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Alfa Romeo to take another run at U.S. market

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

Alfa Romeo pulled out of the U.S. market in 1995, done in by slumping sales and grumpy customers.

Now the car brand that gained fame as Dustin Hoffman's ride in "The Graduate" is planning an encore, with parent company Fiat, Italy's largest car maker, saying it will resume selling Alfa Romeos here.

Details are sketchy enough that some analysts question whether it will really happen. If it does, taking on entrenched rivals such as BMW and Audi will be daunting.

"There are already too many brands for the market to absorb," said Kevin Smith, editorial director of automotive site Edmunds.com. "Do we really need another marque?"

Fiat, based in the northern Italian city of Turin, is taking a toe-in-the-water approach.

The limited edition Alfa 8C Competizione -- a high-performance coupe expected to cost more than $200,000 -- will go on sale in the U.S. this year, the company has said. A limited edition 8C convertible will come in 2009.

Those forays would be followed by more affordably priced models, likely candidates being the 159 sporty sedan, the Brera coupe and the Spider two-seater.

The Spider is the model most likely to create a buzz with buyers on less-than-super-car budgets. It hearkens back to Alfa's glory days in the 1960s, when the sleek little drop tops were the very essence of jet-set cool.

Some analysts are optimistic about Alfa Romeo's return to the U.S., noting that its recent offerings have been well-received in Europe.

"The new crop of stylish, performance-oriented vehicles would likely stack up very well as a more stylish alternative to BMW, or act as an excellent step up from such low-priced sporty brands as Mazda," analyst Aaron Bragman of Global Insight wrote late last year.

The red Duetto that Hoffman drove in "The Graduate" may be the best known Alfa Romeo, but the brand has roots in the European auto industry reaching back to the early 1900s.

Alfa was especially noted for its success on the race track. Enzo Ferrari (yes, that Ferrari) was an early driver, and a 158 Alfetta won the first Formula One World Championship in 1950.

The brand became something of a cultural icon in its homeland, appreciated by fans -- known as Alfisti -- for its fashion-forward styling and technological innovation.

Americans with a taste for peppy, race-ready sports cars also found Alfas to their liking.

"You could drive it to work Monday through Friday and put it on the track on the weekend," said Norm Silverman of Chatsworth, president of the 400-member Alfa Romeo Owners of Southern California.

When Silverman was looking for a vintage sports car 15 years ago, it didn't take him long to settle on a 1965 Giulia Spider Veloce.

"I turned the engine on and it was love at first sound," he said, referring to the Alfa's distinctive growl.

"You know an Alfa when you hear it."

Despite a small coterie of Alfisti, Alfa was never a big player in the U.S. market -- selling 8,000 cars was a big year, said Craig Morningstar, Alfa's longtime U.S. public relations chief.

Fiat, which bought the brand in 1986, partnered with Chrysler as a way to expand Alfa's presence in U.S. showrooms, Morningstar said. The arrangement was less than ideal, he said, because Chrysler salespeople had little incentive to push the Italian cars.

"You can make the best car in the world, but if you have a lousy group of dealers selling them it's just not going to work," he said.

Alfa could face the same problem this time around. The limited edition 8C models will be sold through Maserati dealerships, but there's been little information from Fiat about dealership plans for the main lineup.

And then there were the quality issues. Alfa Romeo developed a reputation for unreliability and poor customer service that still dogs the company.

"That's the biggest hurdle they face," Smith of Edmunds said.

"In most people's minds, they still represent marginal reliability and the market is just completely intolerant of that now."

martin.zimmerman

@latimes.com

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