Alfa Stelvio crossover critical to FCA turnaround

on Jun3

Stelvio, the name that Alfa Romeo chose for its first crossover, refers to the Stelvio Pass in the Italian Alps. To reach the spot, 9,000 feet above sea level, a driver must make 48 hairpin turns in the mountains.

Alfa’s drive in search of success has been a similar kind of twisting ascent.

The automaker’s new crossover will now be critical for the struggling Fiat Chrysler Automobiles subsidiary as it pursues its ambitious global sales target and its first profit in almost two decades in 2018.

Marchionne: Sees big Alfa sales upturn

Speaking in an April call with analysts, FCA CEO Sergio Marchionne said, “Alfa and Maserati together will sell 230,000 units in 2017.”

He forecasts that Maserati will sell about 60,000 vehicles, leaving Alfa to sell 170,000 globally this year.

That will be a dramatic twist for Alfa Romeo. The premium brand sold just 73,000 vehicles worldwide last year.

IHS Markit is less optimistic than Marchionne. The market research firm forecasts Alfa will sell 120,000 vehicles worldwide this year. The Stelvio, which Alfa is rolling out in Europe, will account for fewer than 25,000 sales globally, according to the forecast.

It will go on sale in the U.S. this summer with a base price of $42,990, including shipping. The vehicle comes with a 2.0-liter direct-injection intercooled turbo four-cylinder engine that yields 280 hp.

Alfa’s struggle is well-documented. It is amid its fourth revival plan since Marchionne joined the company in June 2004. The 5 billion euro ($5.62 billion) turnaround plan presented in 2014 targeted sales of 400,000 vehicles in 2018 and predicted Alfa volume would rise to 500,000 soon thereafter without providing a time frame.

Marchionne revised that plan in January 2016, moving the 400,000-vehicle sales goal to 2020.

Through the first three months of this year, Alfa has increased European sales 35 percent to 21,512 vehicles, JATO’s numbers show. If Alfa tops 100,000 sales this year, it will be the first time it has done that since 2012. The last time it sold more than 200,000 vehicles was in 2001.

Alfa Romeo declined to comment for this report.

Good timing

One plus for the Stelvio is that it is arriving at the right time. Demand continues to rise for compact premium crossovers.

The segment already includes popular competitors such as the BMW X3, Jaguar F-Pace and Mercedes-Benz GLC. Last year, U.S. sales in the segment increased 32 percent to about 360,000, Automotive News Data Center figures show.

The Stelvio will also be counted on to help improve Alfa’s profit margins.

FCA CFO Richard Palmer confirmed that Alfa is on course to reach breakeven in the fourth quarter of this year, and Marchionne added that the automaker will become profitable again starting in 2018.

Stelvio goes on sale in the U.S. this summer.

Massimo Vecchio, an analyst at Mediobanca in Milan, estimates that FCA has so far invested about half of the 5 billion euros earmarked for Alfa. So far, just two of eight planned new models have been launched: the Stelvio and its platform sibling, the Giulia midsize sedan, which has not kept pace with expectations.

Marchionne predicted annual global sales of 75,000 to 100,000 Giulias, but since its May 2016 market launch through April 2017, Alfa sold 18,908 Giulias in Europe, according to JATO Dynamics.

One challenge for Giulia is that it is not offered as a wagon in Europe, a body style that produces a significant portion of the sales of its competitors there, such as the BMW 3 series and Audi A4. In the U.S., Alfa sold 1,600 Giulias in the first four months of the year, company figures show.

The Giulia now faces additional headwinds as worldwide demand softens for sedans in general.

Pressure

The Giulia’s slow start puts added pressure on the Stelvio to help Alfa reach its sales and profit goals.

“In the third quarter, we might be able to get a first hint of how the Stelvio has been received in its key markets,” says Gabriele Gambarova, an analyst at Banca Akros in Milan, Italy. “The U.S. market could absorb 20,000 units this year between the Giulia and Stelvio.”

Alfa’s return to profitability could be further helped by the introduction of two other planned crossovers — one compact and one large.

The compact crossover is likely to be built at FCA’s factory in Pomigliano, in southern Italy, where the automaker produces the Fiat Panda minicar. Alfa’s large crossover is expected to be built in either Cassino, sharing its platform with the Giulia and Stelvio, or in the Mirafiori plant in Turin as a sibling of the Maserati Levante.

But neither of these two crossovers is expected to debut sooner than 2019.



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