Review: 2008 Alfa Romeo 8C Competizione test drive

Alfa Romeo plans to re-enter the U.S. market in grand style with the expressive and powerful 8C Competizione.

by Lawrence Ulrich
ForbesAutos.com

Alfa Romeo, one of the more romantic names in the automotive industry, is whipping up a rare delicacy to tempt Italian-car fans and trumpet its return to the United States: the 8C Competizione.

Click through for the full review.

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This supercar is built on a modified Maserati platform, adds a new 4.7-liter V8 derived from Ferrari’s technology, and wraps it all in a tantalizing carbon-fiber body. The result is a sports car capable of doing 185 miles per hour with sparkling Italian character and sound, but one that’s refreshingly distinct from a typical Ferrari or Maserati. It will cost somewhere between $200,000 and $250,000 when it goes on sale in the United States this year.

Only 500 Alfa 8C Competizione coupes will be built, followed by a limited batch of Spider convertibles. Of those 500 coupes, 90 or so are bound for the U.S. The 8C will be sold through special Alfa brand ambassadors and serviced at Maserati dealerships.

We had the rare opportunity to drive the 8C at Alfa’s Belocca test track in northern Italy, near the Maserati factory in Modena, which has already begun crafting the 8C alongside the Maserati GranTurismo.

Other Alfa Romeo models likely to be sold in the United States starting late in 2009 include updated versions of the Brera coupe and Spider convertible currently on sale overseas.

Exterior

The Alfa Romeo 8C Competizione was first shown as a concept car at the 2003 Frankfurt auto show. A panel of top international auto designers named the final version the world’s best production design of 2006.

The 8C was designed by former Alfa Romeo design chief Wolfgang Egger, who now heads Audi’s design studios. The car’s styling pays homage to classic Alfas, including the rare Type 33 Stradale of 1967.

From its V-shaped hood to its sensuous flanks, the Alfa Romeo 8C Competizione is a beautifully expressive yet understated sports car. It smartly avoids the brutal styling of some modern supercars that makes them appear more like modified racers than cars for real drivers on real roads.

The 8C Competizione is built on a shortened version of the platform that underpins the Maserati GranTurismo and Quattroporte. Nearly half of the Alfa’s total mass is lightweight, pricey carbon fiber, including the body, dashboard, interior door panels, and seat frames “” the last weigh just 22 pounds each. Lifting the slim hood reveals rough, bare carbon fiber on its underside.

The 8C is a so-called mid-engine design, meaning the engine sits largely behind the driver but in front of the rear axle. Weight is concentrated low and in the center of the car to promote quick steering and balanced handling.

The Alfa Romeo 8C Competizione rides on huge 20-inch cast aluminum wheels shod with Pirelli high-performance tires. An optional set of ultra-light wheels saves nearly 6 pounds of weight at each corner. Buyers can choose a Quadrifoglio emblem for the fender, the four-leaf clover that once designated racing Alfas.

Interior

For an idea of the Alfa Romeo 8C Competizione’s cost-is-no-object approach to design, consider the central panel in the cabin: It starts as a single, 230-pound block of aluminum, then it’s whittled down to what is essentially an 11-pound sculpture.

The 8C’s cabin combines a performance-first approach with top materials and details. The dashboard is a single piece of carbon fiber. Body-enveloping racing seats are wrapped in rich and fragrant leather and come in a wealth of colors (make ours red) and patterns, including a particularly handsome woven design. Another seat pattern, of ribbed leather tubes, is called “cannelloni” (yes, like the pasta).

The steering wheel’s diameter seemed overly large at first, but that sensation soon wore off as I toggled the attached paddles to shift the transmission.

The Alfa Romeo 8C Competizione’s rear hatch, its frame also made of carbon fiber, opens on a generous cargo area. Fitted luggage by Italy’s Schedoni is a must.

Alfa Romeo officials scoffed at the idea of cupholders, but buyers can at least opt for a handsome leather case that fits snugly into the hatch and holds upright three bottles of wine.

It might seem like nitpicking to complain about the audio system, but as in most high-end Italian cars, the stereo looks and sounds like a cheap aftermarket unit.

Performance

Hitting the start button on the Alfa Romeo 8C Competizione is the first clue to its beating heart: a new, 4.7-liter V8 with 450 horsepower, courtesy of Ferrari’s engineering artisans. But in contrast to the reedy tenor note of a Ferrari, Alfa Romeo engineers labored to create a distinctively deep, crackling baritone.

That burbling, backfiring sound proved an endless delight on the drizzly Belocca track. The V8 revs like mad to 7,500 rpm, spurring the Alfa from 0-60 mph in 4.2 seconds “” a bit slower than, say, a Ferrari 599 GTB Fiorano or Porsche 911 GT2, but still flying. A launch-control setting allows the Alfa to smoke its tires for perfect, computer-aided starts.

The six-speed, Formula One-style automated manual transmission has been steadily improved from its earlier incarnations on Ferrari and Maserati models. It’s still makes the car lurch in full automatic mode, but flicking the paddle shifters produces snappy gear changes. Downshifts are accompanied by a quick, automatic blip of the throttle.

Pressing the cabin’s sport button cuts shift times in half, opens a valve in the two-stage exhaust to amp up that amazing sound, sharpens the throttle response, and shifts the stability control system to a freewheeling competition mode.

That stability control system is among the smartest and slickest that we’ve tested: Even on a track slick with rain, it let us keep feeding in power even as the car drifted through turns. The system allowed a surprising amount of slip and slide before it intervened, yet it would finally step in decisively to prevent an embarrassing skid off the track.

The Alfa’s enormous, trusty brakes include six-piston caliper discs up front, four-piston units in the rear. Ceramic brakes are optional “” they’re often used on race cars because the material’s superior heat dissipation allows longer, better brake performance under extreme driving conditions.

If the Alfa Romeo 8C Competizione has an Achilles’ heel, it’s a shortage of fingertip feedback through the steering wheel. A typical Ferrari or Porsche transmits a more secure sensation at the helm, though that impression might have improved on a drier track.

With its ferocious engine, balanced layout, double-wishbone suspension, and super-quick steering, the Alfa Romeo 8C Competizione delivers supercar performance. Its pedigree includes a level of exclusivity that’s far beyond most six-figure sports cars.

But acquiring an Alfa 8C Competizione isn’t a matter of writing the fattest check: The company will only offer them to buyers it selects, meaning people who are true Alfisti, as Alfa zealots are known. Alfa wants the 8C in the hands of buyers with a history of loving and collecting Alfa Romeos, as opposed to speculators interested only in flipping the car to turn a fast buck.

 

Is the Alfa Romeo 8C Competizione for You?

Buy this Car if:
Only the most exclusive exotic car can satisfy your speed craving; you’re so well-connected with Alfa Romeo, the car’s brand ambassadors come looking for you.

Look Elsewhere if:
You’ve never owned a high-end Italian car, which means you won’t be considered for an 8C anyway.

Who Fits?
A driver, passenger, and custom-fitted Schedoni luggage.

Closest Competitors
Ferrari 599 GTB Fiorano; Lamborghini Murcielago LP640; Mercedes-Benz SLR McLaren; Porsche 911 GT2

Did you know…
A watershed moment for Alfa Romeo in the United States came in 1967, when Dustin Hoffman drove the then-new Duetto Spider in “The Graduate.” Moviegoers went crazy for the spunky two-seat convertible, which Alfa continued to sell here into the 1990s.

 

Alfa Romeo 8C Competizione:

          

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