What if you could reinvent the BMW 3 Series? Cadillac, of all brands, has come close with its ATS, though if you trace the 3 back to its 2002 roots, the car’s image is more step-up semi-premium, the image and position Buick wants to recapture. In terms of image and pricing if not dynamics, the original Audi A4 occupied the space in the market that Alfa Romeo could best serve in the near future.
Sergio Marchionne, the CEO of both Chrysler and Fiat, as well as Automobile Magazine's Man of the Year for 2013, has the right brand for the job: Alfa Romeo. Not quite BMW, though with a sportier, more prestigious image than Fiat, the brand built its last rear-wheel-drive car in 1993, before returning with the expensive Maserati-based 8C Competizione.
You know Alfa Romeo announced it would build a new Spider by 2015 in a Mazda assembly plant off the next-generation Miata platform. Earlier this year, my alma mater, Motor Trend, reported Fiat would build a rear-wheel-drive Alfa Romeo sedan off the new SRT Barracuda platform, though news on that front has since been fairly quiet.
In a brief interview this month, Marchionne confirmed to me the RWD Alfa sedan plans in vague terms.
“Fundamentally, the Mito and the Guilietta are the only true Alfas left, from the original portfolio that I inherited,” Marchionne says. The Alfa lineup doesn’t need to consist entirely of RWD cars, he says, “but it needs to have rear-wheel-drive cars. The 4C that is coming is rear-wheel-drive.”
Marchionne, his public relations executive later confirmed, was not just talking about the 4C or the Miata-based Spider. There’s a sedan in the works, and indications are it will be sized somewhere between a BMW 3 and a 5 Series. “Even the other ones that are coming are not mainstream pricing, in that I see Alfas always selling at a premium,” Marchionne says. “It’s not going to be an entry-level car. And you’ll love the car.”
“You’ll (the U.S.) be the first market we’ll launch in. My sincere hope is that we can bring it here by ’14.”
Give credit to Ralph Gilles and his longstanding desire to design a modern 1970 Plymouth Barracuda. The RWD cars in the Chrysler-Dodge lineup since model year 2005 came from Daimler’s hand-me-down Mercedes E-Class architecture. The Dodge Challenger was even larger than its Nixon-era namesake because the platform’s tall front cowl required a long wheelbase and body for proper proportions. The Challenger is 197.7 inches long, on a 116.0-inch wheelbase, although it’s classified as “midsize” because of its tight rear seat and overall interior dimensions.
Though we don’t know how much smaller the SRT Barracuda will be, a sub-110-inch wheelbase would be a good guess, with overall length somewhere in the mid-180-inch range. An Alfa sedan off the same platform might be closer to the BMW 5 Series in size. If it’s priced between that of, say the Dodge Charger or the Barracuda, and below the base price of a BMW 328i sedan, it could bring in near-BMW, near-Audi profit margins.
“Everything we build [as an] Alfa needs to satisfy the requirements of the Alfa brand,” Marchionne says. “The big benefit from Chrysler is the large architectures required to support vehicles that compete in the high end of the market are all standard architectures. They’re all an incredibly good starting point for Alfa. That doesn’t mean you can take them as they are, but you can take them as a basis, and after you change suspensions and modify engines … the architecture is an incredibly good starting point. Without Chrysler, that would have been almost impossible to get done.”
Imagine that Volkswagen had a quality, low-cost rear-wheel-drive architecture for big VWs as well as Audis, and you can understand what Marchionne is talking about. Now, imagine it the other way around, that VW owned Alfa and relied on its mostly front-wheel-drive architecture for new models. Ferdinand Piech has imagined something like that, and his unsolicited bid to bring the storied Italian brand into VW Group helped Marchionne realize he has a gem in need of repolishing.
“He wants to buy it,” Marchionne told me. “The era of world domination ended … a few decades ago. I think he should stop playing with that notion.”
If Marchionne can implement his plans, he’ll have made Alfa Romeo what it should be, with FWD small cars priced near Mini on the low end, and aspirational RWD sports cars and sport sedans on the upper end; cars for people who have grown bored with Honda Accords, Ford Fusions and VW Passats, but can’t pay BMW prices. That will happen so long as Marchionne finally returns the brand to the U.S. market, just eight years late, but in much better shape.