June 21, 2014 at 1:00 am

Q&Auto: Alfa Romeo CEO accelerates U.S. strategy

Henry Payne / The Detroit News)

In the next five years Fiat-Chrysler aims to double Jeep sales, re-establish Chrysler as a full-line seller of sedans and SUVs, re-create Dodge as a performance brand, and put a man on Mars (just kidding about that last one). But perhaps CEO and mad genius Sergio Marchionne’s most ambitious goal is to establish Alfa Romeo as a premium luxury carmaker competing against the likes of BMW, Audi, and Mercedes in the hyper-competitive U.S. market and beyond.

To take on this Herculean task, he tapped Chief Technical Officer for Fiat and CEO of Maserati and Abarth, Harald Wester, and respected Pininfarina designer Lorenzo Ramaciotti.

While Ramaciotti designs Alfa’s unique look, Wester’s job is to manage the introduction of eight — yes, eight — new luxury products in five years. This from a brand that currently only sells two compact models in Europe. Wester’s task is the watchmaker’s equivalent of wrestling market share from Rolex with Swatch.

But Alfa is hardly a trendy product and Wester is hardly a novice. Alfa is one of the world’s most legendary auto names — a marque once synonymous with luxury performance. And the German-born Wester was previously a product manager for Audi and Ferrari. Marchionne and Wester believe they have the know-how to return Alfa to its former glory.

After chasing the 56-year old Wester across Northern California in Alfa’s first American entry — the sensational 4C sports car — I finally caught up with him to talk Alfas, American drivers, and the death of manual transmissions.

Q: You’ve seen other brands — Lexus, Acura, Infiniti — launch their luxury brands in the U.S. Is America the key to Alfa’s rebirth?

Wester: The U.S. is the focus and the most important market. I would say the U.S. is the center of gravity for Alfa. We are counting on global sales by 2018 of 400,000 and the U.S. should account for more than a third.

Q: What does Alfa’s ambitious strategy look like in five years?

Wester: Why do we believe? Alfa is one of the best brands in this industry. It has dominated racing for a century. And then it got somewhat lost. They forget what the brand stood for. The work we have done over the last ten years with Maserati — the lessons learned is product first. We have the concept. We have the people. We have the team. We pulled it on purpose out of the big machine. As you can imagine in such a big machine, the pressure to ally is huge. We will put their experience into our platform. Its rear wheel driven. We have dedicated, Alfa-only, high-tech engines and powertrains. They all will be perfectly balanced front and rear. We will provide best-in-class power-to-weight ratios and design distinctive Italian-styled cars.

Q: Is Alfa’s strategy similar to Porsche? Do you launch the 4C to define a brand that can make SUVs sporty just as 911 did for Porsche?

Wester: Somewhat, yes. But the 911 is 50 years of evolution. The 4C is what Alfa really stands for. It’s an appetizer of all the stuff that’s going to come.

Q: This is the first sub-$100,000 car made with a carbon-fiber chassis. Are we going to see that in other Alfas?

Wester: Maybe not on a midsize or full-size sedan or crossovers, but part of the plan is for Alfa specialties and I wouldn’t exclude it.

Q: The 4C has no manual transmission. Why not?

Wester: It’s technology driven. It’s due to the carbon fiber monocoque and the mid-engine layout: It would have been very tricky to make a decent layout for a hand shifter. I don’t want to teach our customers what they like but (twin-clutch transmissions) are much more modern, much quicker, and more emotional. In the real sports car scene, manual is outdated.

Q: Is the 4C evidence that manual is the past?

Wester: The U.S. is the only remaining sport car market for manuals. In other markets people want twin clutches and the quickest shifting gearboxes. No one wants to shift anymore.

Q: Do you have plans for an Alfa racing program?

Wester: I cannot confirm anything. Alfa has won everything in the past — Mille Miglia, Formula One. . . .

Q: Alfa’s image in the U.S. is inevitably linked with “The Graduate” movie. Should the 4C be compared to the 1967 Alfa Romeo Spyder Duetto in that film?

Wester: It’s at least as iconic. If there is someone in Hollywood who wants to do something with the car, they are welcome. I was really surprised when I looked into the numbers and the history. The numbers have never been high. Alfa never sold more than 8,200 here and only in one year did the Duetto not make more than 50 percent of sales.

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at hpayne@detroitnews.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne.