italy 1All of a sudden it makes sense to buy an Italian car. Maybe I should have ended that sentence with an exclamation mark. For years Italian cars have been the province of moneyed purists who accept that things like rust and a failure to start (they call such things idiosyncrasies) are an acceptable compromise for handling that has been developed by passionate enthusiasts who live in places where roadmaps look like schematics of the upper intestine.

But over the last few years Italian car makers have taken a great leap forward into the present. Alfas don’t rust anymore, Fiats no longer demand a workshop visit every month with a new and untraceable malady. Ferraris don’t have to be taken through a 15-minute warm-up routine prior to movement and Lamborghinis can be driven by people taller than 170 cm. And while Maseratis may have lost their wonderful nomenclature, at least they no longer look like 1982 Falcons.italy fiat

And for all of them the prices have become refreshingly competitive.

Take the biggest selling Italian brand of the lot, Fiat. Fiats were relatively common on Australian roads once but slowly petered out, and by the early 1980s had disappeared completely. Delivery vans came back two decades later but it wasn’t until 2005 that cars wearing the Fiat brand reappeared. They had a problem however; price. They were unarguably expensive for what were basic little runabouts.

In 2012 that changed. Until then Fiat and Alfa Romeo were handled by an independent importer that did the best pricing it could manage. Then Fiat, which also controlled Alfa Romeo, took over Australian distribution and brought it in-house. Prices tumbled dramatically.

Suddenly a Fiat 500 went from north of $20k to south of $15k and it was possible to spot Alfa Giuliettas beyond South Yarra and Prahran. Who can complain when a Giulietta costs less than 30k and a neat little statement car like the Fiat 500 can be had for the same price as a Nissan Micra? Alfa sales doubled almost immediately, Fiats went to about seven times their previous levels.

But it wasn’t just price; quality control fell into line with industry standards. Rust isn’t a problem anymore and Italian cars now start and go just like Holdens and Fords. Oh, they still have their idiosyncrasies certainly, but these days they’re more endearing quirks than embarrassments.italy maser

It’s the same, but rather more understated, at the pointy end of the market. Ferraris have become genuine propositions. You can take them to work every day and even toss the keys to your PA without too much stress. Between 2000 and 2014 Ferraris sales have doubled and it’s not just because they’re now easily manageable in traffic, it’s also because they no longer cost twice as much as four-bedroom houses. Over the same period Lamborghini sales have tripled, but the standout renaissance is Maserati, going from 55 sales in 2000 to 401 last year.

Part of this is aesthetic. The Maserati Bi-Turbo of 2000 went like a rocket ship but was easy to mistake for an XD Falcon, hardly the thing for buyers wishing to make a statement. These days the classic lines of Maseratis, both two doors and four, coupes and convertibles, are unmistakable.

And providing a beautifully balanced blend of luxury and performance they have carved out an exclusive market niche. They coddle their owners in deep, hand-stitched leather but still manage to sound just great and go like startled gazelles. This is down to V8s built by Ferrari that deliver on every promise, and handling that doesn’t require the concentration and skill levels demanded by the bulk of supercars.

So what caused all this? In one word, America. Alfa has been absent from the American market for many years but is now making a comeback there and Fiat is going back there too, launching with a range of half a dozen 500 models, one of which was used by the Pope during his recent USA visit.

The Italians knew that if they were to succeed in the USA quality, reliability and price were fundamental and without all three they were doomed to fail. Fiat is now partnered with American brand Chrysler and it’s working for both brands. At the top end of the market the success of the newcomer Californian electric car brand Tesla, both at home and in Europe, has caused all the exotic car makers to lift their game.

So if you’re currently having fun in an Italian car you should thank the Americans who buy them as well as the Italians who make them.

Published October 2015

 

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