The Alfa Romeo Giulia. The Italian car maker’s US sales surged — but off a low base. Picture: SUPPLIED
The Alfa Romeo Giulia. The Italian car maker’s US sales surged — but off a low base. Picture: SUPPLIED

New York — Alfa Romeo, the Italian brand built (and rebuilt) on 1960s sex appeal, posted the biggest surge in US sales in 2017, an anachronistic result in an industry mesmerised by battery packs and self-piloted transportation pods.

The car maker won its bragging rights the old-fashioned way — through performance. Alfas have curb appeal, powerful engines and solid engineering.

Make no mistake, car executives are watching the Alfa Romeo experiment closely.

It’s not something one sees all that often in the car business. Fiat Chrysler assembled an experimental unit of marketing gurus and Ferrari engineers and told them to dream big. It also promised to "protect" them from senior leadership — the people who look for the kinds of parts-sharing, co-operation and badge engineering that make a contemporary car conglomerate a profit machine.

The bar for success, of course, is very low for Alfa Romeo. The Fiat Chrysler-owned brand has been largely dormant in the US for almost 25 years. In 2016, the marque sold just 528 vehicles in US.

In recent months, however, Alfa launched a sinuous sedan and SUV. Both are made in Italy, both feature carbon-fibre drive shafts and both brag about "best-in-class" horsepower metrics. The cars have stolen some market share from BMW, Mercedes, Cadillac and the rest of the luxury set.

When Fiat Chrysler pledged to resurrect Alfa in the US, it promised vehicles with great weight distribution, a lot of horsepower per kilogram and mouth-watering design. After all, this is a brand responsible for what some call the sexiest car ever made.

According to car critics, the brand delivered. Motor Trend magazine even crowned the Giulia its "car of the year".

Although sales of the car have been strong, Fiat Chrysler’s rivals in Stuttgart aren’t likely to be scared. Alfa has just 177 US dealers, about half as many as BMW and Mercedes. In the two segments it has nudged its way into, the car maker still isn’t near the frontrunners, or even in the middle of the pack. Among entry-level luxury sedans, the Giulia captured only 2% market share in the recent quarter.

"We want to make sure we earn our position in the segment," said Pieter Hogeveen, Alfa’s director in North America. "It’s not just chasing sales numbers for us."

If Alfa Romeo can keep convincing enough drivers it’s special, it will have the pricing power to tune up its profit metrics.

Indeed, the brand’s renaissance in the US has helped shore up Fiat Chrysler’s profit, even as sales skidded at sibling brands Chrysler and Jeep. Alfa may never be big enough to carry the company’s dead weight, but what it lacks in size, it makes up for in style.