Automotive Traveler: Chrysler Italianate Diversions, Part 5: Alfa Romeo 164

This is the last part of this series that was first run in Automotive Traveler. However, it was a follow-up posting that was penned by the editor in chief, Richard Truesdell. Since he was more familiar with the subject than I was, it was a natural fit to end the series. It also tied in with the current state of Chrysler and Fiat, since they seemed to have worked closely in the past, before the Germans took control. Take it away Rich…..

In the aftermath of the collapse of the Chrysler-Maserati alliance, in 1988 Chrysler entered into a highly publicized agreement with Fiat–just as it was trying to fully integrate its then-recent acquisition of American Motors–to distribute Alfa Romeos through select Chrysler-Plymouth dealers. The first Alfa Romeo to benefit from this program was the all-new front-wheel-drive 164, a BMW 5-Series-sized model that was co-developed with Fiat (Croma), Lancia (Thema), and Saab (9000) and was referred to as the Type Four chassis. It stands as one of the first examples of a major-volume car platform being developed by multiple, non-affiliated manufacturers, each with its own native drivetrain.

The 164 was the most complex and sophisticated car ever manufactured by Alfa Romeo. It was easily the equal of its intended competitors, the BMW 5-Series and the Mercedes-Benz E-Class, as it featured three separate on-board computers. Unfortunately, this collaboration, like those which came before it, ended in failure. At the time, Alfa Romeo was selling about 6,000 cars annually in North America. The tie-up between Alfa Romeo and Chrysler was expected to yield annual sales in North America of up to 50,000 units, but by 1995 Alfa Romeo followed corporate parent Fiat and exited the US and Canadian markets. Contrast that outcome with one of the primary reasons stated for its current alliance with Chrysler, Fiat’s desire for immediate access to the US market with its current line up of cars such as the Fiat 500 and Alfa Romeo MiTo. More important, long term, is that Fiat will be able to produce its subcompact, compact, and mid-sized cars in Chrysler’s currently under-utilized plants.

Unlike the Dual-Ghia, the Ghia L6.4, and the Chrysler TC by Maserati, Chrysler had nothing to do with the initial development of the 164. It was developed among the four manufacturers–Alfa Romeo, Fiat, Lancia (already part of the Fiat empire), and Saab prior to Fiat taking control of Alfa Romeo in 1987–as a means of sharing the cost of developing the platform. The 164 was hoped to be a viable competitor for the well-established BMW 5-Series and the Mercedes-Benz E-Class. Of the four parent companies, Saab’s 9000 was the most successful in terms of sales while the Lancia was the most unusual; its top model was powered by a version of the 3.2-liter Ferrari V8 redesigned for the front-wheel-drive application.

The Alfa Romeo MiTo. Expected here late next year.

The Alfa Romeo 164, the largest front-wheel-drive Alfa Romeo had produced up to that time, was a competent car. With the combination of an angular body designed by Pininfarina, a classic Alfa Romeo twin cam 3.0-liter V6, and a well-appointed cockpit featuring Chrysler-format audio systems (the only Chrysler components found on the 164), it could have been a viable competitor to the class stalwarts. Unfortunately, with Alfa Romeo’s weak dealer network along with its reputation for poor reliability, the 164 never gained much traction in the US marketplace, and by 1995, Alfa Romeo was history in North America. Now, after an absence of more than 20 years, it is poised to re-enter the US market on the heels of Fiat’s acquisition of Chrysler’s assets in a New York bankruptcy court. As stated in earlier posts, we expect the first new Alfa Romeo to enter the US to be its recently introduced MiTo subcompact, expected by the fall of 2010.

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