The Deep Dive: Give me your Alfas, your Fiats, your Skodas

Europe’s mainstream brands, overwhelmed by Japanese competition, all but abandoned the U.S. market in the 1990s. Now, encouraged by the success of brands such as Mini and Volkswagen and facing an increasingly desperate economic situation at home, some of them are looking to return or dramatically increase their presence here. Like an inspector at Ellis Island, Georg Kacher evaluates the most likely immigrants:

Alfa Romeo
It has been a long boat ride for Alfa, which has been strategizing and re-strategizing its journey to America for a decade. It finally arrives by the end of this year in the form of the 4C coupe. Alfa plans to devote one-third of the sports car’s total production to the United States. Brand purists can also look forward to a topless 4C and a more affordable Spider based on the next Mazda Miata sometime in 2015.

Things get a bit murkier after that, as Fiat/Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne is still tweaking the portfolio. We’ve long expected a small crossover based on the new Jeep Cherokee, which already looks something like an Alfa Romeo with its sharklike nose. More surprising, perhaps, are possible plans to offer a full-size SUV based on the Grand Cherokee. The mid-size Giulia and the compact Giulietta, both based on the same architecture as the new Dodge Dart, are still in the plans, as is a rear-wheel-drive sedan.

It’s common for new immigrants to use the money they’ve earned to bring over family members from the Old Country. And so Fiat’s early success in the United States — sales reached nearly 44,000 last year and are on a stronger pace so far in 2013 — heralds the arrival of several more models. They include not only spin-offs of the 500 but also versions of the slightly larger Panda, which is itself spawning a sub-brand. Indeed, all Fiat cars everywhere will be variants of the 500 and the Panda going forward. The 500 lineup will include the 500L, the more SUV-like 500X, and a larger version that’s internally called the 500XL. The Pandas will scale higher in size, topping out with a mid-size crossover.

Building out from these two charismatic cars makes more sense for the U.S. market than any of the other milquetoast offerings in Fiat’s current portfolio: it’s doubtful that Americans would be interested in the likes of the Freemont, a rebadged Dodge Journey.

Most Americans probably have never heard of Skoda — understandable since the Czech brand’s limited history here ended quietly in the late 1960s. Yet it, too, is secretly preparing a return to the States. Like all brands under the Volkswagen umbrella, it has ambitious sales goals. It also enjoys access to the VW Group’s global component sets, such that Skoda models debuting after 2014 will be either compliant with U.S. regulations or very close to being so.

Those new products include a sedan, which one source described as a Mercedes E-Class for the price of a Jetta, and three crossovers, ranging from the Yeti to a seven-passenger offshoot of the Tiguan.

Skoda would face an uphill battle in the States, especially given that it’s purely a value brand and thus won’t offer flashy designs or class-leading technologies. But VW Group certainly has enough resources to make a serious attempt at establishing a U.S. presence.

The decision to bring the new Smarties to America was made so late in the cars’ development that Daimler has to fork out nearly $400 million to modify the cars to meet U.S. regulations — another indication that the brand will continue to be a bottomless money pit.

The new ForTwo arrives in 2015. Its biggest improvement is the nearly five-inch increase in width, which should subdue the current model’s unnerving tendency to wander on the highway. It also dumps the rough sequential transmission for a seven-speed dual-clutch automatic. Three-cylinder engines will still sit behind the driver. A convertible and an 85-hp electric variant should arrive a few months later, followed, perhaps, by the larger ForFour.

The most promising Smart won’t be much of a Smart at all. Rather, it will be a small crossover based on the next-generation Nissan Juke. It would likely offer a 150-hp, 1.6-liter engine paired to a seven-speed automatic.

“I felt the commitment from Germany and feel it from Mercedes-Benz USA. Like anything new, some wondered how we really fit. Now people understand we’re two separate brands that live in the same family.” — Tracey Matura, general manager for Smart in the United States

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