PARIS – Alfa Romeo SpA currently is testing its entire lineup in the U.S. for consumer acceptance, as the storied brand plans its return to the world’s richest car market.

“We’ve sent all the cars,” says Antonio Baravalle, executive vice-president of Fiat Auto SpA-owned Alfa. “From that we will decide which models we will bring to the U.S.A.”

The hands-on evaluations are being conducted by J.D. Power and Associates, Baravalle tells Ward’s following the auto maker’s announcement the 8C Competizione, unveiled last week at the auto show here, will spearhead Alfa’s return to the U.S. by 2008.

A limited production run of 500 units went on sale Sept. 28, and within 24 hours Alfa had taken 120 orders worldwide. The auto maker’s U.S. marketing plan calls for sales to be conducted through six or seven “selected” Maserati dealers, Baravalle says.

The expected price tag for the car: €135,000 ($171,000).

Alfa Romeo retreated from the U.S. in 1995, leaving a reputation for poor quality in its wake. But Baravalle is confident a comeback will succeed, believing the Alfa name invokes “more good than bad.”

Also, he suggests the timing is right – stopping short of saying performance-oriented premium brands such as Porsche and BMW are so well established, they may be suffering from overexposure.

“German cars are all perfect, marvelous cars,” Baravalle says. “In the panorama, (Alfa is) comparable to all the other German cars. I think there is a space for an Italian ‘exotic’ brand, but not in the way of Ferrari.”

Scheduled for production at Maserati’s plant in Modena, Italy, the 8C skates close to the edge of exotica. Maserati, Alfa’s upscale Fiat stablemate, was deeply involved in the car’s development.

“This is the first high-level collaboration between Alfa and Maserati,” says Fiat SpA CEO Sergio Marchionne, adding it was more important to make a strong statement at launch than to reinforce the brand’s better-known face of affordable sportiness.

“You need a car like this to make people aware of the fact (Alfa offers) a huge amount of technical know-how and engineering know-how,” Marchionne says, noting the 8C features designed-in compliance with U.S. safety regulations.

Under the 8C’s carbon-fiber skin is a 450-hp 4.7L V-8 that reaches peak torque of 347 lb.-ft. (470 Nm) at 4,750 rpm. Unique intake-exhaust geometry and continuously variable valve timing contribute to its ability to generate 80% of its maximum torque at 2,000 rpm, Alfa claims.

Managing the thrust is a 6-speed automatic Maserati gearbox with five automatic shift modes. Shift paddles are located behind the steering wheel.

Baravalle calls the 8C the brand’s new “flagship” and a “laboratory” of technology and styling.

“It is an indicator of our future,” he says. “Today, we are working on the new 147. The code is 149, but the name may not be the same. That car will already have something (similar to the 8C) in style and technology.”

But the 149’s development has not seen any direct collaboration with Maserati.

Determining which model or models will follow the 8C across the Atlantic is “tough,” Baravalle says.

“We don’t know which range will come to the U.S. market,” he adds.

The debuts late last year of the flashy 159 sports sedan and Brera sports coupe fueled renewed interest in Alfa Romeo.

Why was it chosen to expand Fiat’s horizons instead of Lancia or the core brand?

“We think that Alfa is the real worldwide brand,” Baravalle says.

emayne@wardsauto.com