Alfa Romeo first roared into the lives of Americans in 1961, gaining a passionate following thanks to models like the Giulietta Spider convertible, a version of which was featured in Dustin Hoffman’s classic “The Graduate.” With its throaty exhaust note and luscious Anne Bancroft curves, Alfa Romeos seduced Americans with sumptuous Italian luxury. But the love affair was short-lived, and amid struggling sales and concerning reliability issues, the brand exited the market in 1995 — less than a decade after it was acquired by Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA).
Today, Alfa Romeo is slowly emerging from its 2-decade hiatus from the U.S. thanks largely to FCA’s chairman, Sergio Marchionne, who vowed in 2006 to reintroduce the brand. In 2008, the very low-volume and impossibly emotional 8C Competizione coupe emerged. It was followed in 2014 with the low-slung, slightly more affordable (and arguably as emotional) 4C Coupe and Spider.
Low Volume, High Hopes
Overall sales numbers of the 8C and the 4C combined have been extremely low — fewer than 1,200 units (Honda sells nearly that number of CR-Vs in one day). It’s difficult to sustain a profitable business model with such trickle volume, so Alfa Romeo set out to engineer a world-class vehicle that would serve a larger audience, be competitive and deliver sales numbers that were maintainable. The company’s answer is the new 4-door 2017 Alfa Romeo Giulia, built to challenge the world’s best compact sport sedans.
The compact sport-sedan segment is popular and competitive, so finding a place for the 2017 Giulia won’t be easy. Brand loyalty, cachet and prestige are every bit as important to this segment’s buyer as are luxury and performance. Yet Alfa wanted a piece of the pie — combined, more than 275,000 vehicles were sold in 2015 by a quintet including the Audi A4, the BMW 3 Series, the Cadillac CTS, the Lexus IS and the Mercedes-Benz C-Class.
Italian Performance Sedan
To that objective, Alfa presented the world its Giulia. A traditional front-engine, rear-wheel-drive, 5-passenger, 4-door sedan, the Giulia fits the requirements of the job perfectly. A passenger cabin loaded with luxury, innovation, technology and Italian flair — aromatic leather, beautiful trim and one of the best sport steering wheels in the industry — checks off all the must-have boxes within the competitive set.
A recent day we spent with the Giulia proves that it also has the driving dynamics to back up its impressive styling. The standard model, available in rear- or all-wheel drive, packs a 280-horsepower turbocharged 2.0-liter 4-cylinder that effortlessly outguns its competition. The range-topping Giulia Quadrifoglio boasts a 505-hp twin-turbocharged 2.9-liter V6. Combined with a capable suspension, oversized carbon-ceramic brakes and tires that are so sticky that they won’t last more than 6 months, the 4-leaf-clover-emblazoned sedan embarrasses most dedicated sports cars at what they do best.
The Giulia’s strength is its sportiness. The steering ratio is lightning-fast, the throttle response is immediate, and its aluminum suspension has been tuned to deliver a firm ride. I’m going to say it’s the most out-of-the-box track-capable vehicle in the segment, especially in Quadrifoglio trim (watch out, S4, M4, CTS-V and C63). Even its base model with the 4-cylinder engine will put smiles on an enthusiast’s face.
The focus on styling, which is pleasing from just about every angle, means there were compromises. Most of this is evident from the cabin. Tall drivers will note that the front seats align with thick B-pillars, limiting outward vision. And rear-seat passengers will find things on the cramped side of the scale. No vehicle in this segment will be called roomy, but the Giulia forces second-row passengers to press their knees against a front seatback.
The success of the Giulia, and the whole Alfa Romeo brand, relies on showroom traffic. Consumers need to identify with the brand, which will lead to sales. Rebecca Lindland, senior analyst at Kelley Blue Book, says that while there aren’t a lot of people shopping for an Alfa Romeo, consumers are getting the message. “Current consideration is quite low, but shoppers contemplating purchasing the brand identify as thrill-seeking, tech-oriented and image-conscious, perfect for the passionate, rear-wheel-drive-based Italian vehicles.”
In addition to luring shoppers away from their loyal brands (known as “conquest sales”), automakers rely on current customers for repeat sales, but that’s simply out of the question for Alfa Romeo — its volume has been too small. Where will Alfa get its sales? “Alfa’s sister brand Maserati may provide some clues,” explains Lindland. “On Autotrader, based on the last six quarters of Maserati sales, about 20 percent of new owners traded in a Mercedes, 13 percent traded in a Jaguar, about 12 percent came from BMW, and 10 percent from Lexus.” And there may be hints elsewhere. “Jaguar recently experienced a renaissance of its own, launching the Jaguar XE midsize sedan and F-PACE SUV, so it’s a good brand to monitor.”
As of today, Alfa Romeo only has about 168 dealers in the U.S. (BMW has about 340), and most of those are tied to existing FIAT or Maserati franchises. Convincing buyers to consider Alfa a premium brand without standalone stores may be another challenge.
The good news is that the Giulia won’t have to accomplish this task alone. “Alfa’s current lineup of 4C and Giulia will expand in 2017 with a wagon version and an SUV, effectively covering about 45 percent of the luxury market,” reports Lindland. “Subcompact and compact luxury SUV sales are surging, but midsize sedans continue to be the biggest segment of luxury sales, so Alfa’s portfolio strategy is sound.”
And those wondering about the clover that adorns the side of the Quadrifoglio (Italian for “4-leaf”) will be interested in its meaning. “Four is an important number in the brand,” says Lindland. “The symbol of this deeply Italian brand is a green 4-leaf (Quadrifoglio) clover — more reminiscent of an Irish leprechaun than an Italian stallion — whose backstory stems from Ugo Sivocci, a perennially second-place, chronically superstitious professional driver for the brand who first put a broke Enzo Ferrari behind the wheel of a race car.”
“One day in 1923, desperate for a win, Sivocci decided to paint a 4-leaf clover on his car for luck, encasing it in a square. Ugo promptly won his next race, and a tradition was born. Tragically, later that same year, Sivocci was testing a prototype under a deadline too tight to emblazon the car with the clover… and in a cruel twist, he was killed. Since then, the clover appears on all Alfas, encased in a triangle instead of a square, paying tribute to the loss of the cornerstone of Ugo Sivocci.”
Alfa Romeo has nearly everything relying on the success of the Giulia. But thankfully, the sport sedan is a solid competitor. The unanswered question isn’t about performance, style or flair — the Italian 4-door tugs on a driver’s emotion — it’s whether the 2017 Alfa Romeo Giulia is received well enough to fill showrooms with conquest customers. In short term, we’ll see whether the luck of the Quadrifoglio still holds.