As if the U.S. auto market weren't crowded enough, Italian automaker Fiat plans to reintroduce the Alfa Romeo brand here in 2008.
Alfa pulled out of the United States 11 years ago because of nagging quality problems. Since then, Alfa execs have plotted their return.
When it looked as if General Motors were going to cozy up to Fiat, there was talk about selling Alfas in dealerships alongside Cadillac and Saab. That fizzled.
Since about 2000, every time you talked to Alfa execs at one of the European auto shows, the topic would get around to coming back to the United States. So it's fitting that Fiat Auto CEO Sergio Marchionne is expected to announce the plan formally at the Paris show in September.
The new plan is to tuck Alfa Romeo in with its sister brand, Maserati, which is sold in America by about four dozen dealers.
Here's the catch: The first cars off the boat won't be cute little Alfa Romeo Spiders like the one Dustin Hoffman drove four decades ago in The Graduate. This time Alfa plans to sell a few hundred powerful high-end sports cars that cost more than $200,000 a copy.
If the big-ticket cars are popular with Americans, volume models are sure to follow within a couple of years.
You have to figure that there are a couple of hundred Americans who'll buy anything Italian. But when the popular-priced sedan, coupe and Spider get here, they'll face stiff competition from brands and models that have become entrenched in the United States during Alfa's absence.
Undoubtedly, there are dedicated consumers pining for the time they can once again buy a moderately priced Italian car in the United States. Some potential customers may even be aware of the cachet of the Alfa Romeo brand. But there also may be some customers with long memories of things gone wrong the last time around.
So even with modest ambitions, if the Alfa Romeo brand is to re-establish itself in America, the quality needs to be bulletproof.
You may e-mail Edward Lapham at [email protected]