How This Sketchy 2009 Alfa Romeo Was Imported to the US Through a Weird Loophole

As it turns out, there are ways to get cars past the 25-year ban. But not just anyone can do it.
Alex Bodnarchuk, The Drive

If you know the first thing about the United States’ 25-year car import ban, you know the 2009 Alfa Romeo 159 diesel we found for sale last October probably meant trouble. Emphasis on probably, because there’s an exception to every rule. This is one of them because it was imported legally through an obscure loophole for the sake of the U.S. military.

Launched in 2005, the 159 predated Alfa Romeo’s 2008 return to the U.S. after a 13-year hiatus. It was a compact sedan offered with various gas and diesel engine options and an available six-speed manual and all-wheel drive. Think of it as a weirder, better-looking alternative to the VW Jetta TDI.

This particular car popped up on Facebook Marketplace last fall with 89,000 miles on the clock, and supposedly, a legitimate American title. We didn’t advise buying it because more often than not, cars like this are crusher bait. But that didn’t stop one of our readers, Alex Bodnarchuk, from rolling the dice. And he hit the jackpot.

Bodnarchuk told me the car’s history as he heard it from the previous owner, a military recruiter in North Carolina. She bought the car in 2013 at Fort Bragg (now Fort Liberty) from its original owner, an Italian who was in the U.S. on some sort of diplomatic or military business that wasn’t specified. It’s not uncommon for foreign nationals or even servicemembers to bring personal vehicles purchased abroad to the States, but this case was different.

Contrary to popular belief, members of the military who want to bring home a vehicle bought on deployment go through the standard U.S. importation process. A U.S. Customs and Border Protection spokesperson confirmed their cars must still abide by the 25-year rule’s limitations, meaning the cars have to comply with the FMVSS and CAA—the only special privilege servicemembers get is duty-free importation and free transportation for one car. Ordinarily, cars like this Alfa Romeo don’t make it past customs and are either exported again or crushed. That’s where things get interesting.

From what Bodnarchuk was told, the original owner was over on such important business that the federal government sidestepped the Department of Motor Vehicles to register the car. Despite never being federalized, it has a fully legal U.S. title. The CBP couldn’t tell us more about the provisions that allow such a privilege, so unfortunately, this isn’t a loophole the American public can exploit to bring in something like a Mitsubishi Delica Mini.

Owning a one-of-a-kind Alfa Romeo isn’t for the faint of heart either, as Bodnarchuk found while trying to get the car back into commute-worthy condition. The car came up for sale in part because the previous owner’s son had taken such poor care of the car that it was almost undrivable. The check engine light was on, and because it wouldn’t make boost it had “acceleration [that] could barely rival a bicycle.” Alfa Romeo dealers wouldn’t touch it, leaving the 159 for our boy to scoop it up.

It’d take him close to a year even to diagnose the car’s problems, as he often had to get help from online communities that don’t speak English. As it turned out, there were numerous problems with the intake and emissions controls, causing both vacuum and coolant leaks. He then had to track down vendors that’d ship parts and specialty tools to the States, which on one occasion required a special order.

For his effort though, he was rewarded with a diesel Alfa that’s probably the only one of its kind on the continent. Better still, he upgraded to a later version of the intake manifold, so if anything it runs better than ever. It gets all the attention a rare Italian car deserves, too.

“I can’t go anywhere without people either staring at it with squinty eyes or asking me what it is,” Bodnarchuk said.

2009 Alfa Romeo 159 diesel in the United States, in black, from the rear three-quarter angle
2009 Alfa Romeo 159 diesel parked in public. Alex Bodnarchuk

Of course, his Alfa 159 probably won’t be the last one imported, as Alfisti may already be eyeing the manual, 3.2-liter V6 Q4 models with all-wheel drive. But that can’t happen until at least 2030, and this Alfa will be the unexpected star of many an Italian car show until then.

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