Alfa Romeo banks heavily on 'fastest in world' SUV

LOS ANGELES — The long-awaited re-introduction of Alfa Romeo in the U.S. will lean heavily on three characteristics of the brand's new cars — performance, Italian style and technology.

But that's not all. Fiat Chrysler Automobiles plans to unleash a marketing blitz next year and plans to expand its dealership network as it brings new cars and SUVs made in Italy to the U.S. to go head to head against German and Asian luxury brands.

"We are confident that you are looking, right here, at the fastest SUV in the world," Reid Bigland, head of Alfa Romeo and Maserati said Wednesday after introducing the 2018 Alfa Romeo Stelvio.

The top-of-the-line Stelvio Quadrifoglio is equipped with a 2-liter, direct-injection turbo engine with an eight-speed automatic transmission that generates 505 horsepower, powering it from 0 to 60 miles per hour in 3.9 seconds and a top speed of 177 mph.

"When we decided to reintroduce Alfa Romeo, we made a commitment to go back to our roots, and that meant including incredible performance, state of the art technology, and gorgeous Italian design," Bigland said.

Fiat Chrysler Automobiles CEO Sergio Marchionne initially talked about Alfa Romeo returning to the U.S. as early as 2012, but put those plans on hold. Then, in 2014, Marchionne said the automaker would launch eight new vehicles by 2018, but delayed those plans as well.

Now, Bigland said the company should still be able to launch eight new vehicles by 2020, but declined to outline which vehicles will be introduced next.

"You know, we’ll see. We are roughly there, I think that is what Mr. Marchionne has confirmed. That’s up to him," Bigland said.

The Giulia sedan, revealed in Milan in June 2015, will finally make its way to U.S. dealerships by the middle of December, Bigland said Wednesday. The Stelvio will go on sale in Europe during the first quarter of next year and should be on sale in the U.S. by June 30 at the latest, finally giving the storied Italian brand the lineup it needs to compete in the U.S. Alfa Romeo has been selling the 4C, a two-seat roaster, since 2012 but only in small volumes.

If the rebirth of Alfa Romeo is successful, it will give Fiat Chrysler a brand that can command bigger prices in lucrative market segments.

"It will help our business and help our sales and help our profitability,” Bigland said.

But developing and shipping beautiful, top performing cars and SUVs to the U.S. is only half of the battle. FCA faces a steep challenge as it begins to try to raise awareness of the Alfa Romeo brand in a crowded market and make sure it has a dealership network that is prepared to sell the vehicles.

"We are going to need to amp up our marketing in 2017 when our products start to arrive," Bigland said. "Alfa has been out of the U.S. market for the better part of 20 years, and there is a whole generation of Americas that have never heard of Alfa Romeo."

Bigland declined to say if a Super Bowl commercial is part of that marketing plan.

FCA also must expanding its dealership network for Alfa Romeo. Bigland said there currently are 155 Alfa Romeo dealers in the U.S. and 20 in Canada. Some of those dealers are also Fiat dealers and some are Maserati dealers.

"More and more of those dealers are being dualed with Maserati, which is a pretty good fit, from a product portfolio perspective," Bigland said. "We will grow that network over the next 12, 18, or 24 months, once the cars start to get out there."

Bigland said Fiat Chrysler's goal is expand its dealership network to a total of 200 to 250 dealers in North America.

The silver lining for Bigland? There is obviously a tremendous amount of interest in the brand's rebirth.

On Wednesday, Fiat Chrysler had a tent outside the Los Angeles Convention Center with seating capacity for 600 but had to ask members of its own staff to leave so it could let more members of the media attend and still had to turn people away.

"I think when you think about he buzz that we have created on Alfa, I think you don’t have to look any further than this tent," Bigland said. "I think underlying interest is there. It's fertile ground. When we start to amp it up with TV (advertising), I think its going to be something special."


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