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Alfa Romeo’s rebirth signals Fiat-Chrysler’s transformation to company with mass-market and upmarket appeal.

Remember Alfa Romeo? Thought not.

Alfa Romeo is not an aging Italian film star; it's an aging Italian sports car that hasn't been sold in North America for 20 years and, when it was sold there, peaked many decades earlier. Peak Alfa actually happened in 1967. That's when it starred along with Dustin Hoffman, who played Ben in the The Graduate. At one point in the film, the cute little red convertible runs out of gas, leaving Ben stranded. The Alfa brand ran out of gas not long after.

Sergio Marchionne, the Italian-Canadian CEO of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, wants to return some romantic glory to the clapped-out marque. Today in Detroit, he is expected to unveil a multi-billion dollar plan to relaunch the car in North America. At the same time, he will map out the company's strategy to turn Jeep and Maserati into global brands.

It appears that Alfa's rebirth is central to Marchionne's vision of creating a car company that combines mass-market appeal (Fiat, Chrysler, Dodge) with upmarket and luxury brands (Alfa, Maserati, Jeep) that can compete with the top-end German offerings such as Porsche, Audi, BMW and Mercedes. Ferrari is the only brand in Fiat Chrysler's stable that has achieved that exalted status.

Will Alfa fire up the imagination of American and Canadian motorheads? That seems unlikely, at least in the short to medium haul. Hardly anyone in North America under the age of 55 remembers the brand. Rebuilding its image will certainly take many years, and even then, it may be little more than a niche vehicle favoured by driving enthusiasts who also have hot BMW coupes in their garages. Remember, it took Volkswagen two decades of steady investment and promotion to make Audi a respected and popular name outside of its home market.

It Italy, the Alfa name is in decline even though its latest cars are generally well regarded. The classic Alfa was a lean two-door beast with a small but high-revving engine. They were all about cool simplicity and athletic handling, not brutish, straight line acceleration In the 1980s and beyond, the brand suffered because its models were merely sexed-up Fiats with a higher price tag and tatty leather wrapped around the steering wheel. Sports cars they were not.

To his credit, Marchionne got rid of the Alfa's bloated Fiat lookalikes and introduced three new models. Two of them, the Mito and the Giulietta, have been on the market for a few years but have done little to transform Alfa's image, in spite of favourable reviews from the motoring press. That's because neither is a real sports car. The four-door Giuletta is sleekly styled but lacks dazzling performance. Most of the Giulietta models come with 1.4-litre gas or 1.6-litre diesel engines that produce fairly leisurely acceleration.

The sales figures of the Giulietta, and the smaller Mito, have been disappointing. According to Italy's motoring magazine, Quattroruote, Alfa sold only 8,057 cars in Italy between January and March of this year, down 5.3 per cent over the same period a year earlier. The brand's European market share is an insignificant 0.5 per cent (BMW and Mercedes each has about 5 per cent).

But all is not lost because a new Alfa, the 4C, is just hitting the showrooms. This little number is a genuine sports car in the classic Alfa tradition. It is a vey light (900 kilos) stripped-down baby supercar – no glove box, no power steering – with a carbon-fibre body and turbocharged 1,750 cubic centimetre engine that will launch it to 100 kms/hr in 4.5 seconds. The 4C is beautifully sculpted – Italian flair at its best.

Now the bad news. This car alone is unlikely to transform Alfa's fortunes. That's because it will be built in only small numbers – 3,500 cars a year at first, possibly rising to 5,000 – which makes its output even smaller than Ferrari's. It will also come at a hefty price The Italian price is about euros 53,500, the equivalent of about C$81,000.

But what 4C might do, if Marchionne is lucky, is rev up Alfa's brand image in North America, restoring its image as a genuine sports car. That would make it easier for Alfa to extend its range outside of Europe. An upscale sedan, probably inspired by the Giulietta, is coming, so is a Graduate-style spyder convertible that is being developed with Mazda. If all goes well, an Alfa SUV would round out the mix.

But there is no doubt that Alfa's revival will be a slow burn. Marchionne himself seems to understand this. At the Detroit auto show in January, he said: "I have no intention of invading BMW's territory and saying 'I'm going to take you of out of business.' I just want a small piece of that market, a very modest piece."