Let’s start with Alfa-Romeo. I’m an Alfisti from way back, having owned both a 1976 Spider and a similar vintage Alfetta. The latter (for which I paid all of $50) was absolutely rusting away, but it still handled wonderfully and made the most intoxicating noises. I’m as seduced by Italian design as anybody else, and Alfa — too long absent from our shores — always had it to burn.
Alfa is really back with the Giulia, a proud model name in the company’s history, originally produced from 1962 to 1978. These were very pretty sedans with small (often, a mere 1.6 liters) twin-cam four-cylinder engines and lively handling. Americans loved them, but they were never numerous on our shores. Today, they’re zooming up as classic cars. A squarish and fully restored 1967 Giulia could be $50,000, says Hagerty.
Alfa’s history matters, which is why its press conference was crowded with classic models, and its brochure is too. The four-leaf clover (“quadrifoglio”) insignia goes back to a race in 1923, when driver Ugi Sivocci put it on his RL Targa Florio for luck — and he won. Weeks later, he died at the wheel of another racer without the symbol, so all Alfa racers carry the clover now.
I was reminded of all this as Alfa introduced the new, more upscale Giulia in a tent outside the convention center. The sound system was terrible, but I think I heard them describe the new model as “the fastest, quickest, most technically advanced sedan in the world.” And I got this much — the very handsome Giulia, with perfect 50-50 weight distribution, is coming, with a base model priced at $40,000 and a top-of-the-line Quadrifoglio at $70,000. They won’t go on sale until late 2016 or early 2017.
Alfa, a small branch of Fiat Chrysler, has already entered the U.S. market with the fancy 4C sports car, but that has barely made a ripple — just 562 sold so far. Alfa wants higher volumes.
The Giulia uses a Ferrari-developed all-aluminum 2.9-liter twin-turbo V-6, connected to a six-speed manual and putting out an amazing 505 horsepower in its Quadrifoglio variant. Zero to 60 takes 3.8 seconds, and it can reach 191 mph. The performance Giulia benefits from an all-wheel-drive system that uses torque vectoring to optimize power to the wheels, active suspension and a braking system that incorporates stability control.
The Italians aren’t above thumbing their noses at their German rivals. I seem to recall a slide contrasting an Italian fashion model in shades with a pigtailed German fraulein in lederhosen hefting a pair of beer steins. FCA’s Sergio Marchionne wants to sell 180,000 Alfas in the U.S. by 2018; that will be a tall order.
The Italians were out in force at the L.A. show. Also coming from FCA as a 2017 model is a Mazda Miata-derived roadster called the Fiat 124. Again, we’re talking heritage here. The original 124 Spider was, alas, another determined ruster, but its perfectly lovely Pininfarina styling made up for it. The car was sold from 1966 to 1980, and nearly 200,000 were made, three-quarters of them ending up in America. They were and are cheap used cars (8,000 remain), and I almost owned one numerous times.
According to CEO Olivier Francois, the Fiat brand jumped back into the American market with the mini 500 five years ago at a time when “there was no car park to sell to,” meaning we had no track record of buying small cars. The original 500 wasn’t even sold here. But 200,000 of the new and retro 500s have been sold. The ads shamelessly sell Italian sex appeal.
“For the 50th anniversary of the 124, we are returning to the open-air market,” Francois said. He admitted that it’s not actually a huge segment, but it will certainly enhance Fiat’s foothold in the U.S. A 160-horsepower turbocharged four-cylinder motor shared with the Fiat Abarth is under the hood, coupled with a six-speed manual (hurrah!) or an automatic (boo!). Here’s a chance to unleash your inner Andretti, Fiat says.
I know, the Mazda Miata from which this car derives isn’t exactly Italian. But, then, it wasn’t English, either, but it managed to upstage such attractive but finicky and trouble-prone entries as the Lotus Elan, MGB and Triumph TR4.
At the Los Angeles show, I was able to spend some time with Tom Matano, formerly head of Mazda’s California design studio and the co-creator of the Miata along with Mark Jordan. He told me about infusing soul into the original car. He told the engineers to think about the owner putting the car away in the garage, and turning around to give it a pat. Now Matano is heading the school of industrial design at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco, turning out restoration specialists to keep the classic car tradition alive.
The best Italian cars (and some Japanese ones, too) have style and plenty of soul, too. I’m showing off some of the cooler classics on display all over the Los Angeles show.
Here's the 124 Spider on stage, on video: