Alfa Romeo has finally arrived in America

Kyle Stock
Bloomberg News

Some people buy a new car, some buy a used car. Nicholas Gallman buys an interim car.

That’s what Gallman called the Audi S4 he picked up two years ago. It was just a $50,000 placeholder until he could get his hands on the Alfa Romeo Giulia that hit U.S. dealers a few months ago. “From the first time I saw the concept, I just fell in love with it,” he explained. “It didn’t matter what the state of the final car ended up being I was going to buy one anyway just because of how it looked.”

Gallman, an IT specialist in Columbia, S.C., finally found his Giulia — a souped up Quadrifoglio version at a dealership in Georgia on a summer Friday last month. On Monday, he showed up with an $81,000 check. “I said Give me the keys, my test drive will be the 235 miles home,’ ” he explained.

The American renaissance of one of the world’s sexiest carmakers is no longer a marketing exercise or the stuff of fanboy fantasy. August was the third consecutive month in which Fiat-Chrysler’s Alfa Romeo sold more than 1,000 vehicles in the U.S., a modest feat that the marque nevertheless hasn’t managed in more than two decades.

After retreating to Europe in the mid-1990s, the only place American fans could drive a new Alfa was on a gaming console. Fiat finally brought Alfa Romeo back to America in late 2008, but with limited supply.

In 2014, it stepped up the sex appeal with a tiny sports car, the 4C. Snarling with anger and zero pretense of a comfortable ride, the little whip was mostly a token for diehard fans and publicity candy for the car magazines.

This year, however, Alfa began selling something for the mainstream, a regular old sedan albeit a sporty one. The Giulia starts at $38,000 and with an all-aluminum engine and carbon-fiber driveshaft, aims to steal some customers from Audi, BMW, and Mercedes.

Gallman has owned plenty of sporty sedans and lots of Porsches, Maseratis, and Aston Martins (right now, he has 13 cars, including three Ferraris), but the Giulia is his first Alfa Romeo and the only car he has ever babied. “I absolutely love this car,” he said. “It’s the most well-rounded sedan I’ve ever owned, and for me that’s saying a lot.”

Here’s CEO Sergio Marchionne’s take during the car’s European debut: “Tell me if there is any car in the same class which can compete with this one: The BMW? Come on.”

Still, the American launch hasn’t been without drama. The Giulia was delayed, and Marchionne has joked that journalists shouldn’t ask how much it cost to develop. Worse, the newest Alfa Romeo is already dogged with a reputation for being unreliable while squarely slotted in one of the most troubled segments of the U.S. auto industry. Last year, the market for so-called entry luxury cars in America dropped by 16 percent, according to Bloomberg Intelligence. In the first half of this year, another one in four buyers disappeared.

Still, like many Italian autos with a checkered past, the Giulia should get far on looks alone. I saw one in late July gliding down Main Street in Bozeman, Montana. With the Bridger Mountains warped in its “Montecarlo Blue” skin, the sight was equal parts mundane and improbable, as if Neymar Jr. was casually kicking a hacky-sack in the town park.

Fiat-Chrysler has plenty of problems at the moment. And it will take lots of marketing money for Alfa Romeo to win an appreciable number of customers who tend Teutonic:despite all of its buzz, the Giulia was handily outpaced by its German benchmarks in August.

In the next few weeks, U.S. dealers will start taking delivery of hundreds of Alfia’s first SUV. Dubbed the Stelvio after a mountain pass in the Alps, Alfa’s utility pod comes with paddle-shifters standard and starts at $42,000. The brand expects it to outsell the Giulia with ease.

Alfa declined to grant an interview for this story and has been cagey about sales goals. Still, if it keeps its current pace, 2017 should be a year for the record books.