Can Alfa Romeo appeal to US 'graduates' once more?
- 18 April 2014
- From the section Business
On the floor of this year's New York International Auto Show, a curious thing happened.
The stand-out stars - sparkling Bugattis and sleek Maseratis - were completely ignored, as packs of journalists descended on a tiny booth that could barely fit two small cars.
It was like seeing the football star and head cheerleader sidelined on the dance floor at a prom, in favour of a member of the class of, well, 1992.
Alfa Romeo, Italian maker of the iconic Spider coupe immortalised by Dustin Hoffman in the classic 1967 film The Graduate, was making its return to US shores after a near 20-year absence.
Now controlled by Fiat Chrysler, the firm is planning on dipping its toe into the US market once more, with its two-seater 4C sports car - which has been available in Europe since earlier this year.
Sleek and low to the ground, Alfa Romeo's 4C is meant to compete against Porsche's Boxster and Audi's TT. With a mostly carbon fibre shell, it can go from zero to 60 miles per hour in just over four seconds.
But in a car show - and car market - already full with nostalgia, can Alfa Romeo's attempt to capitalise on its brand history work in the US?
Long time coming
Alfa Romeo left the US in the mid-1990s, after it struggled to compete with just a few luxury models in a market filled with big players that could offer a range of cars to consumers.
Owned by Fiat since 1986, its return to the US market has been discussed since 2000, but it is only under Fiat Chrysler chief executive Sergio Marchionne that those discussions gained real traction.
It's a return that some say the brand badly needs.
"Alfa needs to play here - they really need to expand their volumes and begin to payoff the product development that's come from Fiat," says senior analyst Bill Visnic, from automotive information site Edmunds.com.
"It's difficult to call yourself a legitimate luxury brand and not be playing in the US market."
Mr Visnic added that the merger between Fiat and Chrysler could benefit Alfa Romeo, because it gives the brand access to Fiat and Chrysler car dealerships throughout the US.
Yet despite the large degree of interest - both from analysts and fans of the brand who have been clamouring for a return - the launch here was decidedly low key.
Alfa Romeo only introduced one car - even though most industry watchers agree it will need more than one model to make an impact.
Jiyan Cadiz, a spokesperson for Alfa Romeo, told the BBC that only 500 4C Launch Edition cars would be available to buyers over the summer, priced at about $70,000 (£42,000). The company says it expects to sell just under a thousand regular 4C models, at a base price of $54,000, by the end of this year.
However, Mr Cadiz added: "We do have more products to come - know that we wouldn't start now unless we were truly ready."
All in the Alfamiglia
Many would-be buyers are desperate to find out more.
Dino Pappous is the president of the New York chapter of Alfa Romeo owners in the US. He owns two Alfas and loves the brand so much that he's busy organising the 2015 gathering of US Alfa owners (dubbed "Alfamiglia Nord Est").
"It's a car that attracts attention for the right reasons - it's subtle and unique - I would never buy a Porsche because it's like you're following the herd," he says.
He says he'd like to buy another Alfa - if he knew where to get one.
"It's not well advertised where to go to put a deposit or even where they are being sold," he says, adding that lack of customer service conjured up memories from Alfa's earlier US incarnation.
"Their commitment from a customer service level was brutal [in the 1990s] - if they don't get it right this time they're going to have a bad outcome again," he says.
Alfa Romeo faces another challenge too.
While the rebounding US economy has made it more attractive for brands like Alfa to re-enter the US market, it also has lured big players to once again invest in burnishing their so-called "halo cars", meant to build a brand following.
Ford celebrated the 50th anniversary of the release of its iconic Mustang "pony" car by re-creating a stunt it pulled in 1964 - putting it on the top of New York's Empire State building - and releasing 1,964 limited edition models.
Even Mazda, not a brand known for its long US lineage, got in on the nostalgia game by celebrating the 25th anniversary of its tiny MX-5 Miata convertible.
"It does seem like this year in particular it's a little heavy on heritage," said Mr Visnic.
But, he adds, there's a reason for that: "People know what a Mustang is - you can't buy that [brand recognition]," he says.
"It's what all car companies hope to establish but for the vast majority of products, it never really quite happens - nothing gets legendary anymore, so when you do catch the lightning in a bottle it means a lot to a brand."
But lightning rarely strikes the same place twice.
Alfa Romeo hopes to be the exception.