Alfa Romeo expects new cars will get US sales into high gear

If you're not an avid sports-car buff, you may be excused for not being familiar with Alfa Romeo in the United States.

Yet, the Italian automobile company has set a fast course on the race circuit , and has been building and marketing high-performance cars for as long as almost anyone can recall. In the US, however, the pace has been in first gear.

Thus The high-performance sports coupe, the GTV-6, introduced in the US last fall, is aimed at getting the company out of ''first'' and into a faster lane.

While not fuel-competitive with a high-mileage Japanese vehicle o2Pk oowagen diesel, the Alfa GTV-6, nonetheless, gives an honest 17 or 18 miles to a gallon of unleaded fuel, adjusting the balance by giving a high-performance ride to the person behind the wheel.

''The V-6, 2.5-liter, fuel-injected engine turns 20 percent slower in fifth gear, achieving the same road speed,'' says Joseph R. Dent, head of the US distributorship. ''So there's a significant fuel saving,'' he adds. Both fourth and fifth gears are overdrivg.

Alfa has been trying to crack the American market for years. Who knows where the real problem lies? It now hopes to sell 4,000 cars in the US this year, about half of them GTVs and the rest Spiders. With 136 dealers in the US, it has had no success in marketing a sedan.

The parent company, owned by an agency of the Italian government - much as the French government owns almost all the stock of Renault - has run into all kinds of problems at home over the years, including hardened labor-union resistance and absenteeism on the job, especially in its Alfasud plant located near Naples.

Today, however, Alfa Romeo seems to be getting its act together, and productivity is on the way up. Too, it is teaming up with Nissan of Japan to build a car in an Alfa plant in Italy.

What's it like to drive an Alfa? Fun, that's what, yet tempered with some of the quirks that are an integral part of the car.

The driver should never forget that the Alfa ''6'' is a high-powered fast car. If he does, he'll soon see the flashing light of a police car behind him and the inevitable summons to follow. The car has a tendency to creep up in speed - a condition more acceptable on a West German Autobahn or Italian autostrada than on a US highway at 55 m.p.h..

Handling is fast and controlled, so long as you watch the speed.

The problem is somewhat compounded because the speedometer is hard to see - although more visible than when it was relegated to a remote part of the Alfa dashboard, where it tended to be ignored. While the tachometer is directly in front of the driver in the GTV, the steering wheel cuts directly through the speedometer, and anything between 15 and 55 miles an hour cannot be seen.

The steering wheel can be adjusted, but the purpose of the adjustment is to make the wheel comfortable for the driver. Why can't the speedometer be in front and the tach to the left, instead of the other way around?

Driving the car does require a learning curve. The competition-type, two-plate clutch feels strange, but after a couple hundred miles on the road, the driver will adapt.

The shift, however, seems a little remote. I found myself forever shifting from first gear t fourth, finding it hard to locate second.

But the feel and control of the car is fine.

The company knows the air-conditioning system isn't too good, but now it is doing something about it. A notice is being sent to all GTV-6 owners in the US, telling them that the company's dealers will install a free air-conditioning ''comfort package'' to ''upgrade earlier GTV models to current standards.''

Indeed, the car is somewhat of a ''solar home on wheels'' because of the large glass areas, including the steeply raked windshield and back glass. Thus an effective air-conditioning system is needed.

And there must be a better way to control inside air flow than the little plastic doors that have to be opened and closed.

Looking ahead, the Italian company seems buoyant about the future, determined to compete - and predicting it will finally make a profit by 1984, after losing more than $50 million in 1981. Boosting its hopes is a new hatchback car, about the size of the Honda Civic, which the company will produce with Japan's No. 2 carmaker, Nissan, builder of the Datsun. Production is expected to begin in 1!81 .

In addition, Alfa Romeo may introduce a turbocharger down the road, as well as a 4-wheel-drive vehicle and - while it is not too excited about the prospect - a diesel engine. One of its subsidiaries builds diesels.

The company will invest up to $2 billion for new products by 1985.

Whether any of these new offerings will come to the US, no one knows. What is certain, however, is that the company is aiming to sell from 10,000 to 12,000 vehicles in the US by the mid-1980s. And that forecast is from none other than Corrado Innocenti, corporate vice-chairman and managing director of Alfa Romeo SpA.

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