With the 8C, Alfa hasn’t just revived its core values, it has done so in dramatic fashion with a supercar of real breeding
By Andrew Frankel
The corner was slow and unremarkable. A constant radius, second-gear curve which happened to be located on Fiat’s Balocco test track but could have been any decent-sized roundabout in the world. I turned the wheel and, as the nose greeted the apex, I squeezed the accelerator hard. As expected the rear wheels slid wide until the steering caught up with them and with a touch more power, I was able to keep the tail out of shape for a second or two until the corner opened up. It was a childishly simple manoeuvre, but there, in an instant, was a moment I have been waiting for for over 15 years. I was powersliding a brand-new Alfa Romeo.
These 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. Anyone who has owned a 75, a GTV, a Giulia, a Junior and who knows how many other models will know the joy of feeling a car adjust its line according to the pressure of your foot on the pedal and the guilty pleasure of nudging the back a few harmless degrees out of line. And they will know too that, ever since the last 75 was built in 1992, it has not been possible, thanks to the uninterrupted supply of front- and four-wheel-drive platforms supplied to Alfa Romeo from its Fiat parent.
The car responsible for at least interrupting this reign of dynamic disappointment is the new 8C Competizione. You might be offended by the exhumation of the legendary 8C moniker for a mere road car but it simply states the undeniable truth that, then as now, the 8C has eight cylinders. It’s the Competizione part that annoys me for, whatever this car may or may not be, a competition machine it most emphatically is not. It may be one day, and more about that in a minute, but for now it’s intended environment is very much the public road.
It’s been a long time coming: the 8C was first shown in concept form at the 2004 Frankfurt Motor Show and you get the impression that Alfa Romeo was astonished by the reaction to it: this was no thinly veiled production-ready car, it was a design exercise which then took four long years to graduate from show stand to showroom. But you only need to 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, to know the wait has been worth it.
Its purpose? Think of it doing the same sort of job for Alfa as the Ford GT has done for the Blue Oval. That both bear little relation to any mainstream product is of no concern to their creators: what matters is that they get enthusiasts feeling warm about their respective brands once more. Both have realised the need to drive their product ranges upmarket and one way of doing this, which can prove both cheaper and more effective than a lengthy marketing campaign, is to make a dream car.
Which is why, despite the fact that all 500 8Cs that will be made in 2008-2009 were sold long before anyone so much as sat in one, Alfa Romeo has just embarked on a three-week programme introducing the world’s media to the car. It’s not 8Cs they hope to sell as a result of words such as these, but 147s, 159s, Breras and Spiders.
The 8C also has another, more specific purpose: it is the car that will reintroduce Alfa Romeo to the United States and if you’re going to try to break one of the toughest but potentially most lucrative markets in the world, you need to put your best foot forward. About 80 8Cs will cross the pond and then, as soon as production has stopped, Alfa Romeo will start making another 500 8C Spiders, the car it really hopes will capture the imagination of a notoriously conservative American car-buying public.
Alfa won’t be drawn on whether the 8C is a money maker or a loss leader – and, like me, you will draw your own conclusions from that – but what is abundantly clear is that, when faced with building even 1000 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.
And, unsurprisingly 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. The engine is Maserati’s V8, bored and stroked from 4.2 to 4.7 litres, a specification that is unique to the 8C for now but will soon be found in Maseratis as well. The paddle-actuated manual gearshift is the same as that used in manual Quattroportes, the double wishbone suspension is Maserati architecture (albeit with Alfa settings) and the whole thing is assembled not in Alfa Romeo’s Turin facility but at the Maserati factory in Modena. Which is why, when you need yours serviced, it is to a Maserati dealer that you will drive.
To me, this is all good news. I can see people turning their noses up if they’d been told the 8C used the platform of a Fiat Ducato van, but leaning on Maserati for the vast bulk of its major componentry strikes me as making nothing other than eminently good sense.
Besides, it’s not as if the 8C is an exercise in badge engineering. For a start, its entire body is made from carbon-fibre, which is more than you can say about any Ferrari, let alone Maserati, on sale today. It’s exterior is distinctly, inimitably Alfa Romeo and its gorgeous cabin owes little to anyone else, too. Nasty 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 on as they are rather too preoccupied with all the leather, aluminium and real carbon fibre on view. And the view down the bonnet – an almost lost art these days – is unforgettable. You peer through a quite small windscreen to the two kicked up humps marking the tops of the front wings. When driving hard, you can use them to guide you in and out of corners.
Hard driving. That’s 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 by your fingers, the temptation to streak off into the sunset is overwhelming. Only the concrete confines of Balocco stop me.
Initial impressions are uniformly good. The engine note is perfect – it has a similar capacity to a small-block Ford unit such as those used in GT40s and Mustangs, but its voice is not a transatlantic rumble but the smooth, sweet melody of the true European aristocrat. Hit the Sport button, which halves the shift times, opens a valve in the exhaust and sharpens the throttle response, and the sound at once becomes gloriously rich, angry and assertive.
Hit the pedal hard enough and it will sit back on its heels, take a deep breath and cannon you up the road, fat Pirellis yelping all the way. The engine develops 450bhp and if you change at its 7000rpm power peak, it’ll fling you past 62mph in 4.2sec on its way to the far side of 180mph. The gearchange is not logic-defying quick, as it is on certain Ferraris these days, but it’s still swifter than you’d manage on your own.
There is, however, mild disappointment in store and you find it when you reach the corners. For while it will slide and slide until its tyres are molten, this is not a delicate car to handle, where fine nuances of steering and pedal input have a precise and commensurate effect on your direction of travel. 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, like you might a Porsche 911 GT3, then it might just reward your efforts with an unseemly excursion through the nearest hedge.
I’m not sure we should be too bothered by this. In the days after the launch I lost count of the number of people who asked if the car was Alfa’s greatest work to date. Out there, among enthusiasts everywhere, most of whom will never even see an 8C, it really matters. And to every one I have given the same reply: it’s not the greatest but it is very good and, most importantly, for the job Alfa Romeo requires of it, it is more than good enough.
Alfa Romeo 8C
Engine: V8 petrol, 4691cc
Power/Torque: 450bhp at 7000rpm, 354lb ft at 4750rpm
Gearbox: Six-speed manual with paddle shift
Tyres: 245/35 ZR 20 (f), 285/35 ZR 20 (r)
Fuel/CO2: 17.9mpg, 377g/km
Acceleration: 0-62mph: 4.2sec, 0-400metres: 12.4sec
Suspension: Double wishbones all round, coil springs
Brakes: Ventilated discs, 360mm (f) and 330mm (r)
Price: £111,000 approx
Top speed: 181mph