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Can Alfa Romeo be great again? What the legendary brand must do to become Italy's Tesla rival | Opinion

The new Tonale small SUV is our first glimpse at Alfa Romeo’s future, but is it a step in the wrong direction?

Alfa Romeo’s first major move since moving under the Stellantis umbrella was the belated launch of the Tonale last week. The arrival of this small SUV brings the Italian brand’s model line-up to three offerings, alongside the mid-size Giulia sedan and Stelvio SUV.

The Tonale looks a stylish machine and brings electrification to the storied brand as it prepares for a wholesale switch in the coming years – but it’s hardly the stuff to scare the board at BMW or Mercedes-Benz.

To some of you, that would seem like a weird concept - why would BMW and Mercedes be worried about a relatively tiny brand like Alfa Romeo, which spent much of the last two decades selling a pair of dressed up Fiat hatchbacks?

Well, it’s because for decades Alfa Romeo was Italy’s answer to BMW, a company that made technically innovative and dynamic premium cars. The only problem is it’s been roughly forty years since those ‘good old days’ for Alfa Romeo.

So how does Alfa Romeo rediscover its magic and become a great brand again? The answer is probably not introducing a compact SUV. The Tonale looks nice, but if BMW’s line-up was the 3 Series, X3 and X1, it’s fair to say it wouldn’t be the luxury car powerhouse that it is today.

The problem for Alfa Romeo is it’s too hard (and too expensive) to match BMW, Benz and Audi model-for-model at this stage in his evolution. So Stellantis-installed Alfa Romeo CEO Jean-Philippe Impartaro needs to think outside the box and come up with a strategy that will make it a compelling proposition again in what is a crowded luxury-car space.

Luckily, I have a few ideas, Jean-Philippe.

He has already announced the brand will launch its first all-electric model in 2024 before introducing an all-electric model range by the end of the decade. My concern is these new EV models won’t be compelling cars, not against the likes of Audi, BMW and Mercedes’ own plans to introduce a wide range of EVs - many of which are already here.

This is why Impartaro and his team should be brave and do something radically different and stop trying to compete with the German ‘Big Three’ head on. Instead, the better target would be Tesla, a smaller, more boutique brand with a loyal and passionate following (something Alfa Romeo used to have).

Impartaro even hinted at such a plan at the Tonale launch, saying he would love to bring back a convertible model in the spirit of the iconic Duetto. He’s also talked about reviving the GTV nameplate, which should be a no-brainer (as long as it’s on a worthy car).

With Alfa Romeo now just one cog in the larger Stellantis machine, bigger brands (at least in overseas) like Peugeot, Opel and Jeep will need to focus on volume while the Italian brand puts its energy into making exciting cars that hark back to its glory days.

What about an all-electric trio of a GTV and Duetto sports coupe and convertible with a hero supercar like a bigger, better, battery-powered version of the 4C? Given the flexibility of EV platforms, you could likely build all three off a fairly similar architecture and use the same powertrain technology.

Certainly alongside these models like the Tonale, Giulia and Stelvio (particularly their EV replacements) should come, too. It would give Alfa Romeo a line-up to rival Tesla’s Model 3, Model Y, Model X and (eventually) Roadster, but with the cache that comes from being a much older brand and part of an automotive conglomerate.

Is what I’m suggesting the most profitable plan in the short-term? No, but it’s a long-term vision and that’s something that should be important for a brand that’s 111 years old but has struggled for the last four decades.

Whatever Alfa Romeo does under Stellantis’ management, it must be a clear plan that, unlike the last few grand visions, is actually followed through on. Otherwise, this once-great brand will face an uncertain future.