Paul Horrell20 March 2014

What’s next for Alfa’s new 'MX-5'?

Well, it might not end up as an Alfa at all… Paul Horrell reports on the future for the troubled Italian marque

So, the 'Alfa MX-5' might end up not an Alfa at all. It was May 2012 when Mazda and the Fiat Group announced that by the end of 2015 there would be an Alfa Romeo version, built by Mazda, of the next MX-5. It was to have an Alfa engine too.

But Fiat Group boss Sergio Marchionne recently answered Top Gear's question about it like this: "I remain committed to that architecture, with our powertrain. I'm not sure if it will be with Alfa. But it will be one of our brands."

Well if the car is to launch in the announced timeframe, he'd better make his mind up sharpish. The design freeze for such a car has to occur round about now if it's to launch in 21 months. The Mazda will be shown before the end of this year, so its design is already set in stone. The Fiat Group version is supposed to have somewhat different design.

If it was drawn as an Alfa, it'd be a heresy to stick Abarth or Fiat - or even Dodge or Chrysler - badges onto it. (Unless, of course, it's just a very mildly altered Mazda, in which case an extra stage of badge engineering is immaterial except in adding insult to injury.) In fact Marchionne has said several designs have been drawn up, with several brands in mind. But even so, it's getting very late.

Why the indecision? Because a much wider re-think of Alfa's destiny is going on. The resulting compete new strategy is due to be announced on 6 May. If a small roadster doesn't fit into the new Alfa plan, well it'll be bestowed onto one of the other brands.

And heck, Alfa needs a plan. It has become an irrelevant minnow in the posh sporty field that, in postwar years, it dominated. In the past four years, Alfa's sales have steadily declined, to fewer than 100,000 cars a year. Over the same period, Audi's annual growth has exceeded Alfa's annual total: Audi now sells 1.5 million cars a year.

Alfa really has just two models: the elderly MiTo three-door and the five-door Giuletta. By contrast Audi has, in the Giulietta size-segment alone, the A3 in 3dr, Sportback and saloon forms, and the A3 cabrio, and the Q3 and the TT.

The 4C, I'm afraid, means nothing to Alfa in the wider context; it means as much as a booster of sales and indicator of overall competence as the Ford GT did on your decision whether or not to buy a Focus diesel. I'd have more confidence in Alfa's engineers if the Cloverleaf versions of the MiTo and Giulietta were anything like class-leading hot-hatches.

Alfa, then, is in a hole. To be fair, Marchionne knows it. He says there have been mistakes. "We will convince you we have learned. We have been working diligently on a plan for Alfa. It's a huge amount of work. A complete re-think of what we've done so far." Marchionne says there will be new technical solutions, including world-first uses of new technologies from outside suppliers. "They are making a big commitment."

He sure has thrown the old plan away: in the annual report for 2013, Fiat wrote down €175 million (£150m) in "repositioning the Alfa brand and rationalisation of architectures associated with new product strategy." In other words it blew through £150m on part-developing cars it will never launch, then thought better of it and "switched to new platforms considered technologically more appropriate."

Until 6 May, everyone at Alfa is tight-lipped about that plan, and hence the refusal to make the call about the Mazda co-operation.

At least Marchionne has a clear idea of what Alfa means. "Historically Alfas were incredibly light, incredibly good-looking, incredibly powerful. We need to find a way to make all those things relevant again."

Mind you he also said, "One of the issues is Alfa never had to my knowledge a front-drive architecture." His knowledge clearly doesn't run to the Alfasud, which - albeit staggeringly prone to decay - was astoundingly well-respected and loved in its day.

He is equally sure the new Alfas can't be made in Chrysler plants, or in Fiat's excellent factory in Poland. "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. I will no longer be CEO of this house when Alfa looks for production sites outside Italy." He looks sharply at me and adds that we should exempt the Mazda-based roadster from that assertion. That might be an Alfa, might not, but all other Alfas will be made in Italy. "The new architectures and powertrains need to go back to their ethnic roots."

A recap: the previous now-abandoned plan went like this: spin a bigger 159-replacing saloon off the Dodge Dart (a platform that was itself grown off the Giulietta). And a crossover similarly. Then larger saloons and a spider off the Chrysler 300/Dodge Challenger rear-drive underpinnings. It now seems the Chrysler platforms aren't deemed modern enough, and the Giulietta platform not rear-drive enough.

More detail than that, we do not have. We must wait until 6 May. Making that plan must be hard. But nowhere near as hard as executing it. If it succeeds, it'll be one of the biggest and most ambitious turnarounds in the entire history of car companies.

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