A Renaissance for Alfa Romeo in the U.S.?

Before traveling to Turin recently, I hadn't seen an Alfa Romeo on the road since the company left the U.S. market in humiliation in the mid-1990s.

Before traveling to Turin recently, I hadn't seen an Alfa Romeo on the road since the company left the U.S. market in humiliation in the mid-1990s. The models on sale then—the Spider, 75, and 164—were truly horrible automobiles with more quality glitches than a parking lot full of old British sports cars. Their only saving graces were their undeniably passionate character, and (in the 75 and 164) a V6 engine with an exhaust note that made the radio redundant. However, Alfa pulled the plug when the backlog of unsold vehicles exceeded its yearly U.S. sales, just as it was about to modernize its lineup.

The next set of cars were better, but—except for the GTV sports car—they weren't stylish or solid enough to take the battle to BMW, Mercedes, et. al. However, when the Alfa 156 arrived in 1997, it single handedly put Alfa back on the map with taut, sensuous, vibrant styling and a great chassis. Even the Sport Wagon version had take-your-breath-away body surfacing and responses that made you want to drive the wheels off it. The question then became: Could Alfa continue to build cars of this quality?

Well, the 166—Alfa's large car—also has exceptionally taut and sensuous lines, but a softer character. Its interior speaks of sport and luxury in the same breath, and the accommodations are on par with BMW's 5 Series. After the hideously uncoordinated styling of the 164, the 166 is a revelation. It proved lightning could strike twice. Was a third time possible? Yes. At the bottom of the range, Alfa's 147—three- or five-door hatchback—introduced a bold design that literally takes Alfa's signature grille to new lengths. It provides an appealing alternative to the BMW Compact, Mercedes Sport Coupe, VW Golf—even the new Mini. This car, like its bigger brothers, has presence.

Why am I telling you this? Simple. These vehicles are so strong they could shoulder Alfa's return to the U.S. market today. BMW and Mercedes are sparring with one another and slowly losing their focus. VW is trying to cover every segment, and blurring the difference between itself and Audi. The Japanese and American luxury entries are shooting at the volume-laden outer rings of the target, and producing the occasional sporting clone. In short, no competitor has a vehicle line with Alfa's level of style, confidence, or focus.

Then there's Fiat's and GM's partnership, which opens the door for Alfa's U.S. return even wider. GM's coming analog to Ford's Premium Automotive Group creates a sales and service platform for Alfa, and allows GM to capture buyers looking for stylish, focused, European sporting cars. This frees Cadillac to concentrate on creating a new definition of American luxury, Saab to choose a personality that works, and all three to satisfy a unique segment of buyers. Despite protestations to the contrary, an Alfa buyer would never consider a Cadillac, or look twice at a Saab. Or vice versa.

The reasons for not bringing Alfa Romeo back to the States fade as Fiat works with GM to adapt the latter's Delta and Epsilon platforms to its lineups. Reports say the next Alfa GTV will be a member of Delta's house, and arrive here in 2004. Next up are replacements for the 156, 166, and—much later—the 147. Doing the upfront work necessary to sell them here makes sense, even if only to increase the options available to GM and Fiat.

Will it happen? I don't know. Should it happen? Most definitely. The sport/luxury segment has been dominated for too long by the harsh Germanic nature of Audi, BMW, and Mercedes. Customers are itching for alternatives to this list of usual suspects, be they American, European, or Japanese. I firmly believe passionate, sensuous vehicles like those currently produced by Alfa fit the bill. Lord knows I want one.