Big on aims, but frustratingly thin on declarations of detail, Alfa Romeo's CEO Harald Wester today revealed his plan to transform the Italian company. He promises his cars will go face to face with the Germans by 2018. "They will be benchmarked against the best the German industry has to offer," we're told.
The plan means the MiTo will be dropped and not replaced. Also, the planned co-operation car with Mazda based on the next MX-5 will no longer be an Alfa, but re-styled and re-branded a Fiat.
What Alfa will get, late next year, is its long-delayed mid-sized sporting saloon. That's the vital 3-Series rival. A second body-style - swoopy estate, we think - will launch the following year. There will also be a full-size rear-drive saloon - think 5-Series rival - before 2018. Those cars will all share a brand-new RWD/AWD components matrix.
By 2018 we will also see a Giulietta successor, Wester's plan promises. That also comes in two body styles - five-door hatch and, most likely, saloon or coupe. Sources tell us that they'll use the existing FWD architecture.
Crossovers are vital to any aspiring premium company these days, and Alfa will have two by 2018. We understand the smaller of them is a Giulietta relative, while the larger will sit on Alfa's new RWD/AWD underpinnings.
Finally, a 'specialist car'. We think this will be a large rear-drive front-engined Spider.
The new-era Alfas, Wester said, will have five critical characteristics.
First, advanced and innovative engines. Fair enough: the company launched MultiAir, and the 4C's engine is top-notch technically. For the new range of cars, he's talking about over 500bhp at the peak of the range. It goes like this: there will be a small four-cylinder petrol (around 1.4-litre) engine making 110-180bhp, and then a 1.8 four making 170-320bhp. Finally a 2.7-litre six-cylinder derivative of that, capable of 500+bhp. Diesels will be four and six cylinders, making 110-350bhp.
The cars will be light, too. Another of Wester's five tenets is that Alfas will have class-best power-to-weight ratios.
Third, that weight will be distributed front:rear equally. Now this is interesting. Wester doesn't mention that RWD is an absolute requirement, but without it nose-heaviness is almost inevitable. Also, Wester's boss, Fiat-Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne, said recently: "One of the issues is Alfa never had to my knowledge a front-drive architecture."
Number four. Wester says the vehicles will embody ‘unique technical solutions'. Marchionne said the firm's suppliers will be involved in this effort, giving their new inventions to Alfa first.
The fifth plank of his strategy is ‘groundbreaking and distinctively Italian design'. Yup, there's enough talent in the company to do this.
In fact, Italy figures strongly in the plan, because again Marchionne himself said, "Alfa Romeos have to be produced in Italy with an Italian powertrain. Some things belong to a place. Alfa belongs to Italy. As Ferrari and Maserati do."
At which point, any reader with a memory will interject that we've had a lot of plans from Alfa bosses before, and the brand has still withered tragically. Wester was speaking at a conference for investment analysts, the people who put money into Fiat Chrysler shares. Marchionne was there as Wester spoke. In that company, Wester said his plan is costed at €5 billion (£4.1 billion) and that the plan is ‘protected and funded by senior leadership'.
Wester said it was impossible to re-think Alfa from inside the normal Fiat Group engineering and design centres. So he's recruited what he calls a ‘skunkworks' to get the plan in place. The team is led by two senior managers pulled over from Ferrari. By the end of 2015 they'll have 600 engineers, recruited from inside and outside the group. They've got their own building and all.
Already they've done a lot of secret experimental engineering. They've been given tight deadlines, and empowered to get on with it, free of the need to keep justifying themselves upward.
It's worth pointing out that the BMW i3 and i8 were done in the same way, outside BMW's normal R&D operation. Conventional car industry engineering centres have a habit of sticking to their past methods and habits.
They've been told to develop a new world-class rear-drive/AWD architecture, for cars to be sold across the world (at the moment only the 4C sells in the US). This architecture is supposed to be capable of going from C-segment to full-size. But we understand from separate sources that the Giulietta replacement will remain on the - decently modern - front-drive platform it uses now.
Result of all this, says Wester, is that Alfa's sales will grow from 74,000 last year to 400,000 a year by 2018.
This is gonna be hard. Alfa is talking about eight cars by 2018. They certainly don't count as full premium-market coverage - not by the standards of the Germans' enormous ranges. Take the eight cars in this new Alfa range, and see how many of the direct competitors BMW or Audi sells.
In other words, subtract from BMW's or Audi's total sales all the Minis and A1s and big crossovers and coupes and other stuff Alfa won't be targeting, and you'd probably have around about a million each of Audis or BMWs.
In Europe, Alfa has a shaky reputation. In the US it's moribund, only just returning and with no established dealers. In China (where BMW and Audi sell huge numbers) it's unheard-of.
Yet Wester thinks that, for comparable market coverage, Alfa can sell 40 percent of what BMW or Audi sells, with all their dealer coverage and deep-rooted reputations. That's what you call sticking your neck out. Even better-established Jaguar, also launching a smaller car and an SUV soon, isn't being that punchy with its predictions...