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Opinion: will Alfa Romeo’s big 2018 masterplan succeed?
We’ve seen the 503bhp Giulia, but will anyone actually buy it? Paul Horrell investigates
So we’ve been shown the firework-hot version of the new Alfa Giulia. Its convincing looks are backed up by an equally convincing spec that begins with a horsepower number on the exciting side of 500. A good start to a revival.
And when we put it on the internet last night, you topgear.commers went mad. This place lit up with hits and comments. Another good sign.
But are enough people around the world actually ready to open their bank accounts and buy an Alfa? I’m not just talking about this rather rare-groove and expensive Giulia Quadrifoglio, but a whole range of Giulias and other cars and crossovers. They’re supposed to take substantial chunks of business from the big-sellers from BMW, Audi et al. Can they?
Alfa’s plan doesn’t lack ambition. It means at least six cars by 2018, all (except the Alfa 4C) based on the Giulia’s new platform.
There has been speculation that platform is not all-new, but related to Maserati’s or Chrysler’s. I asked Harald Wester, the chief executive.
“It’s 100 percent new. Body and suspension. All our engines will be new and just for Alfa, though they will be made in the same factory as others [other Fiat and Chrysler Group engines] so they do share some basic engine dimensions.”
The Giulia will be part of a range of cars and crossovers. That doesn’t come cheap. “We are spending €5 billion on the structure,” Wester told me. “That means the factories and developing the cars.”
The cars in question will start with the Giulia, which is the size of a 3-Series or Jaguar XE. By the end of 2018 there will also be another saloon one size bigger: think 5-Series or XF.
There will be another body variation from these, but an estate isn’t a priority because they sell well only in a few parts of Europe and nowhere else, Wester says.
Importantly there will be two sporty crossovers, because that market is growing like crazy.
The current FWD Giulietta will be replaced, and that too will be on the same rear-drive/AWD architecture as the Giulia and others. Think about that: a RWD compact Alfa hatch at a time when even its BMW rival is going into front-drive.
And there will be a style-led coupe too, because people expect that as an Alfa core skill.
That line-up will have a full range of engines: four-cylinder and V6 petrols, all with turbos, in various ouputs from about 150bhp to over 500. And four-cylinder and V6 diesels. Hybrids aren’t on the immediate roadmap.
The cars are light – a basic Giulia will be 1400kg, Wester says. All Alfas will have a carbon fibre propshaft, and aluminium doors and wings and suspension, says Wester, even though they won’t get the Giulia Quadrifoglio’s carbon fibre roof and bonnet.
Wester’s plan indicates Alfa will be selling cars at the rate of 400,000 a year by the end of 2018. Let’s put that in context. BMW and Audi will probably be doing not far short of 2 million a year by then.
If you take the core BMWs that Alfa is aiming at (1-Series hatch, 3- and 5-Series saloons, X1, X3, 4-Series), that probably accounts for a million BMWs a year. Alfa wants to get to 40 percent of its rival’s sales from pretty well a standing start.
It’s a huge ask. For a start Alfa needs a global dealer network. Having links with Chrysler will help, but actually Wester expects many US dealers to be new, just as they were with Fiat when the 500 went on sale there. China will also get new dealers.
But there’s the question of brand awareness. Wester claims huge on-line awareness, and the topgear.com response bears it out. Alfa was once among the two or three greatest car-makers on the planet – imagine today’s McLaren and Rolls-Royce combined and you wouldn’t be far off. But that was the 1930s.
In the 1960s it changed position to sell a lot more cars rather more cheaply. But they were about the best-engineered and sportiest cars normal people could buy: Alfa was better-regarded then than BMW is now.
After that it was all pretty much downhill for Alfa. Bankruptcy, a takeover by Fiat, years of struggle, neglect. The odd sign of hope, but really it was mostly broken promises.
And yet Wester has built his revival plan on the belief that people still know and love Alfa and can’t wait to buy one. He says this is true in Europe and also America, where Alfa was absent for decades and was never big.
And even in China, Wester says, “People are very receptive to European luxury and to Italian-ness. They are open to new things.” He gestures at the car: “They will fall in love.”
Wester has another job, running Maserati, and that too has grown rapidly from a low base by leveraging the romance of its name and providing an Italian stylish alternative to colder German machinery.
But it’s one thing for people to know Alfa, quite another to buy one, I say.
He answers: “The market size is huge in these sectors, and it’s dominated by a couple of brands. There is loyalty to those brands but there’s a limit after many years, when you give those buyers an exciting new stimulant. There’s no mathematical equation to how many we’ll sell, but the probability is high.”
I say that people loved the Jaguar brand too, and the XF was a credible car when it launched, but it didn’t make much of a dent on the 5-Series.
“I don’t want to disrespect it, but the Jaguar brand isn’t on the same level of the podium,” Wester answers. “The Alfa name is like Ferrari.”
At the same time, Wester is acutely aware of Alfa’s previous broken promises. “If people come to you from the established brands, if you then disappoint them [his voice hardens] they will never come back. The 159 was an example. It had the aesthetic potential but in performance and quality, not.”
Right then. The crux of the matter. Will the cars be any good? They have been engineered by a ‘skunk works’, a group of engineers put into an old bus factory, kept well away from the sclerotic processes and constraints of the big car company. There’s purposefully very little synergy with the rest of the Fiat Chrysler Group because the cars are meant to be very different.
Wester says they will be unique because of how alive they feel to drive. “It’s extremely difficult to describe or put into figures,” he says.
So he defaults to talking about what Alfas will not be. “In the current premium cars you are cocooned - the steering is light, there’s little feedback from the road. It’s like you’re driving by-wire.”
Alfas will make you feel “part of the machine,” he says, before quickly adding, in case he’s alienating someone, “but not uncomfortable.” Ah well, we’ll just have to see. We will get to drive the Giulia towards the end of the year.
Why so long until it goes on sale? Because they wanted to show it yesterday, exactly the 105th anniversary of the founding of Alfa, and the day they re-opened their restored museum, which is chockablock with epic historical machinery.
But of course the delay until UK sales next year is nothing compared with the many many years of delay and reversals over replacing the 159. A Giulia was planned on the front-drive Giulietta architecture about eight years ago. Then that plan was binned when the financial crisis hit and Fiat bought Chrysler.
Next came a plan to relaunch Alfa out of Chrysler, using the RWD platform of the Chrysler 300 and Dodge Challenger/Charger. But that didn’t work either. The cars simply wouldn’t have been good enough. One suspects in the past Fiat’s top management would have blundered on anyway.
But this time they invested properly in this all-new platform. Speaking at the Giulia’s launch, Fiat-Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne said that this was the first time the group had available the necessary money, the access to the necessary technology, and the necessary footprint to distribute the cars. That’s why they had waited until now, he said. This investment is the sensible business decision, he told us, and it will make money.
And then Marchionne invoked the great moments of the brand’s 105 years of history, and the historical figures responsible. “Giving a voice to the real Alfa Romeo was a moral imperative,” he stated.
You don’t often hear that sort of emotional talk at car launches. But there was plenty of it around the Giulia. Even so, dewy-eyed optimism isn’t enough on its own. They have to be brilliant cars, brilliantly made and marketed. There’s absolutely no room for error.