The Alfa Romeo has long had a special place in popular culture. It was arguably the little red Spider, not Dustin Hoffman, who was the real star of The Graduate. The Mazda Miata, meanwhile, was a huge commercial hit, even if its pop culture references have been consigned to movies like Super Troopers. Last week, Italy’s Fiat SpA, which makes the Alfa Romeo, announced an unlikely partnership with Japan’s Mazda Motor Corp. to build new versions of the companies’ most famous sports cars based on the Miata’s rear-wheel drive platform. The two-seater sports cars, due out in 2015, are to be built at Mazda’s factories in Japan, although the Spider will keep its Italian design and engine.
The move is part of Fiat’s ongoing expansion beyond Europe since the company rescued Chrysler from bankruptcy in 2009. It’s also expected to boost the fortunes of Mazda, which has suffered four years of declining sales since Ford ended a 30-year alliance in 2008. “People have been dreaming about a remake of this Alfa convertible for years,” says Philippe Houchois, an auto industry analyst with UBS Securities. “Fiat doesn’t have the platform to do it on their own, so it makes a lot of sense.”
It’s an example of a new kind of partnership springing up among automakers that lets them split the costs of developing new models without the kind of financial commitment that comes with mergers or acquisitions. Toyota and Subaru are planning a spring launch for their jointly produced two-door sports coupe, which Toyota is offering as the 86 and the Scion FR-S and which Subaru calls the BRZ.
Fiat has previously developed cars with Ford, General Motors and Suzuki. Sergio Marchionne, the Canadian-bred CEO of both Chrysler and Fiat, recently told reporters the company is “willing to engage in discussions with anyone else.” But the Alfa Romeo partnership has some risks, particularly if consumers reject the idea of an Italian luxury sports car based on technology built by Chrysler or Mazda. Still, Houchois thinks that isn’t likely to deter too many Alfa Romeo enthusiasts. “The Miata is a rear-wheel drive and it’s been a while since we’ve had rear-wheel drive Alfa Romeo,” he says. “From a brand purity standpoint, you’ve got a selling tool there.”