Centrifugal Force

Here we go again around the carousel

There does appear to be a dispiriting circularity to the fortunes of FCA’s Italian brands of late. So much so in fact, that it’s often difficult to keep up with the merry-go-round’s centrifugal impulse.

Maserati: Sales up, sales down. Now it appears to be Alfa Romeo’s turn on the pinwheel. According to an opinion piece published on Automotive News Europe last week, Alfa’s European six-month sales to June have slumped 42% by comparison with the same period last year.

Piling ignominy upon misfortune was the much-quoted revelation that the Biscione has been outsold by the domestic market-only, seemingly impossible to kill white hen, Lancia delivering 34,693 revenant Ypsilons over the same timescale to Alfa Romeo’s 29,059. Furthermore, Alfa was surpassed during the first half of 2019 by Tesla, Jaguar and Porsche, while serially underperforming Lexus is currently nipping at the Milanese brand’s heels.

Having shipped over 120,000 vehicles globally last year on the back of robust demand in the US and China, North American sales have dropped 26% during the first half of the year and like everyone else, FCA’s Chinese market fortunes are in reverse. Worse still is last month’s European sales figures, with Alfa Romeo’s deliveries dropping 56% in Italy, 66% in France and 70% in Spain. What on earth is happening?

What we know is that Alfa Romeo’s core models in Europe are either very long in the tooth (Giulietta) or have already met their date with the eternal (MiTo). The Giulia on the other hand; arguably the most superficially attractive car in its sector is a fine car according to most assessments, while even if its appearance is not an entirely unqualified success, the Stelvio crossover is at least equally competent, yet neither is performing anywhere close to market projections.

Some might point out Alfa Romeo’s longstanding reputation for mechanical and electronic frailty, but the current models don’t appear to be significantly worse in that area than many. Then there is pricing, with many of the view that the fabled Italian marque has not quite earned the right to charge premium prices for its wares – a matter of debate perhaps.

However, an area of the ownership experience FCA seem either incapable or unwilling to address is that of their dealers. Firstly, try finding one. But of even more significance is the dealership ambience itself, which does seem, despite Alfa’s upmarket pretensions, to be anything but.

Add in a level of service which is consistently criticised, so even if the product was class-leading, the customer experience leaves something to be desired. Because what the numbers tend to underline is that while customers might be tempted to give the Scudetto a punt, they are perhaps less minded to repeat the experience.

There is speculation now, which has been echoed by ANE’s commentator, that within FCA’s new regime under Mike Manley, Alfa Romeo has ceased to be a priority, and with no new product in the pipeline, reputedly until 2021, Alfa’s decline seems unlikely to be arrested anytime soon by the injection of new product. Clearly, Alfa needs the promised Tonale CUV now, not in two year’s time, when it will definitely be too late.

Mr. Manley’s priority appears to lie with mergers and acquisitions so once again the Biscione’s fortunes appear to be in a holding pattern, pending better fortunes. Meanwhile, the situation is not aided by the revolving door of chief executives who arrive, before just as swiftly departing again – the most recent being Tim Kuniskis, who barely warmed his seat before being whisked back to the land of the free. Continuity and consistency, never particular bywords at Arese, certainly wouldn’t hurt, but frankly the only area of consistency one can discern is FCA management’s inconsistency.

Where all of this is going is hard to predict, but it doesn’t require a genius to establish that it doesn’t at all bode well. And while some of us suggested at the time that it would be an upward struggle to re-establish Alfa Romeo in the wake of its enforced hiatus, few could have predicted just how difficult it would prove to be.

Yet here we are once more contemplating another period of suspended animation, pending the next revival phase. How much longer can the agony be prolonged? Has Alfa’s last chance already been squandered or is there a way back from here?

Author: Eóin Doyle

Co-Founder. Editor. Content Provider.

21 thoughts on “Centrifugal Force”

  1. Try to have a look at or a test drive in a Giulia at FCA’s German Frankfurt HQ.
    On one side of the road you get Volvo, Mercedes, BMW, Smart and Jaguar-LandRover dealerships, on the other side you get Porsche, Lexus, Infiniti, Audi and FCA.
    The only one with absolutely no space to park your car is FCA.
    You have to drop your car somewhere else and walk there.

    Then you see a Fiat showroom full of 500s and a Spider, then a separate showroom for Jeep and Alfa (how on Earth did they come to the conclusion that American bricks and Italian sports saloons should be sold from the same showroom?).
    In that showroom you pass about a dozen different Jeep variations only to find an empty space where the single Giulia is supposed to be on display.
    After about ten minutes the sales man has ended his ostensibly private phone call and you ask him where you can have a look at a Giulia. You then hear that they only have one single Giulia (at the importer’s HQ, no less!) and it has been pressed into service as their demonstrator, leaving no car for the showroom. And no, you can’t look at the demonstrator because in ten minutes it will be needed for a customer test drive. You can’t even look at the car for these ten minutes because when said customer arrives the car has to be immediately available. And no, there are no brochures and price lists. But if you wouldn’t mind to drive thirty kilometres to the opposide end of Frankfurt there might be a Giulia on display at their workshop but it is not possible to phone them to make sure there is one because nobody will answer the phone call.

    The only thing I knew was that I was right in terminating my long term affair with Alfa.

    1. Good morning, Dave. Your experience is so depressing to hear and is, I suspect, still not untypical of Alfa Romeo dealerships. At the risk of assuming a national stereotype, if it’s like that in efficient and businesslike Frankfurt, what might it be like in sleepy Norwich, my nearest city? I don’t think I’ll bother to find out. I looks like Alfa Romeo is killing the prospects of the Giulia and Stelvio, the best cars the company has produced in years, through sheer indifference to what potential customers rightly expect in terms of service. If it’s like that before you buy, just how bad will the after-sales experience be?

      On the rare occasions I visit a dealership, I try to avoid the oily embrace of a sales executive and much prefer to examine the object(s) of my attention alone. (That presupposes that there is a vehicle there to examine!) The best approach to any potential customer is to cheerfully acknowledge their arrival, offer to assist if required, then leave them to get on with it.

      My worst experience was at an Audi dealership in london many years ago. My partner and I drove for an hour across London on a busy Saturday morning for a prearranged test-drive of an Audi Convertible. We arrived to discover that the dealer principal’s wife had “borrowed” the only car for the weekend. No apology or offer to rearrange, just an indifferent shrug from the bored looking salesman. I ordered a BMW 325i convertible on Monday morning.

      Since it was launched in 2016, I’ve seen a total of one Giulia, and that was in Dublin, not the UK. I admire the bravery of anyone who puts their own money into one, but I couldn’t. Is Alfa Romeo’s only hope of salvation now that it might be sold off to another manufacturer while there’s still some value in the brand?

    2. Efficiency and business orientation can be found at the next address where Audi sells more than 4,000 cars per year. They have to split their business into three outlets because they only can choose from three Ingolstadt-prescribed building sizes and even the largest one isn’t nearly large enough for their business involving about 2,500 corporate leasing cars per year for which they have a dedicated outlet.

  2. All FCA service seems to be like this.
    I found it in London, and in northern France. Maybe they are wrongly motivated/rewarded.

    Luckily I have, 50km away, a dealer and service provider who specialises in Italian exotica, and also all Alfas and Lancias.
    He can procure any recent model you want, and is currently advertising a 1950s Appia too.
    He’s not cheap, of course, as his technicians are not spanner monkeys, but highly trained and wear nylon gloves.
    He and I also share a passion for Nikons, so that’s nice too!
    Look up Bongiovanni at l’Aigle.

  3. I’ve had a very poor dealer where I used to live. They were unclear, did unnecessary work while ignoring the work that was asked of them. On the upside, this made me delve into maintaining and “repairing” (= a new wing mirror) the 156 I drove back then. They once decoupled the battery and charged 50 euro’s because they needed to order a new radio code. A radio code can be found online. But complaining of poor dealers is nothing new to the internet.

    Upon the release of the Giulia, the dealer in my new area had a launch event. There were cars in all specs and colours, with some available for a test drive. There were snacks and drinks and friendly staff members.

    The main problem for Alfa Romeo is the company, and some of its dealers, don’t believe in their own products. They throw them on the market, in the case of the Giulia as a genuinly good car, but then simply forget about them. Prospective companies feel such a lack of self confidence.

    It’s easier to tap into the optimism of – say – Tesla than in a twilight story like Alfa.

    I will still drive a second had Veloce in a few years’ time.

  4. This is hopeless. Bad dealerships have been a staple of AR for decades. It is well-known, almost as well-known as the problems with reliability. AR don´t seem to want to live to judge by the indifference shown to the customer-company relationship.

    1. I wish there was a way to visit the parallel universe where VAG under Piech bought Alfa from FCA a decade ago.

    2. Hmm, it would have been interesting to see just how VW Group would have gone about reviving Alfa Romeo. Unfortunately, it seems unlikely that the Wolfsburg bean-counters would have sanctioned a unique and expensive C/D-segment RWD platform purely for the Italian brand. My guess is that the Seat brand would have been retired and Alfa would have taken its place as the “sporting” variant of the group’s shared architectures. At least the after-sales experience should have improved (somewhat!)

  5. I have a soft spot for Alfa Romeo. I was interested in cars from a very early age and in the small village where I grew up there were no Alfa Romeos, until one of the kindergarden teachers swapped her beetle for an Alfasud ti. I was in primary school back then, but I walked past the Sud every day. I can still remember that car vividly.

    Fast forward to 1993, my parents decided to buy a second car as my dad used the BMW e34 we had and my mom needed transportation too. Some people say you can never be a petrolhead until you’ve owned an Alfa Romeo. Well, I still had one year to go before I got my driving license, but I managed to persuade my parents and we visited the Alfa Romeo dealership. And there was a bright red Alfa 33 we took home. Perhaps not the greatest of Alfas but we all loved it and it served us well. Soon I got my driving license and I ended up driving the 33 the most. I’ve driven quite a few Alfas since, a 75, 156, 164 and 166.

    Over years the number of Alfa Romeo dealerships was reduced, but sadly also the quality of them. Last time I went to an Alfa Romeo dealership was to have a look at a Guilia soon after it was launched. There was one Guilia in the dimly lit showroom. The car was squeezed in between a great number of Fiat 500’s and Panda’s, almost as if they were ashamed of it. I spend quite a while there, but my presence went completely unnoticed. Is the Guilia a great car? Well yes, according to some reviews I’ve read. Sadly I haven’t had the pleasure of driving one and I doubt I ever will given my last experience.

  6. Poor dealers, poor range, poorly Alfa. No USP any longer. Sadly I have to ask why anyone would buy one.

    I’ve owned six Alfas through the years but currently can’t see there being a seventh other than a classic perhaps.

    1. Hi Adrian. The present Giulia may well prove to be a classic for all the wrong reasons, if it ends up being the last thoroughbred Alfa sporting saloon. A nice second hand example with the backup of a good independent Alfa specialist would appeal.

    1. It worked ok for me and I started to look at the Giulias they had on sale at my local dealership. Here’s a typical example:

      Alfa Romeo Giulia
      Nero Edizione
      Engine: 2.0 Turbo Petrol 200hp  
      Average fuel consumption: 7.8 mpg 
      Emissions class: EURO6D_TEMP
      £ 36,290

      Note the average fuel consumption! I think it should read 7.8l/100km. The same error occurs with all the listings which is lazy and careless: doesn’t any of the dealedship’s employees look at their own website?

    2. At least the UK website states the Giulia’s body type as saloon.
      At the same place their Austrian and German sites classify the roof type as flat.

      Some people never learn.

  7. Even the Stelvio crossover fake SUV has dropped in sales in North America, defying the trend. On reliability: “but the current models don’t appear to be significantly worse in that area than many. ” There must be many other duds on the Euro market I haven’t heard about then!

    Car and Driver’s Giulia Quadrifoglio was a complete reliability horror over 40,000 miles:

    No reason why Manley would spend any more money on the marque when FCA can coin gold on RAM pickups. FCA isn’t a charity but a business yet the Italian side of the business was well subsidized by Marchionne utilizing group profits, which was his call and I’m not complaining, although Americans certainly have. Manley couldn’t care less about the fluffy stuff so the Fiat/Alfa/Maserati side of things is unlikely to see much investment for the future.

    Overall, however, the entire group makes shoddy vehicles and seems unable to assemble high quality goods. What they need to do is develop a decent quality assurance process, and the exact same could be said of JLR. Languishing at the nether end of the reliability stakes for decades should have already prompted some actiuon in that regard, but nobody at FCA seems to care about about getting down to the nitty gritty of hard work. Pride in product as distinct from design appears to be missing in action.

    1. Hi Bill. An interesting and depressing US perspective. Do I take it from your final paragraph that the build quality and reliability of RAM vehicles is also substandard? I wonder if the US market for pick-ups less demanding in this regard than for cars, given RAM’s strong sales?

    2. An acquaintance of mine recently leased a Range Rover Evoque (the outgoing model), after he had to write off his first-generation RR Sport (2.7l diesel), once its turbocharger failed – by which point he’d already invested a five figure sum into its maintenance, over just two years’ time.

      He obviously hadn’t learned his lesson, and has had to return the Evoque to the dealership four times since. That JLR didn’t get a handle on the quality of a model that’d been in production for years by that point is cause for considerably embarrassment. Particularly as Ford had made great strides in that area (at least when it came to the Jaguar side of the business).

      Bill, contrary to your sources, I was told by people in Turin that Manley is actually starting to invest in (European) product development again. Once the most recent Alfas had been launched, FCA didn’t have a single new Fiat/Alfa/Maserati model in the pipeline, which obviously doesn’t constitute a long-term plan.

      Maybe the upcoming recession will result in the European business being wound-down or merged, but for the time being, FCA seem determined to reenter the business of developing, producing and (hopefully) selling motor cars.

  8. I had a bit of a shock whilst in an FCA dealership because our 500 was in for its service/ MOT. Generally speaking, the experience was as other have described – marques seem haphazardly paired up, or grouped, and there is hardly any sense of a range of models as one would normally expect with any of those brands. That wasn’t the shock though.

    I was chatting to the Service Manager and he pointed two cars out to me … a Grand Cherokee and a limited edition (Nurburgring?) Stelvio. Both were well optioned and hence had a sticker price of … £95k! Now, I know £ has depreciated a lot recently , but £95k!!! I did ask whether there had been any takers, to which he reply was ‘a few, yes’.

    These are extraordinary prices – surely, in real terms, that’s the most expensive Alfa Romeo ever! I love the idea of owning an Alfa, but I can’t imagine anything bringing me to the point of paying that much for any new Alfa, no matter how many stickers, bells, whistles and racing helmets the dealer wants to chuck in with the car itself.

  9. It’s so depressing to me – I’ve had six Alfas and the last few have been a steady dilution of the bare-metal feel I fell in love with. Currently driving a 159 Ti TBi, which at least has enough torque in the engine to give it a nice push, but the whole thing feels like being encased in a baguette (or maybe an arancini). I’d love to try out a Giulia but I know it would have too much technology. They’ve chased BMW and Audi in the listaken belief that it would broaden their appeal, whereas the 4C was the real way forward for them – being a niche, knowing they are a niche and doing it well.
    I reckon I will just put my next car budget into rebuilding my decrepit 116 GTV 2.0, at least it’s fun to drive and I can feel the mechanicals.

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