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The 4C Spider relaunched Alfa Romeo in North America in 2014.Getty Images

Oh, Alfa Romeo. Few brands can evoke such an irrational urge to throw money – blindly, happily, frantically – at its products. Since the 1930s, Alfas have had a gravitational pull on the heartstrings, and wallets, of red-blooded drivers.

Today, there’s only one little problem with Alfa Romeo: sales are slumping. Are there no enthusiastic drivers left? Has Alfa lost its swagger? What is going on with this fabled Italian automaker?

“It was almost 25 years that we hadn’t sold [vehicles] in North America,” said Bob Broderdorf, director of Alfa Romeo North America. “You want to talk about starting from scratch, zero? It’s a massive undertaking. It’s a giant commitment on behalf of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles.”

In 2014, Alfa Romeo announced the bare-bones 4C sports car would lead the firm’s North American revival. The compact Giulia sedan came next, in December, 2016, followed by the Stelvio SUV in the summer of 2017.

Orazio Satta Puliga, the head of Alfa’s design department during the postwar years, explained the brand in almost mystic terms. “The real essence of Alfa defies description,” the Sardinian designer said in 1946. “It can be compared to those irrational movements of the spirit that sometimes occur in man, and for which there is no logical explanation. We are in the realm of sensations, passions, things that have more to do with the heart than with the head.”

However, the head can’t but help notice Alfa’s sales figures, which surely the accountants back in the United States and Italy are seeing too.

Through the first quarter of 2019, Alfa’s SUV sales were down 60 per cent in Canada compared with the same period last year, according to data from DesRosiers Automotive Consultants. During the same period, the overall luxury SUV market in Canada was up, slightly. Alfa’s sales fell in the United States too, declining more than the luxury market as a whole.

Broderdorf responded to the recent decline saying 2018 was a record year for Alfa globally, and in the United States, where sales doubled over 2017. (Canadian sales didn’t double from 2017 to 2018, but did increase, bucking the overall downward trend in the new-vehicle market last year.)

“Everything we’re doing is conquest,” said Broderdorf, who became director of Alfa North America in early 2018. Every customer they get is defecting from the likes of Mercedes, BMW, Audi or Lexus.

“We’ve got the youngest demographic in the segment; they also have a higher household income,” he added. Both are good signs for the future, but still don’t explain the rough start to the year.

Alfa’s share of the luxury-vehicle market fell (by 0.4 per-cent) in both Canada and the United States compared with this time last year, according to DesRosiers. This isn’t what a new brand with new products will want to see.

“Could I just conquest at all costs and make that sales figure look a certain way? Yes. But I’m less concerned about individual metrics as long as we’re selling the right way, growing the right way,” Broderdorf said.

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The 2020 Stelvio SUV was revealed at the 2019 New York International Auto Show in April.SHANNON STAPLETON/Reuters

Widely reported reliability issues that plagued early cars undoubtedly hurt the brand.

The Giulia sedan landed on Consumer Reports’ “10 Least Reliable Cars” list.

“Is it unfortunately that some of those things happened on a brand that’s just starting, with so little material available on it?” Broderdorf asked rhetorically. “Sure, because it can skew things probably farther than it should.” He said they’ve worked to address these reliability issues and have made improvements since the first cars hit the market. With an all-new engine inside an all-new chassis, there are bound to be issues. “I think you’ll continue to see the [reliability] scores improve dramatically,” he added.

Despite the Giulia’s issues, critics heaped praise on the 505-horsepower Giulia Quadrifoglio for its stellar performance and handling.

There will be no new vehicles from Alfa in 2019, but over the next five years it will launch four new models. A smaller SUV, based on the Tonale concept shown at the Geneva auto show, should arrive in 2020. After that we’ll see a larger full-size vehicle (likely an SUV), a compact coupe dubbed GTV, and a flagship sports car that will revive the 8C name. All are tantalizing prospects. Broderdorf wouldn’t give any details about the new cars, but Alfisti will be happy to see the company won’t remain a three-model brand in North America.

Broderdorf painted a picture of a young brand finally ready to build from the foundation that has been four years in the making. It’s the first year all trim levels of both the Giulia and Stelvio will be available. Dealers have cars, supply issues are not affecting sales, another company spokesperson said.

“We’re just getting started,” Broderdorf said. “The U.S. was further evolved compared to, initially, where we were in Canada. Six or seven of the 17 [Canadian dealerships] that we have, they’re all new.”

For now, we can chalk these sales swings up to teething issues. This year will be a big test for Alfa in North America, in terms of reliability, sales, market share, customer retention, all of it. The company faces an uphill battle against strong competitors in a soft market.

Alfa Romeo may indeed be in the realm of sensations, passions and things that have to do with the heart, but Fiat Chrysler is investing a lot to revive the brand as a global automaker, and at some point it will need the gamble to pay off.

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Alfa Romeo has a history of making some very attractive cars, and that continues with the Stelvio crossover, which in Quadrifoglio trim packs a lot of performance too. But Matt Bubbers says questions still linger over Alfa reliability.

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