Howes: Alfa Romeo revival drives into tough competition

Daniel Howes
The Detroit News

In the summer of 2001, I found myself behind the wheel of an Alfa Romeo 156 wagon, plying the hills of Tuscany.

The carpet was coarse, barely covering the floor of what was supposed to be a premium car. The trademark grille promised Italian panache, but the car failed to deliver. Eleven years later, at the 2012 Geneva Motor Show, I sat inside another Alfa and thought: Marchionne and the guys will never crack Germany's Big Three with interiors like this.

Count me among the skeptical, still. The transnational Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV, with its stable of mass-market brands and Jeep, is relaunching — again — the premium Alfa Romeo brand and promising to make headway where Ford Motor Co. couldn't with Jaguar Cars Ltd. and General Motors Corp. couldn't with Saab Automobile AB.

Alfa Romeo Giulia

It's easier said than done — no matter how deeply CEO Sergio Marchionne is personally invested in the effort. With the rare exception of ol' Sergio's nemesis — recently deposed Volkswagen AG patriarch Ferdinand Piëch — CEOs in today's global auto industry rarely realize their singular product vision simply by imposing a prodigious will.

It takes money and time, discipline and executive attention. It takes patient, iterative execution. It takes dealers who get a brand's heritage; understand what the manufacturer is trying to do; and know how they can credibly wean customers from a mainstream dominated (and policed, in its own Teutonic sort of way) by BMW, Audi and Mercedes-Benz.

They created the modern global luxury club, reserving the right to determine whether the Japanese, the Americans, the Swedes and the Brits could join. Nein! They set the rules and, to be honest, the standards by which the others are judged — and, until very recently, generally found wanting.

Into this competitive maw drives Marchionne and Alfa, an iconic brand with unique design cues, dodgy quality and a sporting pedigree that has the potential — the potential — to become an alternative to the German Three. Think Jaguar whistling a Verdi aria, a Campari in hand.

Seriously, think Jaguar. Here was a storied British marque, its heritage mostly squandered, tracing a middling slide greased by its owners in Dearborn. Their alleged BMW 3-Series fighter, the X-Type, boasted substantial bits from the Ford Mondeo sedan, a lineage that (fairly or not) undermined the car's credibility from the jump.

Ford sold Jaguar in 2008 to the Tata Group of India, a luckily timed transaction that saddled the new owner with a product workout just as the global financial meltdown arrived. Seven years later, as a German auto executive with stints at VW and GM told me at last January's Detroit auto show, Tata's Jaguar and Land Rover brands are the biggest turnaround stories in the industry.

Today's Jaguar, like GM's Cadillac, aspires to outperform the Germans, not look like them. Judging by the lines of the new Alfa Romeo Giulia unveiled this week in Italy, Marchionne & Co. are headed in the same direction — distinctive, slightly muscular Alfa styling that evokes more Maserati then Mercedes.

First to hit dealers early next year will be a version powered by an all-aluminum 510-horsepower engine with a Ferrari lineage, the better to differentiate the Giulia from German, Japanese and American rivals. The Boss is playing the cards he has: few have such an exclusive, high-performance brand in their portfolio to leverage.

Marchionne does. He wouldn't have it any other way, not least because of his well-documented antipathy for his German rivals, especially the boys from Wolfsburg. He and his team — including Alfa boss Harald Wester, a VW alum — also are smart enough to know that you don't try to outplay the Germans at their game.

You play yours, albeit to (or above) their performance standards. As is Marchionne's wont, however, he's upping the ante: Alfa will deliver 400,000 units on eight all-new models by 2018, he vows. He likens Alfa to Jeep, quite a stretch considering Alfa's virtual dead-stop starting point with consumers, especially in the United States.

Saying it won't make it so. Contenders for space in the segment crowded with the Germans, the Americans, the Japanese, Jaguar and Volvo Cars need to underpromise and overdeliver. Do it the other way 'round and rivals — and the automotive press — will deliver a rhetorical beating that keeps on giving.

Ask the guys who touted Cadillac as a global player at Frankfurt in the late '90s, or the 24 Hours of Le Mans in the early 2000s. Ask the Ford execs associated with more Lincoln brand refreshes than I can count. Ask the poor old Saab people, whose metal boasted a distinctive automotive DNA its American owner strangled with too little investment and too little attention.

They got hammered. Reinventing a tarnished brand can be done, as Tata-owned Jaguar and Audi under Piëch showed by doing it — not talking about it.

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Daniel Howes' column runs Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays and can be found at