Alfa aims Stelvio SUV at luxury market’s sweet spot

Henry Payne
The Detroit News

Nashville — In the ferociously competitive luxury auto market, new entry Alfa Romeo has made all the right moves. Its stunning carbon-fiber 4C sports car whet America’s appetite for Alfa performance when introduced in 2015. Last year, the Alfa Giulia Quadrifoglio set the table as the fastest sports sedan to ever lap the famous Nurburgring race track. And this month comes the main course, the competitively priced $42,990 Stelvio for the red-hot, midsize crossover segment.

The midsize crossover Stelvio’s arrival will have Alfa Romeo competing in 47 percent of the U.S. premium market, said boss Reid Bigland.

The Italian automaker is open for business with a menu tailored for Americans.

“The Stelvio is absolutely the right vehicle at the right time,” Alfa boss Reid Bigland said here this week at the ute’s media test program. “Midsize SUV is the largest premium segment in the U.S., representing 25 percent of sales. The premium midsize car is second at 22 percent. So with Stelvio and Giulia, almost overnight the Alfa Romeo brand is competing in 47 percent of the premium market.”

Anticipation has been red hot. In the first quarter of 2017, Alfa’s YouTube channel recorded 35 million views and its website 3.5 million visitors. Alfa’s trifecta of Super Bowl ads also turbocharged interest.

“They are hitting the sweet spot. Luxury buyers are looking at Stelvio and Giulia because they want something different than the same ol’ BMW, Mercedes or Audi that their neighbors have,” says Rebecca Lindland, senior auto analyst with Kelley Blue Book. Alfa has been at the top of KBB’s website for visitors considering a new vehicle.

The Alfa Stelvio SUV bears the brand's trademark Trilobo grille - and class-leading dynamics.

Though this year’s sales are expected to be slightly off 2016’s record pace, the industry is in the midst of what many insiders describe as the second Golden Age of autos after the 1960s. Buyer demographics are also shifting as the baby boom generation has given way to younger buyers. Boomers are now third (at 26 percent) behind millennials and Gen X — both at 29 percent, according to KBB.

That means fresh eyes for a refreshed Alfa. And it’s not just in the U.S. With China the biggest emerging market for auto sales, luxury manufacturers see historic opportunities.

These market dynamics have helped inspire three all-new luxury automakers in the last five years: Tesla, Genesis and Alfa. The rookies have very different business models.

Tesla is an electric-car maker out of Silicon Valley. Hyundai is following in the footsteps of Toyota (Lexus), Honda (Acura) and Nissan (Infiniti) in creating its Genesis luxury brand. Alfa, on the other hand, is a heritage badge trying to resurrect itself with a 21st-century performance lineup.

“What maybe makes it easier for Alfa is that is has a great heritage,” says Bigland, referencing the Italian’s five Formula One championships over the last century. ‘For those who take the time to understand Alfa history going back to 1910, there is a number of great Alfas with three things in common: state-of-the art-technology, incredible performance and gorgeous Italian design.”

Bearing Alfa’s trademark “Trilobo’ grille, the Giulia and Stelvio show off their sport DNA by featuring the most horsepower in their classes, quickest zero-60 sprint and fastest Nurburgring time (the Stelvio Quadrifoglio is expected to shatter the track’s SUV record this fall).

Separated at birth, the two vehicles are built on the same, rear-wheel drive Giorgio architecture (Stelvio adds all-wheel-drive). They bristle with performance technology including carbon-fiber prop shafts, aluminum suspension components and 50-50 weight balance.

“The thing they have in common is phenomenal driving dynamics,” says Bigland. “The entire world is wired to SUVs, but in building and designing it for a brand like Alfa it needs to be an Alfa first and SUV second.”

Luxury buyers are looking at Alfa’s Stelvio, above, and Giulia as an alternative to BMW, Mercedes or Audi, says Rebecca Lindland, senior auto analyst with Kelley Blue Book.

Unlike Hyundai’s Genesis, Alfa does not have a large database of mainstream buyers to draw on for sales. Its sister brand, Fiat, has seen lackluster U.S. sales since its introduction in 2011 while other Fiat Chrysler brands like Jeep and Chrysler have no history with Alfa.

“Every customer is a conquest,” said Bigland. “With FCA we have significant mass-market operations. Alfa is separate. Separate engineering group in (Italy). Separate distribution. Our belief is if you want credibility you cannot co-mingle with mass-market operations.”

Many of the 215 dealerships Alfa will have in place by year’s end will be shared with Fiat, but the brand is focused on pairing more dealerships with its luxury kin, Maserati. Maserati has a similar — if more highly priced — product mix to Alfa while demonstrating the potential of SUV sales to a heritage badge. In less than a year on the market, Maserati’s full-size Levante SUV is already 50 percent of that brand’s sales.

In China — where heritage brands are coveted — 100 percent of dealerships will be dual Alfa-Maserati showrooms.

Even before the Stelvio hits lots this month, brand sales have been encouraging despite low volumes. The Giulia has the highest transaction price in its mid-size segment — $47,000 — while its 50 percent residual value tops both Mercedes (41 percent) and BMW (38 percent). Its 505-horsepower Quadrifoglio variant has made up a whopping 12 percent of sales.

KBB’s Lindland says Alfa’s “sweet spot” portfolio is paying early dividends among brand loyalists and buyers seduced by its sexy lines and low $42,990 entry price in a sea of pricey German competitors.

“The challenge is going to be keeping momentum,” she says, “because every sale is going to be a conquest.”

The brand will also have to overcome the stereotype of poor Italian quality — and then there’s that other heritage sport brand, Jaguar. The big cat is undergoing its own product renaissance and has beaten Alfa to market with a similarly priced midsize sedan and SUV — though its sporty 2.0-liter F-Pace crossover comes in a full second shy of the lighter Stelvio’s torrid 5.4-second time.

Alfa plans five more dishes for its menu — two of them utility vehicles — by 2020. All will be made with the Girogio platform’s secret sauce.

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