Alfa Romeo chief: Automaker needs more legs to stand on

PARIS -- The way Antonio Baravalle sees it, Alfa Romeo needs more than two legs to stand on.

The man in charge of reviving the struggling sports car maker says it will need more than two top-selling models if it is to meet a target of nearly doubling unit sales by 2010.

"These are my two legs: the 147 (hatchback) and the 159 (sedan)," he said at a briefing at the Paris Auto Show. "To have 300,000 (in unit sales), you need four legs."

Baravalle, who heads the brand within Fiat's auto division as executive vice president, said he aimed to put more big sellers -- or legs -- on the road between 2008 and 2010.

"Our priority is to grow by volume," he said.

After the recent launch of the 159 sportwagon, the Spider and the Brera coupe models, he expected unit sales to reach 160,000 in 2006, up from 137,000 units in 2005.

But Baravalle said Alfa Romeo was working on at least two other models to enable it to enter new market segments. One would be a small, sporty car for young drivers and the other a crossover sports utility vehicle (SUV).

Although declining to confirm a recent report in Automotive News, Baravalle hinted the small car would challenge BMW's popular Mini.

"You can put two and two together," he said.

Baravalle declined to say when he expected the brand to return to profitability, but Fiat Group Chief Executive Sergio Marchionne said in July it was "highly likely" that Alfa Romeo would at least break even in 2008.

CHALLENGES

Marchionne also acknowledged the challenges the brand faces in its effort to reclaim a place among the world's premium names.

"As appealing as the brand is, it is going to require a lot of effort to assure that it does achieve margin targets," he said.

Fiat never publishes Alfa Romeo's sales and profit figures.

Marchionne has overseen a major turnaround at Fiat, the division's mass market brand, with the most notable success being the Grande Punto.

Baravalle said he was also working hard to reverse the poor image that Alfa Romeo had earned over the years in the area of parts and services.

"We've got a third-party parts problem. We've got a technical assistance problem. We've got a quality problem. The quality we were able to provide was not of the quality of a premium customer," he said.

"Our aspiration is to compete with BMW. Today, we are not at that level in terms of service and product ... We are in the middle of nowhere," he added.

Baravalle saw no need to go outside the Fiat Group to look for partners to share the cost of development and production, as other brands such as Fiat have done.

The unveiling of Alfa Romeo's limited-edition sports car -- the 8C Competizione -- at the auto show was a case in point, he said.

Alfa Romeo took parts from Fiat Group's luxury sports car brands Maserati and Ferrari and fitted them to meet its own specifications.

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