February 24, 2014 at 11:29 am

Alfa Romeo's U.S. return to start sales with a select few dealers

For now, the Alfa Romeo 4C, produced by Fiat SpA, will be the lone representative of Alfa's return to the American market. (Valentin Flauraud / Bloomberg)

Alfa Romeo is coming back to the U.S. — for real this time, according to parent company Fiat Chrysler Automobiles. But most of the dealers who were promised the Italian sports cars will not be getting them.

At least not this year.

Fiat Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne says Alfa’s return to America will begin with one model, the Alfa Romeo 4C, which will go on sale at the company’s Maserati dealerships by the end of June.

“We’re also going to allow the best-performing Fiat dealers to participate,” Marchionne told reporters during the North American International Auto Show in Detroit last month. “Those dealers know who they are. ... It’s really a question of efficacy in representing the Fiat brand. It’s simple dealer metrics.

Despite Marchionne’s comments, Fiat Chrysler spokesman Rick Deneau told The Detroit News that those Fiat dealers who will be getting Alfa Romeos this year have not been notified by the company.

“They have not been identified yet,” Deneau said, adding that the 4C is still slated to go on sale by the end of the second quarter.

Michael Golling hopes he will be one of the lucky ones. His family owns two Fiat stores — one in Birmingham, the other in Bloomfield Hills. Like most Fiat franchisees in this country, the Gollings were persuaded to open these stores partly by the promise that they would also be allowed to sell Alfa Romeos when the brand returned to the United States.

“That was a part of it, though the opportunity to sell Fiats was a major lure at the time,” he said. “We’re in the perfect spot for it in Birmingham. We’ve got Audi, Land Rover, Porsche and Mini on the same block. I think we could sell a lot of them. But we’re not guaranteed it.”

And Golling has been disappointed before.

Alfa Romeo was founded in 1910 and quickly established a reputation for manufacturing fast, sexy automobiles. But the Great Depression almost did the company in. It was saved by Benito Mussolini and became a state-owned enterprise until its acquisition by Fiat in 1986.

It has been 20 years since the iconic Italian marque — one made famous in this country by its starring role as Dustin Hoffman’s ride in the 1967 film “The Graduate” — retreated from an increasingly competitive U.S. market. And it has been 14 years since Alfa Romeo first vowed to return with a vengeance.

A delay in sales

So far, all that talk has translated into nothing but a handful of ultra-expensive 8Cs sold to the ultra-rich through Maserati dealerships.

It was not supposed to be this way.

Fiat was so keen to take control of a bankrupt Chrysler back in 2009 partly to gain access to the Auburn Hills automaker’s distribution network in the United States. To convince Chrysler franchisees to open standalone Fiat stores, Marchionne promised that they would also be able to sell Alfa Romeos when the brand returned to the United States with a full lineup of curvacious Italian rides.

That was supposed to happen in 2012.

Then 2013.

Now, Marchionne promises that Alfa Romeos will go on sale here in the next few months.

It will just be the one car for now: the 4C. The rest of the lineup, including the Giulia, Giulietta and an all-new Spider that is being co-developed with Mazda is now not due to arrive until 2015.

But what an eye-catching car it is.

The 2014 Alfa Romeo 4C is a tiny, lightweight sports car that oozes sex appeal. Its turbocharged inline four produces only about 240 horsepower, but since the car itself weighs less than 850 kilos that is enough to propel the 4C from zero to 60 in just 4.5 seconds, according to the folks at Car and Driver. And that from a car that is expected to cost less than $60,000.

“Mamma mia and holy mother of Gorgonzola,” the magazine gushed after putting an early version through its paces.

And a good thing, too, since analysts say the future of Alfa Romeo in the United States is riding on the 4C.

4C needs to wow

“It doesn’t matter how many they sell. What they need the 4C to do is attract attention,” said Stephanie Brinley of IHS Automotive. “It needs to make a statement.”

And that statement has to be followed up fast with the rest of the Alfa Romeo lineup, she added.

“The 2015 products really need to come in 2015,” she said. “Otherwise, they will lose momentum.”

And that momentum could be key to Marchionne’s strategy — not just for Alfa Romeo, but for the entire Fiat Chrysler enterprise.

As Fiat’s fortunes have faltered in the face of a stubborn downturn in the European car market, Marchionne has bet big on Alfa and the even more upmarket Maserati brand. Why? Because luxury vehicles are selling a lot better, and commanding much wider margins, than commodity vehicles such as the Fiat 500.

Marchionne’s plan for turning around the European side of his business calls for aggressive investment in Alfa Romeo and Maserati. He hopes to fill Fiat Chrysler’s sputtering Italian factories with these high-end vehicles and export to the United States and other strong markets.

“Bringing Alfa back to the United States has been a mission for him. But it feels like the plan hasn’t quite come together,” Brinley said, adding that the question now is whether there is room for another premium brand in the already crowded U.S. marketplace.

“We’ll have to see when they get here. We had gotten to the point where there were more brands than the market could support. I’m not sure that there is room for more brands now.”

Brinley expects Alfa Romeo to sell fewer than 500 4Cs this year. Its price pits it against some stiff competition, such as the Porsche Cayman and Corvette Stingray. But she expects Alfa to sell about 8,400 in 2015 when more Fiat dealers finally get a chance to sell the vehicle.

And she predicts Alfa as a whole will be able to sell about 28,000 vehicles in 2016.

That might not sound like a lot, but it is enough to make dealer’s like Golling eager for a piece of the action.

“The car is absolutely gorgeous,” he said. “I’d love to have the opportunity to sell it.”

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Michael Golling hopes he will be allowed to sell Alfa Romeos. His family ... (Daniel Mears / The Detroit News)