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ALFA ROMEO: Returning to form

Date: 19 September 2011

After years in the business car doldrums, Alfa Romeo is finally showing signs of life. Paul Barker talks to the men leading the company's fleet resurgence

A little over 12 months ago, BusinessCar drove the new Alfa Romeo Giulietta and described it as "the best business car Alfa Romeo has produced for quite some time".

And it seems that fleet operators are agreeing, with the brand enjoying something of a renaissance in the corporate sector this year, although from an admittedly low base that saw it rank at position 24 in the list of fleet registrations last year, behind Jaguar and Chevrolet, and just ahead of Mitsubishi and Lexus.

Overall, Alfa Romeo's fleet share has jumped from 0.36% to 0.64% so far this year, mainly off the back of having a competitive product in the lower medium sector for the first time in a number of years, especially with the recent addition of a 140hp sub-120g/km 2.0-litre diesel.

Alfa's head of brand Damian Dally points to the 1.92% share of the lower medium segment as his key indicator, rather than the overall fleet market share, as the firm competes in so few segments thanks to a narrow product line-up. The Giulietta's predecessor in this segment was the 147, which went off sale in 2008 at a time where the corporate heartland was still the upper medium segment, with fleets gradually moving downwards over the past few years.

"The C-segment [lower medium] is heavily biased towards fleet so it is essential we make an impression in the area", Dally tells BusinessCar.

"Alfa is known for style and sexiness but key to appealing in this segment is a balance of rational and emotional as in this segment the car is generally the main one in the household." Dally points to the Giulietta being judged as the safest car in its class by the Euro NCAP crash test organisation, and claims both legroom and luggage space are among the best in class.

"The fleet industry has got a very matter-of-fact view and with this we've got a vehicle that can appeal to the emotion of the driver and the rational side of the fleet manager, it ticks both boxes," adds Gerry Sotherington, Alfa Romeo's fleet operations manager.

Returning to the corporate sector with the Giulietta has meant a process of re-education for Alfa Romeo, to get the industry used to the new product and a step up in quality.

"Last year we had a programme of ride and drive events for the major contract hire companies, presenting to key members of their teams, marketing the vehicle to them," says Sotherington. "We had been absent from the contract hire industry for a number of years and some people's perceptions of where the brand is were updated. We've gone an awful long way to raise the profile of our cars in the contract hire industry, and at the same time we've been working with our customers in a similar way - activity to put Alfa Romeo on the agenda."

Sotherington claims there is "an awful lot of goodwill towards the brand" but that firms have been waiting for an "appropriate vehicle" for business. "Now with Giulietta they are comfortable with the product and it's if the customer picks up the phone and asks for it - what we have to do is generate the demand."

Alfa Romeo put a fleet team of nine people in place a couple of years ago to deal with the anticipated volume increase. "We recognised there was a lot of groundwork being put into the corporate team that would eventually lead to volume," explains Sotherington. "There is room for growth for us - there is so much potential in the user chooser market but I think it's important that the growth is managed. There will be a natural level but I don't think we've reached it."