CARte Blanche

by Philip Djaferis

Archive for the category “Just Cars”

Roll-on 2016 with FCA

Since the unveiling of the new Giulietta little has stirred in the Alfa stable. Lots of noise for sure, with images and film of fast laps around the Nurburgring etc., presentations at Autoshows but beyond this nothing! Is everything going OK? Me thinks not…in my view the style of the new Giulia was not a step forward and it already looks old before it even has sold one unit. My hope for ‘to-die-for’ styling were dashed the moment I saw it. Coming only as a 4-door to fight the mighty M4 and the like is also a misstep. Sedans are definitely not the major market segment in Europe so even the tamer versions which we are promised but not seen yet will hardly be setting the world on fire.

FCA sales have been creeping upwards thanks to the new 500X which is beginning to get some sales traction and the Jeep Renegade which appears to be developing into a successful foray by Jeep into lower segments. The Fiat 500L is nowhere outside Italy and if we are to take Marchioness quote in respect of the entire Lancia range i.e. that it lacks appal outside of Italy he must be thinking hard about its future – major cosmetic surgery required I think. The interior is fine, but it desperately is needing a nose-job!

Lancia, which I just mentioned is barely on a starvation diet and the recent unfortunately result from the EuroNCAP test has not helped except to bring to the attention that the brand still exists in some for or other.  FCA can’t afford such failures when its already down…they still have a chance to revive Lancia if they could concoct a new Delta Integrale based on the DNA of the last Evo…just do it Mister Marchione!

The new Tipo is another flight of fancy seemingly at odds with what we were being preached about the core values of Fiat. On the one hand we have the 500 franchise which apart from the 500L seems to be delivering on tis promise, in the middle the Panda which is bobbing along OK, but mostly in Italy, the Punto in suspended animation and now suddenly we are told that we have a value proposition in the making to rival Dacia?! Please…! Well, they have been struggling to explain to us a new story now and it might just stick but they have to bring the message clearly across that Fiat is a trendy and fun brand (500, Panda, new 124 spider) but still has family values at heart…while they are thinking about it can they stick a 150PS engine in the Tipo please? and a new Punto maybe?

Globally, Fiat seems to be sending mixed messages too. Brazil, China and India hardly share anything! No further comment.

But Alfa? Lots of promises but little delivery up to now, meanwhile competitors are dishing out so many models and variations that one can’t count them any more or describe them…a formidable catch-up exercise if there ever was one.

Maserati might have had a lot of potential but limiting it to the upper echelons has its limits…lower down it would be rivalling Alfa Romeo as the brands DNAs converge far more than Lancia might have had…

Chrysler and Dodge are purely North American name-plates and inevitably on the endangered species list unless something radical happens. The failed attempt of marrying Lancia and Chrysler was an utter disaster…it killed Lancia globally and Chrysler had a reprieve due to the ready to take-off 200. Some broader base is required to actor the brand and become a credible long-term rival to Buick and upper end Fords, Japanese, Koreans and lower premium brands. Meanwhile, Dodge deprived of RAM as a volume generator (in statistics at least) is also trying to reorient itself – once the Charger and Challenger are forced to move into the future and away from their platforms where will they head? I somehow doubt that Hemi-V8s are the future…

Jeep appears the only brand in the FCA stable which knows what it is there for and developing nicely so it looks like driving the show down the line.

So let’s see what Mister Marchione and his merry men (and undoubtedly numerous women) will serve us in 2016.

Happy New Year!!!

Anticipating Alfa…

Alfa Romeo’s sales are in free-fall. The MiTo is effectively forgotten and overtaken and the ‘premium’ Giulietta outclassed in every respect by the ‘generalist’ Golf. The 4C is a super-niche product and effectively a life-support element till new Alfa Romeo’s is launched.

Undoubtedly Alfa Romeo brings a huge amount of heritage with it and its a highly recognisable brand but as we are seeing from the fate of the MiTo and Giulietta it seems that only a diminishing number of die-hard Alfa fans are buying them and the base of existing owners and drivers has been diminishing for a long time. The so-called premium brands from Germany have crowded the market and have numbed the collective conscience of car buyers to believe that in terms of things automotive only a German brand can carry the premium credentials with any level of confidence. Volvo is trying to regain some of its allure, Jaguar has barely made a blip in the D segment with its XF and has invested an enormous amount into its promising XE range. Infiniti, Lexus and Cadillac are just side-shows in Europe and largely irrelevant now except for some of their niche products.

Come June 24th Alfa Romeo is set to unveil its new and yet unnamed challenger to the BMW 3-series and Mercedes C-Class and Jaguar’s XE. The anticipation of Alfisti all over the world is huge, but who will buy it? Looking at the Italian market, most potential clients have already drifted to Audi and BMW and in the other key markets like the UK where even Jaguar has had a hard time convincing its home crowd to switch ‘everyone’ is driving a BMW 3-series or Audi A4 already.

Mr. Marchione has delayed launch of the new ‘Giulia’ as he was seeking perfection.  The time gap between the demise of the 159 in 2011 and 2016 when we might see new cars on the road is an entire car’s life-cycle long…initially we were expecting to see the new car in 2013 so there will be no excuses if the product is anything less than better than all the competitors; ‘good enough’, like the 159 was, won’t pass muster. I also hope that if they come up with a station wagon version that it will be a useful car ably competitive with the German peers and the same goes for the rather overcrowded SUV market. How many rabbits can he pull out of his hat in quick succession?

One can take styling supremacy as a given, or at least one would expect it, but apart from that he has to deliver products which are class leading in each segment he enters. Comparisons will be rigorous and without mercy now that the rear wheel drive platform will be absolutely comparable to the main competition.

Will Alfa Romeo regain its allure? It will be a tough call. The product has to be ‘bullet proof’ and that not all. Their sales network is not the best and mostly a part of the Fiat network with too many very ‘low rent’ looking outlets. Enhancing them to look anything close to what BMW or Audi offers will take years as well as huge investments from their partners who have hardly been subsisting on the current products. Customer experience is what all in the premium tout and second best won’t do here either. and motor sport? when was the last time anybody saw any Alfa Romeo mixing it with the best? The German DTM was an amazing platform for them in the past, and hopefully they will have the spunk to go into something like that again.

Alfa Romeo is living in interesting times, to use an overused cliché…

Fiat post 6th of May 2014

On the 6th of May, Mr. Marchione revealed his grand plan for the Fiat-Chrysler group for the next five years. Its still too early to tell how much of his vision will ever see the light of day but he has a lot on his plate.  It’s sad that for the Lancia brand the end of the tunnel doesn’t seem to have too much light – it would be a travesty to see this storied brand relegated to mini cars which are not part of its DNA.  Reading through the lines it appeared that the brand would only survive in Italy but rumours are already going around that the brand will also live on in at least the Benelux.

Mr. Marchione maintains that there is no brand recognition for Lancia beyond Italy. Whilst not as known as some other brands, Lancia has such deep heritage that it could easily be used to market it in a very powerful way.  Even today, Lancia is selling in greater absolute numbers than Alfa-Romeo in nearly every market where both brands are available, so obviously the potential is there if the right products are offered.

Billions have been earmarked for Alfa-Romeo’s revival and the trickle of information that we have been given indicates that it is on the right path – innovative, light-weight, sporty and rear wheel drive cars.  The catching up that they will have to do in relation to the Germans is formidable. What is curious is that when BMW is moving to front wheel drive products extending down the ladder their model palate, Alfa-Romeo is dumping the MiTo…Let’s wait and see what is on store for us…the 4C is a niche product and can’t be considered as a for-runner of things to come. It’s more of a flag-waiver and keep our notional appetites satiated while we wait for more…

And Fiat? The 500L is making some headway but why oh why this silly 500 branding? This is also leading to some rather amorphous styling which runs counter to Italian design flair expectations.  In another month we will be served the new 500X which in terms of product will be very welcome, but again, shame about the 500 moniker.  In any event its bound to look better than the ‘fugly’ Nissan Juke which despite its ugly duckling looks and practicality of a music box has been a sales hit.

The focus of the brands on the other side of the pond seems to be better concentrated.  Dropping the SRT as a stand alone brand is the right approach. Dodge & SRT go together well.  Leave the two to grow and enhance each other – shame that Dodge was withdrawn from international markets as it could have been well marketed as Americana and American brawn that Ford could not copy as in the psyche of European buyers, Ford is more Fiesta and Focus rather than Mustang Cobra…

So, let’s wait and see…and as for me, a current Lancia owner looking at how I can replace my current car, I’m increasingly looking at German offerings…

 

Its now FCA! Fiat Chrysler Automobiles

It has been some time since I put pen to paper and a lot of water has flowed under the Fiat-Chrysler bridge since.  

Incredibly Alfa Romeo is still languishing with essentially two models in its portfolio, setting aside the rather irrelevant in terms of volumes but nonetheless delectable 4C. The powers that be have decided not to invest in a weak market and also were drawing up plans for cars that probably nobody would wish to buy – sadly a trap that the Fiat group has fallen too often into the past few years.

So, instead of now, we have to wait for another year or two before we see a new mid-range Alfa to go head to head with BMW.  Hopefully the right products will emerge.  Mr. Marchione is promising a lot and one has to hope … 

Over at Fiat, the 500 ‘brand’ is sadly taking shape; the first variant is 500L and from what I observe its failing to make an impact except in Italy.  The exterior styling, at least from the front is a mega flop and the interior, although nice looking is very youth oriented and the back seat is uncomfortable in my view.  The stretched 500L Living is revolting to look at…The Punto is being allowed to wither and the Bravo is on its death bed.  The Freemont née as some sort of Dodge is trying to make an impression as a faux soft roader SUV/minivan and it doesn’t compare to anything else on the market, always a challenge in terms of marketing.  We are waiting with baited breath for the 500X, which hopefully will be a better looker than the 500L.  We have no mid-range Fiat at all! It looks like Fiat is more and more looking at niche markets in a manner that Nissan had abandoned medium sized cars and went with the Qashqai and Juke…

And Lancia? A total failure.  As I predicted in my previous article a couple of years back, the Flavia is an absolute flop – last stocks are being flogged off at half price as I write.  The Voyager sold a few to taxi companies and the like whilst the 300/Thema is languishing unsold in showrooms.  The Delta, compromised as it was from day one on the market is ceasing production in July 2014 with no replacement in sight.  The Ypsilon soldiers on on its own…too small for most buyers in my view or perhaps not small enough for others! In any case also a compromised design.

It all looks rather bleak…well, at least Ferrari and Maserati seem to have a clear product path…

A view of where Fiat is…

This is my favourite pet subject because I am passionate about Fiat and the sister brands of Lancia and Alfa Romeo.

I grew up in the 1950’s and started to really appreciate cars in the 1960’s.  At that time all these three brands had unique characters, work class products and all three had quite enviable reputations, class leading products and cutting edge design.  They could stand comparison with an peer whether german, British or French and in many areas they were superior.

Fiat was a design icon, had a range of cars covering a very broad spectrum of the market, from mini-cars like the 500 to exclusive grand touring cars like the 2300S. The 2300S sold at prices comparable to high en Mercedes or Jaguar models and was equally aspirational.

Image(Photo courtesy of Fiat)

In 1969 Fiat launched the trend-setting Fiat 128 which essentially set the blueprint for all modern front wheel drive cars. It’s design was of a charm and simplicity unsurpassed since.  It also spawned a series of derivatives which were all extremely successful in their individual niches. At the other end of the spectrum was the 130 salon and coupé which again were able to compete equally with similar German cars like a Mercedes 300S – the Fiat was arguably the car of superior quality.  The coupé by Pininfarina is a classic of serene elegance.

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What happened thereafter? We can’t blame it on the unions, albeit they were giving the management constant head-aches at the time.

It was not all doom and gloom but the 130 was Fiat’s swan-song in the upper segment – excellent products but they had a hard time convincing people to go for them rather than the ascendant Germans. The late 1970’s Ritmo hatchback and the 131 Mirafiori were bright spots.  The Uno of 1983/84 was another brilliant car which made other contemporary superminis look cramped and just second rate – the Uno was even outselling the VW Polo in Germany!

Somehow Fiat could not capitalise on their strengths by building even more quality into their brilliant designs.to the effect that their solid advantage in their home market started being eroded by Italians beginning to fall in love with the VW Golf and similar.  The alarm bells did not go off soon enough…

But what was up with Lancia and Alfa Romeo? Burdened by debt, and mismanaged by its owner, the Vatican, Lancia was gobbled by Fiat for one Lira in 1969.  Legacy models like the Fulvia and Flavia (2000) soldiered on for a while, but the first new Lancia under Fiat tutelage was essentially a disaster even though from some perspectives a sound concept.  The Beta saloon came with a fastback but rather bloated look – no elegance, no sportiness, no class…how could Fiat foist such a car on to traditional Lancia buyers? It had a sound front wheel drive transaxle, clever independent rear suspension at the back, good (Fiat sourced) twin-cam engines, but the build quality, rust protection and styling were all rather wanting.  The coupé which followed had decent styling but the quality issues were similar to the saloon, which was quickly restyled to give it a smoother and less bloated look…however, around that time a scandal blew in the UK involving rusting Betas – in the UK Lancia has not recovered from that negative advertising as the press keeps referring back to it even over 35 years later, when Lancias are arguably some of the best rust protected cars on the market.

The Delta, based on the Ritmo but with its own rear axle was in a sense the car that saved Lancia’s future. It was crisp, fresh, room, sporty and cutting edge.  The only Lancia to ever be voted Car of the Year.

I’ll skip forward to Alfa Romeo which joined the fold in 1984, clutched from the Italian Government’s hands after they made a mess of it.  A key failure was to transform large Alfas to front wheel drive rather than rear wheel drive.  Till the late 1970’s Alfa Romeos were considered the equals of if not superior to BMW but rather than investing in bullet-proof reliability along with best in class performance, they spent money on designing stupid dashboards and quirky design elements that nobody asked for or wanted…the large model 6 was a flop – totally unworthy of the Alfa Romeo brand – it was stodgy to look at, too complex mechanically and second rate in performance.  No wonder it flopped in the market.  

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The 164 which replaced it had elegant Pininfarina clothing but the front wheel drive concept buried it in the long run; the Alfasud might have been successful in the compact class with a FWD chassis but buyers of large cars demanded rear wheel drive, which followed the advice of motoring writers who preferred them.  Arguably, 99% of buyers would probably be better off with FWD but the market demanded RWD.  Manufactures ignoring realities of what the customer want have paid the price in many product ares and why should cars be different?

Well, enough of history and fast forward to 2012.  Where are these three brands today?

Fiat is on a life-support drip.  The 500 is keeping it barely alive in terms of market and brand awareness. The Bravo is ancient and despite its nice styling is largely ignored by ‘Golf Class’ buyers.  The Punto is now well and truly overtaken technologically by all its main competitors. The new Panda is great but its being hurt terribly by the VW Up! and its ‘co-religionsit’ Skoda and Seat. The Qubo and Doblo are pretty irrelevant even if very competent in the segments they sell in.  The new 500L looks promising but the engines on offer at launch seems quite weedy for the size/weight – its pretty porky compared to its half-brother 500.  I haven’t driven it yet but would assume that it would be OK in places like the UK, Holland, northern Germany and similar places which are pretty flat but I would not anticipate with glee a drive over a Swiss mountain-pass loaded with spouse, three offspring and luggage…a bigger engine please, and pronto! I’ve driven the 500 with the Twin-Air engine and its a delight!  

So, although the markets are depressed Fiat is bleeding market-share to those who are launching fresh product in their segments.  The onslaught of Hyundai/Kia must be particularly worrying and the styling of Kia, and specially the new C’eed (what a STUPID name) station wagon should be giving Fiat some sleepless nights.  Replacements for the Bravo and Punto can’t come too soon…

Where is Alfa Romeo? The Mito and Giulietta are decent products but are not drawing enough crowds…I mean buyers, because they simply not good enough to be best in class, and Alfa has to better than a Golf if the press is to wax lyrical about it.  Specially in terms of performance, handling and ergonomics it has to better the Golf let alone the Ford Focus, A3 or 1 series BMW; now it also has to contend with the renewed A class. As for the Mito it somehow has lost its lustre too quickly, and I wonder if it appears on shopping lists of those who eventually purchase a Mini or Citroen DS3.

The replacements for the 159 and 166 are sorely missed as is a spider and a coupé/GT.  Urgent!!! The story of the cooperation with Mazda bears promise.  I just hope that what eventually appears is different enough from the MX-5 – ideally with its own engines and even better, Alfa-spefiic rear axle.  Cooperation with Maserati for a large car also sounds promising but I wonder if we’ll ever see that…let’s see what will happen with the promised and necessary crossovers…

And what about Lancia? Chrysler seems to be driving it at the moment and the rumour mill tells us that there might be a new ‘Fulvia’ below the current Delta and twinned with a new Chrysler 100.  If they do this right it could resurrect the success of the original Delta…the replacement for the Chrysler 200 (Flavia) could also make waves if its competitive with the best Japanese.  In both instances though station wagon versions are a must for success in Europe.  Crossovers would do no harm either. Coupés would also be desirable. As for the replacement of the 300/Thema my outlook is bleak as long as the product keeps American proportions. Lancia buyers look for something looking Italian – elegant and sleek. The Ypsilon seems to be out on a limb as its irrelevant to the US market and beyond Italy is failing to make any significant inroads.  In my opinion it was a mistake to base it on the Panda platform. Perhaps some more effective marketing would help it? It was some unique USP’s – very compact mini luxury car, frugal engines, pretty good design, but outside Italy who notices it or knows of its existence?

The current situation in Europe looks bleak for the group. Market share is dismal, the product palette very bare and in many areas uncompetitive and the new product pipeline ostensibly delayed by several months/years.  The example of the Panda’s delay, allowing the Up! to come out simultaneously must be costing dearly. Fiat should dig deep into its roots and come up with designs and products which emulate the 128, Uno, Delta, Alfasud, X1/9…world-beater cars are what are needed again. The press will then take care of the free advertising… 

We want a great Fiat group again!

 

Fast Forward to 2012 and where is the Fiat Group in Europe going?

Where is the Fiat group heading 2012 in Europe? The past year has been rather anti-climatic for them with barely anything new to show.  The New Lancia Ypsilon finally made an appearance with over a year’s delay.  Too little too late? Well, it definitely did not make a splash at the Geneva Show where it was launched as it was swamped by multitudes of other launches which were given much more press.  The ‘world’ has not yet accepted the forced marriage of Chrysler with Lancia and their incongruous and ill-fitting products.  The traditional Lancia ‘face’ has been ditched for an anonymous set of bars supposed to meet the requirements of both Chrysler and Lancia, why this was necessary is incomprehensible, and reading what their new design director and  Lorenzo Ramaciotti, 63, (formerly with Ferrari) state that he feels the need to differentiate the images of Lancia and Chrysler bears credence to this.  “It’s extremely difficult to succeed in a strategy of globalizing design,” said Roberto Verganti, a management professor at Milan Polytechnic. “The risk is making international cars with no personality. When you buy a Lancia, you are looking for a piece of Italy, and when you choose a Chrysler, you are getting a slice of America.” I could not have put it better myself! But I’m digressing…

It appears that just after a few months on the market special colour options are being offered, (as shown at the 2011 Bologna Auto Show which just closed its doors a few days ago) which does not surprise me, because at launch the offerings were drab browns, greys and blacks apart from white, a rather sad choice for what essentially is supposed to appeal to women primarily. So, let’s come forward to 2012. Apparently we are going to be served a Lancia Flavia Convertible in 2012 based on ‘positive’ feedback garnered from Geneva…hard to believe but then I am not an insider.  It will be powered by a weedy 175PS 2.4 Litre 4 cylinder engine, unlikely to set any enthusiast’s heart on fire but perhaps some well heeled women may be drawn to it rather than to an Audi A5 or BMW 3 series cabrio…

The Thema, neé Chrysler 300C id definitely an impressive piece of kit but with a limited choice of engines of 3L and more its unlikely to appear on too many people’s shopping lists.  If one compares the variety of engines that Audi offers their A6 with or Mercedes their E Class you will see my point.  It will be competing at the higher end where it will be interesting to see if it will appeal to earlier Lancia Thema/Kappa/Thesis owners or to die-hard American car fans who had fallen in love with the brawny looks of the 300C.

The promise of 8 speed gearboxes for the diesel engines is welcome but its a shame they were not available from launch.  Staying with the diesels for a moment, these are new engines and it will be fascinating to see how they will fare in comparison tests with the German competition.  The 3.7L Pentastar version would on paper be more competitive but the market for large displacement engines like that is very limited in Europe.  Which brings me to the Voyager. Lancia’s version of the Chrysler Town & Country.

It has been heavily refreshed, at least on the inside and the face receives the new insipid Lancia-Chrysler grille.  Engine choices are the aforementioned Pentastar and the venerable 2.8L and four-cylinder engine developed by VM Motori, now wholly owned by FPT. This is definitely not ‘state of the art’ and it will have a hard time to convince anyone that it can keep up with the competition in terms of performance and dynamics. This may give it a niche market for customers who need a large van with lots of gadgets and a cool looking interior, which undoubtedly is quite impressive and very versatile with its ‘stow n go’ seating.  I can’t see someone who is looking at a Renault Espace or Ford Galaxy comparing them to the Voyager which is more of a luxury cruiser than a family holdall…

Meanwhile the Delta soldiers on with minor updates and the revised grille.  It’s not easy for it as in comparison tests the only area it scores positively in is interior space.  Frankly this is not good enough for a Lancia – at least performance and handling must be the equal of the best in the class and its sadly not there.

With just the Mito and Giulietta carrying the brand forward till new products, promised for 2013/2014 make a bow Alfa Romeo finds itself in a very precarious situation at the moment. The Mito is somehow not fulfilling its promise and to my eyes lacks the aura that one expects of a true Alfa while the Giulietta although graced with a good mix of engines and equipment is still not top of the class in terms of handling…if cars like a Ford Focus overshadow it in that respect Alfa really needs to go back to its roots and reinvent itself .  The fact that it’s also limited to one body style is also a disadvantage.  No sedan, no convertible, no coupé, no station wagon… In Europe a very large percentage of sales goes to station wagons and the entire Fiat group does not even offer one at present!  A roomy, sporty Alfa SW could have been right on the money but investment in that area has been starved…The replacement for the 159 is delayed as is that of the 166 and promises of a soft-roader are still just that for now although the rumour mill is getting hotter – whatever comes out has to be world-class or else…would a design like this Kamal concept stand a chance against the avalanche of products from the German premium brands or the brand new range Rover Evoque?

The bar has been set very high by the competition and Mr. Marchione’s team have a lot to live up to…in the mean time, Alfa remains on ‘life support’ sustained by the quite credible if not perfect Mito/Giulietta duo.  We are likely to first see a sports car launched, which will be more of a halo car and not a volume vehicle.  In my opinion, something prices between a Mazda MX5 and a BMW Z4 would have had a pretty good chance of success provided it was rear wheel drive.

Fiat seems to be getting some traction again. The new Panda has the make up of a winner and shows up the new VW Up! and its siblings look weedy and small. The engine choices are adequate, quality is up there with the best and pricing very aggressive.  If it delivers what it promises Fiat is up to a good thing.  They have incorporated the Fiat ‘whiskers’ appearing on the 500 quite elegantly and they look as though they were designed in from the beginning.  Fiat is not giving up its lead here!

The revised and refreshed Punto also looks like a very attractive proposition and is bound to attract sales that it lost in the last year with a wayward restyling exercise which proved a mega sales flop – they planted ‘whiskers’ on its nose, but they looked like unwanted appendages.  Whoever signed off on that remake is hopefully no longer responsible for any design work at the company…

You can see how the 0ld and new compare and I am certain that this refresh will help revive flagging sales of the Punto Evo which had been sold along the Grande Punto for the past two years.

The Bravo soldiers on unchanged and is also rather lonely in the range, without a two door or station wagon to support it.  The ‘new’ Freemont, which is a rebadged Dodge is trying to be too many things and although in itself pretty competent, it does not compare too favourably with Europe’s best.

It’s task is to cover the gap left open by the highly praised and even more derided Multipla and the competent and trusty Ulysse – what the Freemont brings which neither of its predecessors offered is all wheel drive and that will appeal to buyers who wish the kudos of all terrain capability with family hogging qualities combined.  The economical and solid FPT diesels are key to its success and for those who have slightly deeper pockets the optional Pentastar V6 will be just the ticket!

What Fiat desperately needs in its lineup is a compact station wagon to compete with the likes of the Focus and Astra.  The Bravo is getting a little long in the tooth and with only one 5 door model on offer it simply does not cover enough of the relevant market segments. With the new C-Evo platform underpinning the Giulietta promising so much and the new CUSW (C U.S. Wide) spun off it for North American models such as the soon to be launched Dodge Dart there is hope that the Fiat brand will be profiting from these too.  As I write there is news trickling in that a new 5-7 seat people carrier will be unveiled in Geneva in March 2012.  This is good news as it is bound to be a fresh product to replace the less than successful Idea and perhaps cover some of the gap that the Multipla left open and not being addressed by the Freemont.

But where to with Abarth? Public awareness of the brand is not high, but the potential for it to grow to counter Mini Coopers and the like is significant. We need to see Abarth engaged more in sport and although this might be going contrary to accepted wisdom in terms of premium brands, it could perhaps be developed and make out of it something like the M division at BMW or AMG at Mercedes.  It definitely has the potential as well as the heritage to draw upon.  The potential casualty in this type of a scenario would be an even smaller chance that Lancia would be given back its ‘wings’ in the sporty arena…

Synergies with Chrysler are beginning to bear fruit both on the platform as well as the power-train side.  Multi-air technology is delivering what it promised and we await to see more applications of it other than on the twin-air and 1.4L engines.   Fiat’s outpost in Brazil appears to be doing very well and helps support the entire European operation.  There are grey clouds out there due to the economic downturn in Europe, but without new product to draw customers to the show rooms the future would be bleak.

We need to keep seeing more fresh and world-class products coming to us soon, or else the relentless advance of the German juggernaut will leave very little room for maneuver…

Italian presence at the 80th Geneva Auto Show – March 2010

The 80th Geneva Auto-show is currently on.  The only international annual Auto-show it attracts exhibitors and visitors from all over the globe.  What makes it so special and stand out from all other car shows is not only the presence of all significant manufacturers but also of the famous Italian coachbuilders like Pininfarina.  This year we see the comeback of Bertone with a stunning study commemorating Alfa Romeo’s 100th anniversary.

Alfa Romeo Pandion

Alfa Romeo Pandion by Bertone

Mike Robinson’s creation with scissor doors brings Bertone back into the limelight in stunning fashion!

Pininfarina which is itself celebrating its 80th anniversary this year also pays tribute to Alfa Romeo with a gorgeous 2-seater spider concept which it calls 2uettotanta.  The name plays with the words for 80 in Italian and Duetto, the name of a previous Pinifarina creation for Alfa Romeo from the 1960’s which had starred with Dustin Hoffman in the film The Graduate.

Alfa Romeo 2uettottanta by Pininfarina

The two cowls on the rear deck of the car are reminiscent of racing cars of the 1950’s.

Alfa Romeo 2ettottanta by Pinifarina

Coinciding with its 100th birthday, Alfa Romeo itself launches a brand new model in Geneva this year.  The Giulietta.  Borrowing a name from a model last produced in the 1970’s it replaces the 147 which being crowned Car of the Year in 2001 has served the brand well for ten years although sales suffered in the last couple of years with a constant flow of new competitors biting at its heels.  The Giulietta will from launch be available in four engine variations at five different power levels.  Two are diesels and two petrol engines ranging from the 1.6 litre 105PS Multi-jet diesel up to the top of the range 1750 TBi with 235PS.  You will have to be patient till June to lay your hands on one!  The Fiat Group is pinning a great deal of hope that the Giulietta will revive the fortunes for the brand.  The 159 series is languishing in a state of ‘life-support’ despite its many positive qualities specially with the new 1750TBi engines.  Past criticism of GM sourced power plants ought to be put to rest now, but nevertheless its a hard sell for people who only think ‘German’.

A new trend visible at the show was evident in ‘flat’ colour paints being used by several manufacturers.  One example was on an Alfa Romeo Mito in a matt white while a Brera was clothed in a menacing looking matt gunmetal grey-black!

But let’s get back to Italy’s coachbuilding scene.  Zagato has been one of the most flamboyant design houses over the years and this year they are presenting a production ready Perana Z-One, a Corvette V8 engined supercar first exhibited in prototype form at last years Salon.

Zagato Z-One Perana

It follows in the footsteps of past Chevy engined Italian exotica like the fabulous Iso Grifo and it will surely find its followers. The revival of long gone into hibernation Carozzeria is also celebrated in Geneva, Touring of Milan, made famous by their Superleggera (Italian for ultra-light) constructions which graced cars made by illustrious brands like Aston Martin, Lancia and Alfa Romeo. They are making an appearance for the first time in over 40 years with two creations. A coupé in the genre of the Zagato Z-One called the A8GCS based on the Maserati Coupé GranSport platform and the brand new Bentley Continental Flying Star shooting-break.

Bentley Continental Flying Star shooting-break

One hopes that all these projects succeed as they are surely enriching the car universe.  Some exponents are to my eyes less appealing and I am at a loss to understand who would wish to spend money on a car like a Foransari whose designs go so far out of the norm that one wonders which market its creators are after.  They are not particularly elegant, of enormous dimensions and rather plain features except perhaps the for the new RR600 Tender which has wooden inserts and applications worthy of a Riva speedboat. Foransaris are powered by 6 litre GM V8 engines and are obviously aiming at the very highest end of the SUV type market.

Foransari RR600 Tender

The vehicles (its hard to call such huge machines cars) are very bulky in all directions and are only suitable for wide open spaces.  The rounded shapes, total lack or sparing use of chrome, mostly with simple round headlights and lack of creases on the body-shell will definitely not remind one of an Italian exotic and have more of a luxury kit car look to them! Their logo in brushed aluminum also looks rather low budget…some chrome would definitely give the impression of higher value.  There is no alternative for the extrovert millionaire who wants a go anywhere vehicle…

Fiat, is at present ‘the’ Italian car manufacturer, having absorbed all the best known brands of the country still surviving other than Lamborghini. What is happening at Fiat is rather confusing as they do not seem to appear to have a concept of what they wish to be in their car lineup.  Sports cars have disappeared, large cars are gone, station wagons in the classic sense of the word inexistent, so what is keeping them afloat? The 500 is the obvious answer.  The new 500C appears to be a winner and the Abarth versions will definitely be hot selling items down the line. One also wonders what will happen with the 16 which is a joint venture with Suzuki and built in Hungary . Now that Fiat is cooperating with Jeep its days are definitely numbered…Their Geneva stand was one of the most refreshing, different and colourful and children seemed to enjoy it! However, the highlight of the stand was not the 500 or the 15 but the new twin-air 2-cylinder engine which will be appearing in productions later in the year.

Lancia is on ‘life-support’ depending on the very accomplished but rather ignored new Delta to sustain the brand internationally.  The new Hard Black version certainly has presence and looks very menacing and it will find its followers, but is likely to be eclipsed in terms of power by the new Alfa Romeo Giulietta which will make its bow soon.  The news that Lancia and Chrysler will be merged must be accepted with some trepidation as there are too many unknowns as to how the brands will function and what future products will offer.  The chances of Lancia moving up to compete in the ‘premium’ category with Audi & Mercedes seem slim. So where to Lancia?

Their brothers at Alfa Romeo have also been struggling to maintain momentum and the arrival of the new Giulietta comes not a moment too soon to beef up an impressive line-up which includes the Mito, 159, Brera and breathtaking but limited production 8C.  Will the market accept it? I believe it will be a success for Alfa as it encompasses all that one would look for in a sporty hot-hatch and will be a formidable adversary to the Golf, A3 and BMW 1 series, only if potential purchasers go and try it…

Coming to Ferrari now, where the stand was in ‘green’ mode with a Ferrari 599 GTB in a rather fetching light green metallic and championing new electric/KERS technology lifted from the previous season’s Formula 1 effort.  It will take some years to see the production version of this but it show one that super-car manufacturers are not immune to the inexorable trend towards lower emissions.

Ferrari 599GTB with KERS

Ferrari’s stand is always one of the most popular and the display was worth the visit…

Ferrari stand

Maserati, whose stand is just opposite Ferrari’s in Geneva had the new GranGabrio on show. It will be fascinating to see its progress in the market and in a niche where Maserati never covered before. of course, in the past Maserati played in the same league as Ferrari, but today is positioned slightly below Ferrari and addressing competition at the upper end of the lines of the likes of Porsche, Jaguar or Mercedes. Racing pedigree is kept alive and nurtured by the very effective MC12 which had made its appearance on the scene about three years before.

Maserati

Abarth is being treated as a separate brand in the Fiat pantheon and on their stand one could admire the 500 and Punto Abarths.  This surely was one of the smarter moves of Luca de Meo before he was poached by VW. Abarth has a glorious past and one awaits to see further fruits from this endeavor with impatience.  A small and lightweight two-seater sports car perhaps? The 500C on display, although a soft-top can’t really qualify as a sports car…fast for sure, sporty, certainly, but one can’t help but wait for a lithe and gruff two seater one day…

Fiat 500 Abarth

Supercars were an Italian invention and the choices don’t end with Ferrari and Maserati.  Pagani has been quietly and steadily been developing their 7.3 litre AMG Mercedes powered Zonda and the latest iterations of the Roadster and the R were there to be amazed at and drool over.

Pagani Zonda

Lamborghini, now firmly under the care of Audi and inter alia VW is slowly developing into an even more formidable competitor to Ferrari than it ever was. The Gallardo with its V10 engines and the Murcielago with its V12s display and arrogance and youth where perhaps Ferrari is more of the old boy on the block honing its quiver of irresistible machines to greater accomplishment…

Gallardo

The final exponent emanating from Italy was the IED design studio and they presented the following concept.  In my opinion its not ground-breaking in any way but a rather neat model reflecting the potential of the school.

To close this summary of Italy in Geneva here is a photo of an Alfa commemorating 100 years of the brand. Long may they live…

Alfa Romeo, 100 Years

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