ALFA 159 2.4 JTD

The Alfa MiTo (top) has seen its range broadened considerably in recent weeks by the arrival of LPG and 1.3 Multijet versions; the new Giulietta (middle) was officially previewed yesterday, while the Alfa 159 (bottom) saw its Italian market sales dramatically slide last month.

Alfa Romeo has all but vanished from sight over the last year, leaving enthusiasts of the brand to speculate on its future. In particular, its complete absence from the exhaustive Chrysler Group presentation earlier surprised many watchers. It failed to find its way into the six hours of presentations and a myriad of slides, despite its return being a core aim of Fiat’s original intention to return Stateside. However, the famous carmaker from Milan is currently deadlocked into two proposed future directions, and neither camp has yet convinced Fiat CEO Sergio Marchionne that a viable game plan is on the table.

This week Marchionne brought the Alfa Romeo situation into the public eye by openly questioning its future strategy, with the timing surprising onlookers as his comments in an interview on Tuesday overshadowed the official preview of the new Alfa Romeo Giulietta yesterday. "We need to work a lot harder on Alfa to make an intelligent decision that effectively preserves the highest possible value to Fiat," Marchionne told Automotive News Europe in an interview.

Early last year, one of the Fiat Group’s rising young stars, Luca De Meo, was handed responsibility for the division following the departure of Antonio Baravalle. But after overseeing a refit of the long-time Pomigliano d’Arco factory near Naples, De Meo jumped ship to become marketing chief at VW Group, in turn handing the reigns to Sergio Cravero. There has been very little sign of a long-term focus and marketing has been virtually non-existent over the last year. Some focus has been placed on widening the range (the MiTo has seen its appeal broadened in recent weeks by the arrival of new 1.3 MultiJet and LPG versions), but a MiTo GTA project, more in line with traditional brand thinking, has been placed on hold for the time being.

The deal with Chrysler, which is set to change the face of the Fiat Group’s future, initially came into play after Marchionne was casting around the ‘Big 3’ in Detroit to find excess capacity to produce Alfa Romeo models in the U.S. (along with a proposed US launch of Fiat’s Iveco trucks-and-buses unit). The unfolding alliance with Chrysler overtook events for the Milanese brand, but initially Alfa Romeo was a key part in the plans, and earlier this month there was surprise when the it was left out of the presentation. An exhaustive study carried out by JD Power & Associates, focused around the current 159 sedan and Sportwagon, Brera and Spider, concluded that these were not the right cars to retail in the US, while a deal signed with BMW that would have seen the MiTo sold in selected MINI dealers was overtaken by the new scenario at Chrysler. Marchionne surprised onlookers at the Detroit presentation when he made it clear that Fiat does not now harbour any concrete plans as to when to take Alfa Romeo back to the US.

Earlier this autumn, meanwhile, it was revealed that Alfa Romeo would be tied together the Chrysler Group’s Dodge brand. Little has unfolded from this announcement, however, while a second tie-up between the Chrysler brand and Lancia has been signed off and is proceeding at full pace with a raft of joint models and marketing in the pipeline. While the Chrysler-Lancia tie-up has much logic to it and complementary synergies, this is not the case when comparing Dodge to Alfa Romeo, with the two brands sharing little in common.

In Detroit, Marchionne said he was not convinced by Alfa Romeo’s plans, and this went to the heart of the matter. Since Fiat Group bought Alfa Romeo 23 years ago, initially to stop would-be suitor Ford from gaining access to its factory in the pre-EU closed market days, the Milanese brand has had much money lavished on it, without payback in terms of volumes, while sister niche brand Lancia has been forced off its natural ground to make room and pushed into the background. Successive models have failed to live up to commercial expectations and after green-lighting a raft of new models that were in the pipeline when he arrived, as well as the Fiat Grande Punto-based MiTo, Marchionne is not keen to keep indulging the brand without a clear focus and strategy that can bring profits.

Two distinct camps have emerged at Alfa Romeo. One foresees the brand developing in the traditional way, true to its historic roots, following tradition in the manner of Ferrari and Maserati. The second group, meanwhile, forsees a future Alfa Romeo chasing volume – fun and sporty, but more attuned to the shape of the current global car market. While the traditionalists hold much power, the constant refrain of positioning Alfa against the prestige German brands – BMW in particular – has never paid off, and is an even less promising route given such marques’ heavy exposure to the global economic downturn. In his interview with ANE this week Marchionne said he was tired of the continual repositioning against different targets. "We need to stop doing it," he said. "You cannot be a newborn Christian every four years. It's the same religion, eventually you need to own a religion and carry it to conclusion."

Much will depend on the market’s reception to the next product in the pipeline, the vital new C-segment Giulietta which will replace the Alfa 147 in the showrooms early next year. With Marchionne working on a new industrial plan for Italy to follow the Chrysler five-year plan, the future direction of Alfa Romeo should edge into the daylight.

© 2009 Interfuture Media/Italiaspeed