The Continental: Rear-Drive Alfa Romeos? Yep, That’s a Thing—Plus More from Europe and China

The Continental

Each week, our German correspondent slices and dices the latest rumblings, news, and quick-hit driving impressions from the other side of the pond. His byline may say Jens Meiners, but we simply call him . . . the Continental.

The original Alfetta featured a transaxle architecture.

The original Alfetta featured a front-engine, rear transaxle architecture.

An Auto Bild report purports a wildly optimistic product launch plan by Alfa Romeo, one which would amount to nothing less than a total repositioning of the brand. Where is sporty Alfa allegedly headed? Way, way upmarket, and, in fact, close to Maserati. Keep in mind this the brand that currently sells only the aging MiTo supermini and the Giulietta compact, besides, of course, the limited-production 4C sports car. According to AB, neither the MiTo nor the Giulietta will get successors; Alfa Romeo will abandon this end of the market, which it has occupied since 1972. And the new Spider roadster, the one being jointly developed with Mazda will come to market as an Abarth. Fiat’s tuner brand that is bereft of unique product.

The moribund Alfa Romeo MiTo

The moribund Alfa Romeo MiTo.

Apparently, the Mazda-made Spider roadster wouldn’t fit into Alfa Romeo’s desired upscale market position. Huh? What about Alfa’s history, which is rife with small, zesty sports cars? The new generation of Alfas, Auto Bild says, instead will be based on a new modular rear-wheel-drive platform that can accommodate all-wheel drive. The platform eventually will underpin the Dodge Charger and Challenger and Chrysler 300 successors; all three cars still use an architecture that dates back to the mid-1990s Mercedes-Benz E-class. Anyway, the Alfas will be powered by 1.7-liter and 2.0-liter four-bangers (inevitably dubbed 1750 and 2000), as well as a 2.9-liter V-6. A heavy plug-in hybrid powertrain will serve as the range-topping performance choice.

Here is Alfa’s launch plan: 2016 will see the Spider revealed; in 2017, a compact crossover and the Giulia sedan and station wagon (both 3-series competitors) will debut; and in 2018, the larger Alfetta sedan and station wagon, as well as an upper mid-size crossover, will come to market. After Sergio Marchionne’s dizzying number of plans and delays, it seems it would take a miracle to make this timeline work. But it’s good to hear of some activity at Alfa Romeo, especially given that many enthusiasts are still mourning the gruesome death of Lancia. When recently asked about his thoughts on Lancia, a senior VW Group executive told me: “After the rebadged Chrysler cars, it can’t be saved.” At least that isn’t true of Alfa Romeo—yet.

Why the Targa needs a fabric top - for the first time

Why does the Targa need a fabric top for the first time?

Porsche and BMW Design Notes

Porsche makes much ado about its 911 Targa‘s heritage style, which recalls that of the original Targa models. Those cars’ signature roof design was replaced by a big sunroof from the 993-generation 911 onwards. Unfortunately, the new (all-wheel-drive-only) Targa is based on the 911 Cabriolet instead of the 911 coupe, and thus weighs a whopping 243 pounds more than a regular Carrera 4. This, despite one patently old-fashioned (and sure-to-be lightweight) element: The fabric-covered center roof section. It was never made of fabric in the past. Why add it now? Because that part of the lid has to bend. Otherwise the Targa’s stunning roof mechanism wouldn’t work.

BMW enhances commonality between vehicle lines. Shown: X4.

BMW enhances commonality between vehicle lines. Shown: X4.

Did you notice that the BMW X4‘s front end is identical to the X3′s, except for the bumper? The same is true of the latest X5 and the upcoming X6: only the bumpers are different, and even that distinction vanishes with the high-performance M versions. Why would BMW give up the distinct look? “Customers don’t even notice the difference now,” says a company executive. Moreover, one hood and headlight assembly is cheaper than two. Obviously.

The A6 L plug-in hybrid concept.

The A6 L plug-in hybrid concept.

Audi Zooms In on China

Audi has announced a plug-in hybrid A6 designed specifically for its biggest global market, China. The vehicle comes with a long-wheelbase body and was co-developed with FAW. This is essentially the same car that was shown as a concept two years ago, although the A6 currently is offered as a hybrid with a short wheelbase in Europe and China. While the current model is assembled in Germany, the plug-in will be made in China.

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First Drive: 2012 Audi A6 Hybrid
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The Mercedes-Benz V-class at its launch in Munich.

The Mercedes-Benz V-class at its launch in Munich.

The New Vito

Mercedes-Benz has launched the V-class in Europe, and the hauler is ready to take on the Volkswagen Multivan and assert the premium status of the Mercedes brand in the segment. A U.S.-market launch for the V-class is likely, but before that happens, the V’s commercial vehicle derivative, the Vito, will arrive. The Vito will be unveiled in Europe at the end of May, but it won’t come to the U.S. before the 2015 calendar year—and it will be sold as a 2016 model-year vehicle. Besides the OM651 diesel engine, Mercedes will offer a four-cylinder gasoline engine; there will no longer be a six-cylinder engine on offer. The Vito will be available as a panel van and a people mover, and it could end up re-badged as a Freightliner, just like the Sprinter.

About Jens Meiners