Alfa's U.S. return tied to new models

FRANKFURT - General Motors and Fiat have slowed plans to bring Alfa Romeo models to the United States after deciding against retrofitting existing Alfa models to meet U.S. specifications.

And when Alfa Romeo does come, it may bypass Cadillac dealers for Saab stores to attract younger, import-minded buyers, a GM spokesman said.

A gradual return

Roberto Testore, CEO of Fiat Auto S.p.A., said the two partners have decided to design Alfa models suitable for both Europe and the United States rather than try to rush modified Euro-spec cars onto the U.S. market.

"Gradually, we will return with all our range, but with all-new cars," Testore said

Fiat, which owns Alfa, will bring the Spyder roadster to the United States in 2005, followed by the replacement for the 156 in early 2006 and the high-end 166 replacement in 2007, Testore said.

In the months after the creation of the GM-Fiat equity alliance in March 2000, it was reported that Alfa could return to the United States as early as 2003.

There are no plans to bring Fiat's other brands, Fiat and Lancia, to the United States, Testore said.

Redoing existing European mo- dels for the United States can result in ungainly styling because front ends must be bolstered to meet crash-safety rules. Many other changes to meet safety and environmental rules add significant cost, too.

Fiat wants to emphasize quality over quick entry and sales, Tes-tore said.

"What we have to do is not run after the volume," he said. "It's not an easy game to play to go back into the States. We want to prepare ourselves very, very well to go back successfully. We are not in a hurry."

No look-alikes

The three new Alfa models will be built on the so-called premium architecture being co-developed at Saab Automobiles by Saab, Alfa Romeo and Lancia engineers.

Testore dismissed suggestions that shared architectures would lead to look-alike cars, saying Fiat already has models among its brands that share architecture, but car buyers do not think the models are the same under the skin.

"You ask the customers and they say, 'No, it's impossible,'" Testore said. "So we know quite well what we have to do."

Engines and transmissions will be developed by the Fiat-GM Powertrain joint venture, which has absorbed all Fiat and GM European powertrain plants.

"It is impossible for us to say, 'It's a Fiat engine' or 'It's a GM engine,'" Testore said. "It doesn't exist anymore."

But he said brand identity will be maintained by tuning the engines and electronic controls.

Initial plans had centered on selling Fiats through Cadillac dealers. But a GM spokesman said GM and Fiat are weighing whether Saab stores might do a better job of attracting likely Alfa buyers.

Giuseppe Perlo, Fiat vice president for corporate development, said Fiat had a bad experience by aligning with the wrong dealership network when it was sold through Eagle dealerships by the former Chrysler Corp.

"Chrysler at the time believed that would be a good chance to reinforce the dealership network," Perlo said. "This turned out to be not a good idea."

Staff Reporter in Turin, Italy, contributed to this report

You can reach Dave Guilford at dguilford@crain.com

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