The Continental: Notes from Vienna, Alfa Officially Acknowledges Decades of Missteps

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.

BMW i8

It’s been a while since my last report, but I’ve been busy! To start, I drove the BMW i8 in California last month. I was impressed by its straight-line performance, as well as the general boldness of the project. I was less enthusiastic about the $135,700 supercar’s cornering characteristics; even with the optional fat tires (215/45 up front and 245/40 in the rear; upsized from 195/50 and 215/45 respectively), the tires howled in protest at fairly moderate speeds, and it was virtually impossible to get the tail to rotate and induce even the hint of oversteer.

All is as it should be, I learned; BMW feels that a slightly understeering i8 is easier for its prospective buyers to handle. (Which tells us something about those customers’ anticipated skill levels.) No torque-vectoring function is included, but that may change in the future, since BMW is considering changes to improve the i8′s agility. For example, before the i8′s market launch, the tire formula will be revised.

BMW's Herbert Diess

BMW’s Herbert Diess.

Last week, I spent two days at the Vienna Engine Symposium, hands-down the best forum to learn about the state of automotive technology. A few highlights:

In a Q&A session, BMW’s R&D board member Herbert Diess spoke about Tesla’s supercharger concept: “It seems to work well, which worries me a bit because it is exclusive. We are promoting public charging stations, and that is progressing at a good pace in many markets.” Diess also commented on battery-electric vehicles capable of traveling long distances, such as the Model S: “They are very heavy, very expensive, and have a very negative CO2 footprint.” He cautioned: “These CO2 emissions cannot be recovered over a lifetime even if the electricity comes 100 percent from regenerative sources.”
Volkswagen R&D chief Heinz-Jakob Neusser detailed the brand’s new ten-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission, a 2.0-liter TDI diesel four-cylinder with up to 280 horsepower, and said that the awesome Golf R400 could have more than 400 horsepower.
Audi chief Rupert Stadler announced a high-performance TDI with an electric supercharger will be launched this year. It will partially use a 48-volt system, and we’ll have more on this vehicle soon.
Supplier AVL’s Rolf Dreisbeck spoke about the influence of future fuel consumption and emissions requirements, “which are converging globally on a very low level.” Where gasoline engines are concerned, he expects a market split between “fuel efficiency concepts” with about 90–110 horsepower per liter and “image and top performance concepts” with 150–245 horsepower per liter. “It will be either/or,” he says, and warns that mass market vehicles will have to do with less power than we are currently used to.

Dreisbeck also highlighted market-related preferences on the transmission side: In Japan, customers accept the “overshooting” engine speed of a CVT transmission; power, not speed, increases with engine speed, and the torque requirements are moderate. Europeans, on the other hand, demand a linear relation between engine and vehicle speed. The torque requirements are high. Naturally aspirated gasoline engines with CVT transmissions and softly calibrated torque-converter automatics are the right concept for Japan, but in Europe, customers require turbocharged gasoline or diesel engines with manual transmissions, dual-clutch automatics, or “stiffly” calibrated torque-converter automatics. These vastly different preferences highlight the limits of global standardization.

Chevrolet Cruze Diesel

GM’s Michael E. Siegrist talked about Chevrolet’s experience with the Cruze Diesel, which needed to be significantly re-engineered for the U.S. market. The onboard diagnostic requirements are a lot tougher, the climate is more extreme. Siegrist wouldn’t talk about the cost of the adaptation, but he said there was no penalty in consumption. GM expects that the diesel market share in North America—currently “dominated by North American pickup trucks and German passenger cars”—will grow from about 2 percent today to 10 percent by 2020.

Alfa Romeo 164

The awesome Alfa 164, one of the brand’s great successes.

Alfa: Rising from Ashes?

I was not terribly impressed by Alfa Romeo CEO Harald Wester’s recent presentation on the brand’s future strategy at Fiat-Chrysler’s Investor Day 2014. His lofty sales target of moving 400,000 units annually by 2018 (up from 74,000 in 2013) seems utterly unattainable, especially given Alfa Romeo is walking away from the high-volume small car segment. A flurry of new models in the compact, mid-size, full-size, utility, and “specialty” segments are supposed to take the fight to Audi and BMW head-on. It would be great if they could pull it off, but given Alfa’s track record of (not) delivering on promises, count me among the skeptics.

Neither the Fiat Croma nor the Alfa 164 deserve this. Screenshot from Wester's presentation.

Neither the Fiat Croma (left, inverted) nor the Alfa 164 deserve this.

Especially irksome was Alfa’s misrepresentation of its alleged sins of the past. Wester claims that “Fiat built the Croma and tried to turn it into an Alfa Romeo.” In fact, the Tipo Quattro project was started long before Fiat took over Alfa, and it created four distinct models: The Fiat Croma, Lancia Thema, Saab 9000, and Alfa Romeo 164. They were marvels in light-weight technology, spaciousness, and efficiency, while the Pininfarina-styled Alfa 164 arguably was one of the most beautiful cars of its time. Alfa sold over 270,000 units, making the 164 a remarkable commercial success.

The Arna on the left lost its Alfa badge in photoshop.

The Arna, on the left, lost its Alfa grille in Photoshop, apparently.

Volkswagen Golf R400 Concept: The Über-Über Golf
2015 BMW i8 Driven: Destination, THE FUTURE
Diesel Comparo: 2014 Chevrolet Cruze 2.0TD vs. 2013 Volkswagen Jetta TDI

Wester didn’t get his company’s list of sins totally wrong, however, as he accurately identified the awful Arna as the “original sin.” Launched in 1983, it was a Nissan Cherry/Pulsar reengineered with an Alfa Romeo flat-four engine and some cosmetic updates, and assembled in Italy. It certainly didn’t live up to Alfa’s design heritage, and there is little point in defending the quirky Arna. But at least Alfa put considerable effort into redesigning it—something that can’t be said about the rebadged Chrysler models which Fiat recently tried to pass off as Lancias. (The previously upscale Lancia brand won’t survive.)

This gem from Alfa's history wasn't mentioned.

This gem from Alfa’s history wasn’t mentioned in the brand’s presentation, oddly.

About Jens Meiners