Image: Alfa Romeo 8C Competizione sports car
Alfa Romeo
Only 500 of the 450-hp ‘8C Competizione’ sports cars, shown left, will be made.
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updated 4/9/2008 10:18:38 AM ET 2008-04-09T14:18:38

Alfa Romeo is returning to the United States in late 2009 in spectacular fashion, with a curvaceous supercar the company hopes will quickly reacquaint Americans with one of Italy’s most distinguished brands.

Made in Modena, Italy, at the Maserati plant operated by the Fiat Group, only 500 of these 450-horsepower sports cars, called the 8C Competizione, are slated for production. The car went on sale in Europe in September 2007. A mere 90 of those 500 are destined for the United States, where they’ll reportedly be sold through select Maserati dealers this year for between $200,000 and $250,000. A convertible version called the 8C Spider will be available at a later date in a likewise limited edition of 80 units.

"It's nothing in a market of 17 million units a year," says Pierluigi Bellini, a senior automotive analyst with Global Insight in Italy. "It's a symbolic thing to boost the brand image."

Although Alfa stumbled over its U.S. marketing efforts in the past — a casual attitude about advertising being part of it — the company’s reluctance to self-promote this time around could be a calculated decision so that its vehicles make a big splash when they finally do appear.

"It’s a great way to reintroduce Alfas to Americans. The enthusiasm will be infectious," says Redding Finney, director of advertising and events at Maserati of Washington, a Dulles, Va., dealership that also sells Ferraris and Lamborghinis. "I think with Alfa coming back, it will be like the kids who think Jimi Hendrix is a god — they weren’t even in diapers when he was alive. There’ll be a new generation discovering Alfa."

The company has been talked about a comeback for awhile, but several things stood in its way. First, the Fiat Group, Alfa's parent company, which also owns Ferrari and Maserati, finally disentangled itself from a 2000 agreement that gave General Motors a 20 percent stake in the company.

Second, Alfa had a reputation of spectacular unreliability to live down. But with genuinely sporty cars like the Brera and Spider now in its lineup, the new company seems well positioned to reverse perceptions.

Global Insight’s Bellini believes that the U.S. holds great potential for Alfa. Interest in the 8C Competizione will translate to increased sales of other, lower-priced Alfa models, he says.

Alfa Romeo wouldn't say what its plans are beyond the tantalizing 8C Competizione. But industry analysts speculate that the Alfa Romeo Spider convertible and 159 mid-sized sedan will reach the United States in 2009, followed by the larger 169 sedan and GTX SUV.

"We expect sales to reach 20,000 units in the first two or three years, and it might get to 30,000 to 40,000 later. That can be a start," Bellini says.

Those numbers are ambitious compared to Alfa's previous sales figures.

The company entered the American market in the late 1950s and saw success with nimble, sporty cars like the Guilletta and Spider convertibles — Dustin Hoffman even drove a Spider in the 1967 film “The Graduate.”

Alfa Romeo sold its last vehicle in the U.S., the 164 sport sedan, in 1995, after watching sales hover around 5,000 units per year since about 1980, with a few exceptions.

In theory, Alfa's sales should have increased more dramatically during this period. Its competition had vanished, leaving Alfa Romeo the lone remnant from an old guard of charismatic European automakers that included Austin-Healy, Fiat, and MG. There was a small surge in sales when Fiat left the U.S. in 1982. But even with the Alfa Romeo Spider as the only remaining European roadster available to Americans, annual sales reached more than 8,000 units in 1986, and that's it.

By April 1989, the arrival of Mazda’s then-revolutionary Miata roadster signaled the final death knell for Alfa Romeo in the U.S. It soon became apparent that maddeningly quirky Italian sex appeal was going to be trumped by a roadster that was nice on the eyes and entertaining to drive but, above all, dependable.

"The Mazda folks saw an opening and grabbed it brilliantly,” says Brewster Thackeray, vice president of the U.S. Alfa Romeo Owners Club. "The Miata cost less. That’s very significant. It also offered up Japanese reliability. Anyone who chose an Alfa after the Miata was introduced surely did so for the cachet and legacy, or its beauty. Because on virtually every other front, the Miata had the advantage."

Alfa countered by moving the Spider up market. "With the 1991 redesign, the car was striking but still appealed to those who wanted a new 1960s sports car and were willing to pay high dollar for it," Thackeray says.

As it turns out, few were willing. Sales of all Alfa models dropped to 3,478 units in 1991. By the time the company pulled its cars from the U.S. market in 1995, sales had dwindled to a trickle of mere hundreds per year.

Poor quality and reliability played a large part in Alfa Romeo’s departure, says Michael Stanton, president and chief executive officer of the Association of International Automobile Manufacturers (AIAM) in Washington, D.C.

Alfa Romeos were notorious for rusting. Then there were technical idiosyncrasies, like knowing exactly when to release the key during ignition so the engine wouldn't be flooded due to an overly eager fuel-injection system.

"If [buyers] couldn’t figure that out, it was tough to get people to buy another one, because they were always getting jump-started," says Craig Morningstar, who spent 20 years working in marketing and public relations for Alfa Romeo in the United States.

Alfa was also hampered by a U.S. dealer network that had been pieced together over time, as well as a reluctance to advertise, Morningstar says.

"Alfa has a tremendous heritage. The cars are built by enthusiasts, not necessarily marketing people," he says.

No one understands that more than Alfa Romeo owner enthusiasts, known as Alfisti. "Alfa does a terrible job of marketing their cars," says one Alfisti who didn’t want to be identified as bad-mouthing the brand he has driven since the mid-1960s.

Still, Stanton sees Alfa's return as a positive sign: Rarely does an automaker leave the American market and come back with a stronger lineup. "Usually when a maker goes down, they go down and out," he says.

In Alfa's favor is its unending appeal to those who want the brand’s character-filled legacy of style and power. The current focus on better fuel economy might also bode well for the brand.

“Alfa Romeo makes phenomenally good diesel engines that are clean, engines that other companies buy. That's a really good endorsement if other companies buy your powertrain," says Kim Custer, AIAM’s director of communications.

Good endorsements notwithstanding, some Alfa Romeo enthusiasts have their doubts about the company’s return, simply because they've heard rumors about it for so long. “It's difficult. We get excited when we hear it this time but not too excited. We remain skeptical,” says Thackeray, who bought his first Alfa in 1996 and now owns five.

Others are ready to believe their patient passion will be rewarded. Many Alfistis eagerly recite which models they expect to come to the U.S. market and their ramifications, almost as if they are part of the company’s marketing team (in a way, maybe they are).

But if people other than Alfistis are going to crave the cars, Alfa Romeo needs to spread the word this time around.

"Let's just hope they do it right," Thackeray says. "There's a track record with some room for improvement. It's been painful. It goes back before Alfa left the U.S. There were a lot of times when people who loved these cars felt frustrations as they didn’t reach their full potential in the U.S."

Most of the issues the company grappled with are long gone. The quality and dependability of Alfas no longer pose problems, according to reviews of the latest models on sale overseas.

Carmelo La Spina, president of the Chicago Alfa Romeo Owners Club, predicts less-extravagant models than the $200,000 8C Competizione will find buyers nationwide. Even if the cars don’t have mainstream appeal, sales could still take off because Alfistis are "always looking for another," he says.

Val Herrera embodies La Spina's theory. The Texas engineer owns 10 Alfas and just gave one to his son-in-law to restore. "I would dearly like to see them here for the long haul,” he says. “If they can pull off this marketing thing and be sincere about this attempt, I think they will have people flocking to their showrooms. These are cars you pass from generation to generation."

© 2007 ForbesAutos.com

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