Alfa Romeo U.S. return under way

Michael Wayland
The Detroit News

Los Angeles – Alfa Romeo’s return to the U.S. is on track and under way, according to CEO Harald Wester.

Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV last week shipped about 50 of the Italian luxury brand’s niche 4C sports cars to North America. The cars are now arriving in dealerships, marking the first time since the mid-’90s that Americans can see Alfa Romeos in showrooms.

“Time of talking is over,” Wester, who also is FCA chief technology officer and head of Maserati, told reporters this week during the Los Angeles Auto Show. “We will present product after product.”

Under a $6.5 billion investment plan for Alfa Romeo, FCA plans to introduce eight new vehicles by 2018 and increase sales more than fivefold to 400,000 vehicles globally, including going from roughly nothing to 150,000 in North America.

But don’t expect to just go to one of the 82 U.S. dealerships, including five in Michigan, and pick one up immediately. Reid Bigland, Alfa Romeo head of North America, said dealers have been ordered to stop taking orders because the demand is “significantly in excess” of what FCA can currently provide.

“We have shut off taking any kind of deposits, VIP lists or anything like that,” Bigland said. “It’s just getting too unwieldy.”

Wester said in Europe, where the 4C went on sale a year ago, there is an 18-month waiting list.

And while it’s taken two decades for its return, Bigland said FCA is committed to making it a triumphant return by “keeping the product pure.”

“The keys to success is staying true to what the Alfa Romeo brand is — staying true to the technology, the performance and the styling. And not compromising on those,” he said, stressing the new cars are at the epicenter of the plan.

To accomplish that task, Wester said FCA has added 600 Alfa Romeo-specific engineers in Italy.

Wester said Fiat SpA, which was Chrysler Group LLC’s former parent company before merging into FCA in October, ultimately was responsible for the brand’s downfall in recent decades by “completely neglecting the DNA of the brand.”

The next new car will be shown next June during a celebration to mark the 105th anniversary of the brand, Wester said. The car is expected to begin production in late 2015, arriving in global markets in 2016.

In the meantime, Bigland said to expect “more of a formal introduction” of Alfa Romeo to the U.S. during the North American International Auto Show in Detroit in January. He would not provide details, but it could include more dealers.

Alfa Romeo plans to increase its North American dealers from 84 to 120 by the first quarter of next year, and then to about 200 a year later. There are currently 84 certified Alfa Romeo dealers in North America — two in Canada and the rest in the U.S. They are primarily Fiat dealers that were awarded Alfa Romeo franchises, but a handful are Maserati dealers.

“I see nothing but great things coming from the brand,” said Michael Golling, studio director of Golling Alfa Romeo Fiat in Bloomfield Hills. “If the 4C is any indicator of what’s to come, the rest of the product lineup should just be drop dead gorgeous.”

FCA said all dealers are expected to receive at least two 4Cs by year’s end. No Michigan dealers have received cars yet. Golling’s two 4Cs for the year already have been spoken for.

Kelley Blue Book managing editor Matt DeLorenzo said the 4C is a nice start for the return of Alfa Romeo, but the brand’s success will be measured in the long-term.

“It’s a halo car. Its introduction will appeal more to the enthusiast market,” he said. “We’re really quite a way from the brand being truly reintroduced to America on a large scale.”

The sporty 4C features an entirely lightweight carbon fiber and aluminum structure, and a turbocharged, all-aluminum four-cylinder engine rated at 237 horsepower and peak torque of 258 foot-pounds. The car’s 0-60 is less than four seconds. Its top speed is 160 mph.

The 4C, which FCA has called an “attainable supercar,” is starting with a special “Launch Edition” priced around $70,000. A base model will be available later starting at about $54,000.

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