Prada. Versace. Ferrari.
Nothing screams passionately crafted luxury like some of Italy’s finest brands. They’re more than a name; they’re a symbol, a design, a pattern, a sound, a feeling – and it only takes the slightest touch to send the euphoria of 5 million images racing thorugh all 5 senses like a 17 year-old’s first hit of Special K.
Naturally, Americans are fascinated by their allure.
Maybe it’s like having our own slice of Venice, Tuscany, or Rome. The trinket we can keep from exotic locales. Maybe it’s the quality, maybe it’s the inherent sex appeal, or maybe it’s just a desire to be part of a culture that just lives better than we do.
By reintroducing the Alfa Romeo brand back to the United States, Fiat Chrysler Automobiles’ CEO Sergio Marchionne is banking on that emotional pull – that primal desire to experience something exotic – to make the brand a sales success.
A multi-billion dollar investment, bringing the storied Italian brand back to America is Marchionne’s Trojan horse. The plan: break into the luxury market and set the stage for the entire FCA portfolio’s success.
1st Wave: Giulia
The first major salvo is this: the Alfa Romeo Giulia. The top trim Giulia Quadrifoglio, revealed this week, is like hellfire itself. 510 horsepower, RWD, perfect 50/50 weight distribution, a Ferrari-derived V6, and four exhaust pipes – because Alfa.
It’s faster, lighter, and more primal than a BMW M3, Mercedes-Benz C63 S AMG, and Cadillac ATS-V.
On paper, it has all of the segment-redefining qualities Marchionne needs, but enthusiasts aren’t yet sold on the polarizing design. Is it good? Absolutely. Is it Alfa? Maybe not.
Like hallucinations brought on in the wee hours of the morning after far too much sambuca, it’s zombified Infiniti Q50 Eau Rouge meets Kia Optima meets Acura TLX meets 21st century European safety regulations. If you’re not sure how to feel about it, you’re in good company.
But there’s a silver lining in the bigger picture. The Giulia Quadrifoglio isn’t the volume model that carries the weight of FCA on its shoulders. It’s the yet-to-be-revealed mid-level trim that will hopefully come to the U.S. in mid-2016.
Furthermore, like the success of the Toyota Camry, it isn’t necessarily the car that counts, it’s the image. How will the Giulia be seen by the consumer, not how will it be seen by the enthusiast with a misfiring Duetto.
If it’s that fancy Prada bag; the one that works like any other bag – but with a little more of this and a fancier that, it will be just enough to help Alfa find its footing.
Or, just call it a day and offer one hell of a cheap lease option.
2nd Wave: Alfa Crossover
The second wave will be a crossover/SUV planned for 2017. It’s a smart move, given the sales success of large vehicles, but it’s unfamiliar territory for Alfa Romeo.
When you play in a sandbox occupied by the 5th grade bully who has been held back a grade or two (Lexus RX) and his conniving henchman (BMW X3), there’s not a lot of extra space. In the ‘box, it’s all about comfort, technology, and versatility. Those aren’t hallmarks of Alfa, but with FCA, there’s an opportunity (thanks Jeep!).
UConnect is a surprising favorite among critics and drivers alike. As long as something isn’t lost in translation, it should help the Alfa Romeo crossover/SUV be at the top of the list for driver interactivity.
Add in Jeep’s expertise with making all four wheels help out in tricky conditions and the Alfa could be dream to drive on the road or in light off-road duty.
Throw in some Alfa flair and a design that, hopefully, won’t look like anything else in the segment, and you could have the surprise leader in the class.
Time For Some Flair
Alfa Romeo returns to a market more homogenized than ever. Each manufacturer has a mold for what the consumer wants and there’s little variation among the luxury ranks.
The focus groups have spoken…and the result is “the cloud” on wheels.
BMW, long known for its enthusiast proclivities, has lost its spirit somewhere within plush Bavarian leather seats, and it will take more than a few swivels and clicks from an iDrive controller to rediscover those qualities.
Mercedes-Benz, known for technological innovation, and unrivaled status, remains at the top of the sales game – a proven commodity with continual evolution, but never revolution.
Lexus, legendary for reliability, comfort, and the ability to drain melanin from the follicles of its drivers, has never really been known for a spirited drive.
The industry…is staid.
Alfa Romeo brings a cachet of performance, unique style, and an exuberant personality that’s simply lacking from the market. Sure, Americans don’t necessarily buy something because it’s fast or handles well, but they do buy because of perception.
If the design delivers the appeal that whispers in your ear, “take me, now…” people will line up for it – with keys in hand and a Kindle with Fifty Shades of Grey at the ready.
It’s true that Alfa Romeo was not a success in its prior stint in America, but like well-worn Italian shoes, time has made the Duetto owner a fan – flaws and all. For the general consumer, they’ve simply forgotten the name, and are primed for something new and exciting.
There’s simply a wide berth in the luxury market for something that ignites the feelings within. A gap that could very well be covered by the return of a thoroughbred Italian manufacturer with a passion for the winding road.