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Alfa Romeo making its U.S. return after 18 years

Image: Alfa Romeo 4C
The Alfa Romeo 4C will blaze a return to the U.S. market for the Italian maker.The Detroit Bureau

It was already building cars by the time Henry Ford switched on his first moving assembly line, but despite a long and proud history both on the road and on the track, you may never have heard of Alfa Romeo and almost certainly may never have driven one.

The Italian manufacturer of the slick little sports car Dustin Hoffman drove in “The Graduate,” Alfa Romeo abandoned the U.S. market in 1995, the victim of endemic quality problems and fast-shrinking sales. But with its parent Fiat SpA now married to Detroit’s Chrysler, Alfa is getting ready to stage a long-awaited comeback.

An all-new supercar, the Alfa Romeo 4C, will make its debut at the Geneva Motor Show less than a month from now and then start rolling into U.S. showrooms before year-end. If all goes according to plan, the Italian maker hopes to quickly add three more models and target more established European luxury marques like BMW, Jaguar and Audi.

The news is resonating loudly among a small but devoted group of “Alfisti” who have watched with disappointment as the Fiat subsidiary repeatedly postponed plans for a comeback. Indeed, Fiat CEO Sergio Marchionne made that one of the key elements of his turnaround plan after the maker took control of Chrysler following its 2009 bankruptcy.

But while most of the Chrysler revival strategy has gone according to plan, Alfa’s return soon fell behind schedule, and during a media roundtable held during the North American International Auto Show last month, Marchionne signaled yet another delay, noting problems with the powertrain planned for the 4C.

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It just didn’t have the right feel and sound, the chief executive lamented, asserting that if Alfa couldn’t come up with a “Wop engine,” it wasn’t going to come back to the States. Apparently, that motivated the troops. Barely two weeks later, plans for the 4C were finalized.

“This undertaking to bring Alfa back is a one-shot deal,” Marchionne cautioned. “We are not going to do this twice.”

Today part of the Fiat empire – which includes not only the Fiat and various Chrysler brands but also Maserati and Ferrari – Alfa Romeo debuted on June 24, 1910, the product of a French consortium and Italy’s Nicola Romeo. The name was short for Anonima Lombarda Fabbrica Automobili, or the Lombard Automobile Factory.

The company quickly built up a strong reputation for its performance in motor sports and for its striking, street-legal sports cars. But its fortunes rode a roller-coaster before Fiat took Alfa over in 1986. Things haven’t done much better since then, and many industry observers believe the return to the U.S. could be Alfa’s make-it-or-break-it move. If the strategy succeeds, Alfa hopes to more than triple sales to 500,000 over the next several years, the U.S. market accounting for nearly 20% of that volume.

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Fiat has offered a first look at the new Alfa 4 C supercar, three advance images closely resembling the concept car first unveiled at the 2011 Geneva Motor Show – and quickly going on to win an assortment of awards across Europe. The latest kudo comes from Britain’s popular What Car? magazine, which recently named it the “Most Exciting Car of 2013.”

Alfa is aiming for the “tip of the spear,” echoed auto analyst Joe Phillippi, of AutoTrends Consulting, staging its return with a striking “halo car” that won’t get lost in the crowd. It will feature track-ready technologies including an ultra-light carbon fiber chassis and a turbocharged four-cylinder engine that Alfa hints will be one of the most powerful in the segment, at least in terms of the power-to-weight ratio, a more accurate measure of performance than raw horsepower.

Though the maker is saving key details for the Swiss debut, industry reports suggest the Alfa Romeo 4C will likely come in somewhere between $75,000 and $100,000 and, “at that price, I’m sure their volume expectations will be modest,” said Phillippi, “though they’ll probably meet them.”

Longer-term, the Fiat subsidiary will add more product to broaden its range – including an affordable sports car it has agreed to develop in a new partnership with Mazda Motors. The Japanese maker will use its version of that 2-seater to replace the aging MX-5 Miata model.

Part of the challenge for Alfa will be standing out in an increasingly crowded and competitive market – a challenge similar to the more mainstream Fiat brand which got off to an extremely slow start after its late 2011 return to the States.

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Like Fiat, Alfa will have to rebuild a reputation tarnished by the poor quality of the products it rolled out in the late 1980s and ‘90s. “They will have to pass muster,” stressed analyst Phillippi, “and show they can get fit, finish and refinement right.” There are too many other options available otherwise.

The fact that a generation of American buyers has had little experience with Alfa is both good news and bad for the brand’s planned comeback. It will take some creative marketing – and plenty of dollars – to rebuild awareness, company officials acknowledge. On the other hand, the hip, young and affluent buyers the brand covets will largely have little direct knowledge of Alfa’s past problems.

Regaining a foothold in the U.S. could be the breakthrough Alfa needs. But if it doesn’t succeed? Senior Volkswagen officials, including CEO Martin Winterkorn, openly covet the Italian marque. For now, Fiat chief Marchionne insists Alfa isn’t for sale. And if the 4C succeeds it won’t need to be. But if the U.S. revival falls flat, well, all bets are off.