Alfa Romeo in America: Hard business case and soft curves

So Alfa Romeo is not returning to America in 2012.

Please pardon me if I don't sound surprised. I've heard this before -- and before, and before ….

It's tempting to rack this up as the same old Alfa. The Italian automaker's on-again, off-again flirtation with America was already a running gag when I arrived at Automotive News Europe in 2001.

The pattern of each planned U.S. relaunch was amazingly predictable: Two years. Every time the calendar flipped to the year before the relaunch, it was postponed. Later that year, it was reset for two, two-and-half years hence.

I don't fault Alfa Romeo for any of those decisions. The United States is a huge, rich market. Exporting to it is difficult but possible -- if the business plan fits.

There's the low end. Some automakers have made it big in the U.S. mainstream market: Toyota, Nissan, Honda, Hyundai-Kia and Volkswagen. But remember Renault, Fiat, Isuzu, Daihatsu, Daewoo, Simca and Yugo.

There's the high end. Think Mercedes, BMW, Lexus, Infiniti, and (lately) Audi.

But the toughest business case is as a near-luxury exporter, with virtually all the costs as the high-end guys but less revenue. Sure, there are Volvo and Acura. But there were Sterling, MG, Austin-Healey, Bertone, Hillman, Triumph and Peugeot.

Alfa Romeo already came to America once, officially 1961 to 1995. It wants back.

But the entry barriers are high. Alfa must climb some really big hills: what to build for very different U.S. tastes, where to build it and the twin costs of product development and building a new dealer base. It certainly doesn't help that Ferdinand Piech, the chairman of Volkswagen's supervisory board, keeps openly saying that Alfa Romeo is doomed unless Fiat sells the brand to VW.

Like I said, it's tempting to dismiss Alfa's latest deferral until 2013 as just more happy-talk.

But I can't. This time, it may be different.

Two reasons, one rational and one wildly not.

First, Fiat and Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne is improving Alfa's odds. He sees Alfa as a key to getting to the 5.5 million to 6 million annual sales he calls the new critical mass for a global automaker. He has Alfa sharing platforms with other Chrysler brands to cut overhead. And he has the option of building Alfa's U.S. models in Italy or North America.

The second reason is personal. The 2002 Geneva auto show. A highly rational co-worker was showing me the body work that compelled him to buy an Alfa 147. I looked. Ah, I said, I get it. As I turned, a newly facelifted Alfa 156 hit me right in the eyeballs.

The compound curves. Cue beam of light, cue choir. I couldn't move. Visually, it was my most spiritual moment with a car.

Folks who can bend metal like that can prop up a wobbly business case.

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