x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Fiat boss Alfred Altavilla upbeat on brands despite recession

A chat with Alfredo Altavilla, the CEO of Fiat Chrysler Group for Euorpe, Africa and the Middle East.

Alfredo Altavilla. Jason Alden / Bloomberg
Alfredo Altavilla. Jason Alden / Bloomberg

"Europe is in a mess. And I still don't see any light at the end of the tunnel." Succinct words that pretty much sum up the situation most car manufacturers are facing right now, and the man who uttered them should know. He is Alfredo Altavilla, the newly appointed CEO of the Fiat Chrysler Group for Europe, Africa and the Middle East, and he's in town to shake things up a bit.

Altavilla joined Fiat in 1990 and has certainly done the rounds, rising through the ranks in Italy and China before landing his current role in November last year. And it's because Europe is in such a mess that regions like ours are so important. "I'm here to celebrate an all-time record for Fiat Chrysler in the Middle East for 2012. We sold 25,320 units last year and I wanted to meet the team here, the distributors and the media. Fiat Chrysler was the fastest-growing car company here in 2012. We posted a 66 per cent growth, compared with a general market increase of 25 per cent."

He's also here to see where all the brands under the group are doing things right and, perhaps more importantly, to see what they're doing wrong. He freely admits that Fiat and Alfa Romeo have much ground to cover to be truly competitive, while Jeep, Dodge and Chrysler and doing really well, thank you very much.

"I'm keen to talk about Alfa Romeo," he says, with a drawl that's underscored by a slight whiff of an Italian accent. "We recently launched the brand here, with the Giulietta. This is a market that we have ignored for too long but we thought it was very important to start in the region with the best possible car, and that's what we have done."

Next month, the Geneva Motor Show should be stolen by the most eagerly anticipated Alfa Romeo in years - the stunning 4C; a car that will be a halo model for this most treasured of brands, that will sell on its looks alone. "There is nothing else out there like the 4C," he says. "It weighs just 950kg, it will accelerate to 100 kph in less than five seconds, it is the only car of its kind with a complete carbon fibre chassis."

The 4C will be heavily featured in every newspaper, magazine, website and blog around the world for months, so wouldn't it be a great shame if Alfa Romeo didn't seize the opportunity and bring the car to this market straight away?

"Look," he responds, "from this point on, when a new Alfa Romeo is launched, it will be available to customers here straight away. Next year we will be introducing a premium "E segment" model, a saloon that will compete with the BMW 5 Series and the Audi A6. Alfa Romeo, people will see, is now a quality, luxury brand."

Indeed, the quality of the company's latest models is light years ahead of what it was just a short time ago. And the 4C, adds Altavilla, will be offered with free driving instruction with a professional race driver, for every single customer, and yes, that does include the UAE. Probably for the best because, despite the relatively diminutive four-cylinder engine, its power-to-weight ratio means it will be a blistering performer and it will take some practice to master.

The dealer network is overdue a comprehensive overhaul, he concedes, and that's in hand. "We have established a parts distribution centre in Jebel Ali, which is one of the very best in the world, meaning spares availability and servicing matters are not a problem. Customer service is key, we know this, and we will get it right."

Encouraging words, but what about Fiat? He says the 500 is taking a leaf out of Mini's book, and will become a brand-within-a-brand. "We won't let it get ridiculous, though." And, as with Alfa Romeo, the entire Fiat line-up will be replaced with cars that cut it in a market that's more demanding than ever.

This man is serious - the UAE is an extremely important, growing market, while Europe continues to flounder. And I get the very real feeling that he won't rest until everyone here knows about, and respects, the companies he represents. And that's the best possible news for people like us: car fanatics.