A promising start for Alfa Romeo’s return

With a legacy of dramatic styling and heroic racing accomplishments, and an Italian heritage steeped in romance, the Alfa Romeo brand has maintained a devoted following in the United States despite its withdrawal from the market two decades ago. The measure of America’s affection for Alfa Romeo, whose annual sales here peaked at barely over 8,000 cars, is now being tested as the marque makes its return to U.S. showrooms.

Founded in 1910 in Milan, Alfa Romeo was among the automakers that rode a wave of imported-car popularity in 1950s America. And while Alfa Romeos were consistently the darlings of the enthusiast press, they never made the jump to major player status here in the way that BMW and Mercedes-Benz did.

Aside from the limited edition 8C supercar, the last car Alfa sold in in this market was the attractive 164 sedan in 1995, and the only car it managed to sell in significant numbers was a line of pretty two-seat convertibles known simply as the Spider. That model, last offered in the U.S. in 1993, was mostly known as an updated version of the car that Dustin Hoffman drove in the 1967 film “The Graduate.”

Alfa’s comeback plan has to overcome the hurdle of being a name nearly unknown to the youngest drivers. Yet in many ways, it’s better off than it was in the 1960s and ’70s. Reliability and rust-proofing will almost certainly be better than ever, and Alfa will have a credible dealer network – more than 80 locations today and a goal of 200 a year from now – rather than the uneven collection of thinly spread showrooms it previously made do with. Most will be aligned with existing Fiat dealers. Fox Motors in Traverse City, Mich., recently installed the distinctive serpent-and-cross Alfa Romeo logo; the showroom is located in what is likely to be one of the smallest markets in the U.S. to get a dealership.

The first model to arrive here is the brilliant 4C sports car – an open-top version was introduced at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit earlier this year – but Americans have actually been driving an Alfa of sorts for several years now in the Dodge Dart. Both Alfa Romeo and Chrysler are owned by Fiat, and the Dart shares a platform with the European-market Alfa Romeo Giulietta. The slick new Chrysler 200 also owes much to Fiat/Alfa small-car know-how.

As a brand, Alfa has the potential to deliver Italian panache and exclusivity at a price and volume that the Fiat group can’t achieve with Maserati. That’s been the case with the 4C, a sort of mini-Ferrari that undercuts the Porsche Cayman S by about $7,000. Volkswagen, whose products have grown increasingly conservative, may lose sales to Alfa, which is expected to target a younger and more style-conscious demographic.

Ambitious expansion plans, the result of a $7 billion investment by Fiat, will bring to market next year a new midsize sedan, slightly larger than a BMW 3 Series. This will be followed by a crossover in the same class as an Audi Q5, part of a push to raise U.S. sales to 150,000 a year, the company has said. Fiat’s chief, Sergio Marchionne, promises a full line of Alfas in the U.S. by 2018.

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