Wednesday, October 31, 2007

2009 Alfa Romeo 8C Competizione Review

The corner was slow, even unremarkable. A constant-radius, 2nd-gear curve that happened to be a part of Circuito de Balocco, Fiat's official test track, although it could have been any decent-size roundabout in the world.

We turned the wheel, and as the nose of the car greeted the apex, we squeezed the accelerator hard. As expected, the rear wheels slid wide, and thanks to a little steering lock to catch up to them and a touch more power, we were able to keep the tail out of shape for a second or two until the corner opened up.

It was a childishly simple maneuver, but there, in an instant, was a moment for which we have been waiting more than 15 years.

We were powersliding a brand-new Alfa Romeo — the 2009 Alfa Romeo 8C Competizione.

Back From the Brink of Front

Wheel DriveThese are such simple pleasures that it seems absurd that one of the world's most evocative, emotive marques, one that built its brand on pure driving pleasure, has been denying them to its devotees this last decade and a half. Since 1992, a rear-wheel-drive Alfa Romeo has not been available, as a succession of front- and all-wheel-drive platforms was supplied to Alfa Romeo from its Fiat parent.The car responsible is the 2009 Alfa Romeo 8C Competizione.

It's been a long time coming. First shown in concept form at the 2003 Frankfurt Auto Show, the car finally is scheduled to go into production next year. You know the wait has been worth it as soon as you see how little its shape deviates from the original, how wonderfully proportioned it is and how it acknowledges Alfa's past without being defined by it.Its purpose? Think of it doing the same sort of job for Alfa Romeo as the Ford GT has done for the Blue Oval. What matters is that they get enthusiasts feeling warm about their respective brands once more.

Both companies realized the need to drive their product ranges upmarket, and a dream car is cheaper and more effective than a lengthy marketing campaign.This is why all 500 8Cs that will be made in 2008-'09 were sold long before anyone so much as sat in one, even at a price of about $226,000. The 8C will also reintroduce Alfa Romeo to the United States. About 99 cars of the production allotment will cross the pond, and then 500 8C Spiders will be built and a batch will also come to America.

Good Cars Come From Good PartnersWhen faced with building 1,000 cars that bear no relation to anything already in your store cupboard, you can't simply start from scratch. You have to knock on a few doors. Given that Alfa Romeo now has overall control of Maserati, the door that opened widest was the one with a large trident on its front.It would be hard indeed to underestimate the contribution that Maserati has made to the 8C. The floor is borrowed from a Quattroporte, then cut and shut to suit the 8C's wheelbase and adapted to Maserati's double-wishbone independent suspension.

The engine is the Maserati V8, its displacement increased from 4.2 to 4.7 liters, presently a specification that is unique to the 8C for now but will soon be found in Maseratis as well. It's matched with the six-speed automated sequential manual transmission that came with the first version of the Maserati Quattroporte.The whole thing is assembled not in Alfa Romeo's Turin, but instead at the Maserati factory in Modena. Which is why when you need your 8C Competizione serviced, it is to a Maserati dealer that you will drive.Carbon Fiber Can Be StylishThe 8C Competizione is made from carbon fiber, which is more than you can say about any Ferrari on sale today, let alone Maserati. The shape is distinctly, inimitably Alfa Romeo.The gorgeous cabin owes little to anything else, too.

Nasty instrument dials apart, this is one of the best-looking cabins this side of a Bugatti Veyron. There are plastic parts if you look for them, but these are not what your eyes fall upon, as they are rather too preoccupied with all the leather, aluminum and carbon fiber.And the view down the hood — an almost lost art these days — is unforgettable. You peer through a quite small windshield to the two kicked-up humps marking the tops of the front fenders. When driving hard, you can use them to guide you in and out of corners.

Speed Thrills

Hard driving is what this car invites more than most, even in the rarefied air of the six-figure supercar. After waiting so long for an Alfa whose direction of travel can be determined as much by your foot as your fingers, the temptation to streak off into the sunset is overwhelming. Only the concrete confines of Balocco stop us from doing so.Initial impressions are uniformly good. The engine note is perfect. This 450-horsepower V8 has a similar capacity to a small-block Ford in the classic Mustang, but its voice is not a transatlantic rumble but instead the smooth, sweet melody of the true European aristocrat. Hit the Sport button, which sharpens the throttle response, cuts the shift times in half and opens a valve in the exhaust, and the 8C sounds at once gloriously rich, angry and assertive.There are 354 pound-feet of torque at 4,750 rpm, so if you hit the throttle pedal hard enough, this Alfa sits back on its heels, takes a deep breath and then cannons you up the road, with its fat, rear 285/35R20 Pirellis yelping all the way. The engine develops its 450 hp all the way up at 7,000 rpm, and the 8C will fling you past 100 km/h (62 mph) in 4.2 seconds on its way to the far side of 180 mph. The swiftness of the gearchanges doesn't defy logic as with the Ferrari 430 Scuderia, but it's still quicker than you'd manage on your own.

Let's Go Drifting

There is, however, mild disappointment in store and you find it when you reach the corners. For while the 8C Competizione will slide and slide until its tires are molten, this is not a delicate car to handle.There's too much inherent understeer, not enough steering feel and the sense that if you turned off all the safety systems and really drove the doors off it, then it might just reward your efforts with an unseemly excursion through the nearest hedge.We're not sure that we should be too bothered by this. We've lost count of the number of people who have asked if the 2009 Alfa Romeo 8C Competizione is Alfa's greatest work to date.

Out there, among enthusiasts everywhere, most of whom will never even see an 8C, this really matters.And to everyone we have given the same reply: It's not the greatest, but it is very good. Most important, for the purpose of bringing Alfa Romeo back to the U.S., it is more than good enough.

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