Alfa Romeo and Fiat in Malaysia: Passion remains strong

By THOMAS HUONG | 9 October 2019


With choices aplenty for passenger car buyers in Malaysia, it can be tough for automotive marques to sustain or grow sales, with some even fading away to eventually exit the market.

This applies particularly to marques with fully imported cars, as the country's National Automotive Policy (NAP) supports local vehicle production via various incentives.

The NAP was launched in 2006 and had resulted in more restrictions and higher taxes for fully imported cars.

For example, Italian marque Alfa Romeo has not had an official presence here after Sime Darby Auto Italia (SDAI) gave up distribution rights in late 2013.

Low sales were blamed for the marque's exit (Alfa Romeo recorded only 38 imported units in Malaysia in 2012) and despite market talk that automotive conglomerate DRB-Hicom Bhd was interested in taking up Alfa Romeo distribution business, nothing has materialised to date.

This was a pity as veteran Alfa Romeo enthusiasts or Alfistis would recall that the police force in Malaysia were driving Italian models like the Berlina in the 70s, thanks to City Motors Group which was then the sole Alfa Romeo distributor in Malaysia.

1968 Alfa Romeo 1750 Berlina
1968 Alfa Romeo 1750 Berlina


Back then, City Motors Group also put Malaysia on the radar of Turin-headquartered Fiat SpA (the owner of Alfa Romeo) by selling a world record fleet volume of Alfa Romeo cars in a single deal.

Alfa Romeo cars developed a reputation among sporty car lovers for their handling and throaty exhaust roar.

The slogan Cuore Sportivo (Sporting Heart) personifies the passion that Alfistis have for their cars.

City Motors Group distributed Alfa Romeo cars including the iconic 2000 GTV sports car for nearly two decades before discontinuing the business in the late 1980s.

1974 Alfa Romeo GTV 2000
1974 Alfa Romeo GTV 2000


Later on, Milan Auto Sdn Bhd took over the franchise rights and the marque continued to thrive in Malaysia with models such as the 155 mid-sized family sedan introduced in the early 1990s.

In 2005, Sime Darby Motors acquired the franchise for Alfa Romeo and invested significantly in new 3S (sales, service and spare parts) outlets for the brand.

However, a few months later, growing the Alfa Romeo business became more difficult with the launch of the NAP in March 2006 to promote local vehicle manufacturing and assembly, and export-oriented Malaysian manufacturers.

Sime Darby Motors (SDM) was not keen to invest tens or hundreds of millions into production of completely knocked-down (CKD) Alfa Romeo cars, given that its sales target for 2006 was a mere 800 units (60% of expected sales from the 147 and 156, and 25% from GT models).

And despite SDM bringing in attractive models like the 159 sports sedan, GT and Brera coupes, the Spider cabriolet, the Mito hatchback and the Giulietta hot hatch - sales kept declining over the eight-year period until the company gave up the business in late 2013.

2010 Alfa Romeo 159 JTS
2010 Alfa Romeo 159 JTS


Meanwhile, sibling Italian marque Fiat also suffered a similar fate in Malaysia with local importer and distributor Torino Motor Industries (M) Sdn Bhd giving up the business at end-2009.

It was reported that the company had sold less than 60 Fiat cars in the four years after the NAP was launched, and blamed the low sales to high prices (RM100,000 and above) and small 1.4-litre engine capacities of some models.

Torino Motor Industries had distributed Fiat cars since 1992 and brought in models such as the sexy Coupe sports car, Grande Punto and Bravo GT hatchbacks, six-seater Multipla and seven-seater Ulysse MPVs (multi-purpose vehicles) and 500 A-segment city car.

In its heyday, the company used to enjoy brisk sales and could bask in annual registrations of 1,000 units of the old Fiat Punto.

2008 Fiat Multipla
2008 Fiat Multipla


Automotive industry observer Andrew Suresh noted that in the 70s, Continental marques like Alfa, Fiat, Opel and Saab had a strong presence in Malaysia before the influx of more affordable Japanese cars.

"Sales of Continental marques declined and the Japanese cars took over the market as they were cheaper and developed a reputation for good fuel economy," said Andrew, who is the organiser of Asia Klasika Motor Festival - a motor show that promotes automotive heritage.

However, he recalled that Alfa Romeo and Fiat cars remained popular thanks to buyers who were passionate about their Italian styling, performance and responsive handling.

"From the 60s till the 80s, Fiat was popular in Malaysia with cars like the 500, 600, 124 and 131. Fiat was known for its reliability and many people are driving them even today. The Fiat Coupe came in the 90s and stirred a lot of interest as it was almost like a mini Ferrari."

Fiat Coupe
Fiat Coupe


Andrew agreed that later on, hefty price tags and costly spare parts began to spell doom for the Italian marques here.

"Only hard-core enthusiasts with deep pockets were willing to buy new cars."

However, he is confident the Italian marques will make a comeback in Malaysia someday.

"They continue to be popular among car enthusiasts and Alfa Romeo cars are particularly popular among vintage and classic car lovers. The Giulia 1600 and 1300 which used to be valued at RM40,000 to RM50,000 nowadays can command RM90,000 to RM120,000."

He also noted the Alfa Romeo brand is still strong globally, and the brand has returned to F1 racing.

"Newer models like the 2.9-litre bi-turbo V6 engined Alfa Romeo Giulia Quadrifoglio have found buyers in Malaysia via grey importers despite the hefty price tags."

1997 Fiat Ulysse
1997 Fiat Ulysse
Fiat 500
Fiat 500
2010 Alfa Romeo Brera
2010 Alfa Romeo Brera
2010 Alfa Romeo MiTo
2010 Alfa Romeo MiTo



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