia. Same underpinnings but very different from the Dodge

  • avatar

    Keep in mind, folks, that hardly anyone remembered the original Minis when the current one was introduced. It took an impressive marketing campaign, not to mention a product that hit its target spot-on, to get it off the ground. Having the BMW support infrastructure didn’t hurt, and the Chrysler network is not a bad place to start from, either. Much better than the nothing they had last time around.

    No one has to remember “The Graduate.” All you have to do make people associate the new cars with other well-known Italian products, and not just their Ferrari and Maserati relatives. They’ve done an excellent job with the Fiat 500 and recent Alfas getting the Italian personality back into the designs. If the quality and support are decent, I see no problem carving out a market niche here.

  • avatar

    If Sergio wants to sell 300,000 Alfas, he’ll have to produce 285,000 staid sedans that trade off the style, handling and performance of 15,000 halo roadsters and coupes.

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