MUNICH - Alfa Romeo is using reliability as a selling point for its new 159.
The Italian carmaker will offer a three-year warranty plus three years of free maintenance on the car in a bid to win lower-premium customers away from the top three sellers in the segment - the Audi A4, BMW 3 series and Mercedes-Benz C class.
The three German rivals, all known for the quality and reliability of their cars, offer two-year warranties. None of the Germans currently offers free maintenance.
Alfa estimates the three years of maintenance is worth E1,400 to the customer. European sales of the car start in September.
The maintenance incentive plus the decision by Alfa to do its 159 press launch here, in BMW's home town and just 80km south of Audi headquarters, were clear signals from Alfa that it wants to be a more serious competitor in a segment dominated by the Germans.
The person behind the bold initiatives is Alfa Romeo CEO Karl-Heinz Kalbfell, who joined the company in January after serving at BMW for almost 30 years.
He said he wants Alfa to be the Italian alternative to the German brands in the lower-premium segment.
Winning customers with quality assurances might be difficult, especially in Europe's largest market for new-car sales.
Alfa scored 25th out of 28 brands in the 2004 J.D. Power and Associates German Customer Satisfaction Index Study.
Alfa hopes its maintenance incentive will not only win it private customers but also fleet buyers by reducing their ownership costs. About 40 percent of lower-premium sales go to fleet buyers.
Keep it fresh
The 159's predecessor, the 156, was successful in its first three full years of production, but volume tumbled to less than 50,000 units last year (See graphic).
The 156 slipped because Alfa was slow to replace the car, which was on the market eight years compared with six years for the German brands.
Alfa also didn't keep customers interested in the 156 by continually introducing new options - something that the German brands do well.
"We want to keep the 159 volume stable at over 110,000 units a year as long as possible by using an aggressive product life cycle management,” Kalbfell said.
To do so Alfa will add a six-speed automatic transmission, supplied by Aisin of Japan, and a Formula One-inspired Selespeed automated manual transmission early next year. The sportier GTA version of the car arrives later.
Alfa is the first carmaker to offer direct injection only on all of its gasoline engines. The technology, called JTS for Jet Thrust Stoichio-metric, does more to improve the car's power and torque than to reduce fuel consumption.
The 1.9-liter engine delivers 190hp, the 2.2-liter 185hp and the 3.2-liter V-6 260hp. These three engine blocks come from General Motors' Australian subsidiary Holden. They feature Alfa-specific alloy cylinder heads, including double hydraulic variable camshafts.
Another way Alfa aims to vary its lineup is by offering four-wheel-drive versions of models like the 159.