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Alfa’s moment of truth

Company’s future hinges on success of new Giulia | by Andrew Frankel

Alfa Romeo boss Harald Wester has confirmed the new Giulia is a ‘make or break’ car for the beleaguered Italian brand. “With more than €1 billion invested in this architecture and billions to be spent developing other cars from it,” he said, “our credibility hangs on this car.”

Wester was speaking at the Giulia’s international launch at its Balocco test track near Milan, where he also confirmed that the all-new platform on which the Giulia sits will by 2020 spawn eight different variants. There has been much speculation concerning exactly what kind of Alfa Romeos they might be, but two are known to be a replacement for the extant Giulietta and an SUV to rival the likes of the Jaguar F-Pace, Porsche Macan and BMW X3. A Giulia estate is also widely anticipated.

It has also been privately suggested that the Giulia’s underpinnings could soon become the basis for a sporting coupé and convertible. It seems these cars will not be positioned to replace the old Alfa Brera/GTV and Spider but, more ambitiously, be driven into a more upmarket, expensive part of the market, past even where the likes of the Porsche Boxster and Cayman reside and straight onto 911 territory. It is further understood that in order to maintain sufficient brand separation, these cars will be overtly sporting in nature and avoid the luxury GT market seen today as the natural home of its sister brand Maserati.

Such a car would certainly make sense, given that Alfa already has the platform and powertrain to make it. Sports car sales are modest compared to those of saloons or SUVs, but if properly built and engineered such a car would unquestionably be well received in the US market to which Alfa is now returning after decades away. And all around the world it would be seen as an effective brand-builder for a marque once considered among the world’s greatest.

Sadly, it seems a return to racing remains firmly off Alfa’s agenda. Wester says it is a subject often discussed but that, “There is nothing planned, nothing we wish to communicate at this time.”

Even so, a front-engine, rear-drive Giulia-based coupé powered by the 503bhp, twin-turbo V6 from the Giulia saloon is an enticing proposition and a convertible version scarcely less so. With the Giulia in saloon and estate form, a new Giulietta and the SUV, two of Wester’s eight variants have still to be identified. One is likely to be a smaller crossover to compete with the likes of the Mercedes-Benz GLA and BMW X. The other is anyone’s guess: a long-wheelbase Giulia to appeal to the Chinese market, perhaps?

Testing scandal rolls on

Anyone hoping the economy and emissions crisis was going to go away any time soon will by now have become used to having their hopes dashed.

Not only are Volkswagen and its affected brands apparently years away from putting the scandal behind them, but other manufacturers are being dragged into the mire – some more guiltily than others.

Most noteworthy for the outrageous extent of its dishonesty is Mitsubishi, which revealed it had been lying about the fuel consumption of some of its cars for the last quarter of a century. The news didn’t hit the front pages to anything like the same extent as the VW scandal, despite the astonishing scale of Mitsubishi’s deception, but only because Mitsubishi is a bit player over here. No affected cars were sold in the UK and, I suspect, scandal fatigue is starting to set in. Even so the effect for Mitsubishi was catastrophic: sales plunged in Japan and its share price nearly halved before its long-term business partner Nissan stepped in to buy 34 per cent of the company and take a controlling interest. As an aside, now that Nissan, Renault and Mitsubishi live, if not quite under the same roof then at least the same umbrella, together they create a presence in the car market similar in size to the giants of GM and Toyota.

In the meantime, manufacturers such as Vauxhall, Mercedes and Porsche have all issued voluntary recalls as a result of a German government investigation highlighting disparities in NOx emissions between those achieved in testing and those measured on the road. Although no illegal defeat devices were discovered, they were found to be using equipment that reduced emissions in the strictly controlled conditions used for laboratory certification, but not always on the open road. At another time any one of these companies might have stood by their products because all are compliant with the regulations as they exist, but this is not the time for manufacturers to be seen to be attempting to avoid the issue on a technicality.

There is a larger point here: there appears to be some surprise that vehicle emissions on the open road bear little relation to those achieved in the lab. In truth it would be astonishing if they did correlate: under formal test conditions all other factors affecting how much fuel a car uses and therefore how many nasties emanate from its exhaust pipe – wind, gradient, air quality, driving style and so on – are fixed. On the open road they are variable and massive discrepancies are not so much predictable as inevitable. More realistic test procedures are now being developed and cannot arrive one moment too soon.

Does diesel have a future?

There is further evidence that diesel-powered cars are struggling to recover from the combined assaults of the ‘dieselgate’ scandal and increasing concerns among legislators about their high NOx emissions. Figures released by the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT) showed that while monthly car sales rose two per cent to record the strongest April in 13 years, sales of diesels actually fell by 0.6 per cent. In contrast, sales of hybrid and full electric cars increased by a massive 27 per cent – though with sales of fewer than 6400 cars, they still account for less than 3.5 per cent of the market.

And now the poor old diesel is coming under further fire from new London Mayor Sadiq Khan, who has proposed a brand new Toxicity Charge for cars with high NOx emissions. This will almost certainly apply exclusively to diesels. The new charge will be incremental to, rather than a replacement for, the extant CO2-based congestion charge.

Are politicians correct to persecute diesel? As ever it depends on your perspective. In the past, governments across Europe have used taxation policy to encourage people to drive diesels because they are more economical than petrol engines and for the same reason emit dramatically lower levels of CO2, believed to be the primary cause of global warming. But now the focus has fallen on urban pollution levels and therefore the higher NOx emissions of diesel. To my mind, if Mayor Khan’s new tax stops people driving into London with old diesel cars lacking modern technology, I am all for it. If he comes up with a sensible idea for a scrappage scheme for these cars I’ll back it. Off-hand I can’t think of many classic diesels the world would miss too much, so I think there’d be much to gain and little to lose from such a scheme. But it is disproportionate to aim it also at modern catalysed diesels, with technology such as Ad Blue and particulate filters. Far better to focus the fire on the commercial and public transport lorries, vans and buses that still use stone-age diesel technology and are, as far are vehicle emissions are concerned, the real villains of this piece.

But the days of diesel might still be numbered. While it remains sufficiently popular in Europe for about half of all cars sold on the continent to have diesel engines, there is little demand for it in China, America, Japan or Russia. Also, while there is consensus that petrol engines emissions can still be significantly reduced with advancing technology, it is getting much harder and more costly to do the same with diesel. In the end it may just require too much effort and expense to develop new diesel technologies relative to probably small global sales.