As the newspaper headlines constantly remind us, it's a tough time to be selling cars in this country, and familiar homegrown nameplates such as Pontiac may soon vanish into the automotive rust heap. Yet, one foreign marque is making its eagerly awaited return to American shores. Absent 15 years, Alfa Romeo is rolling into U.S. showrooms. And while even the vaunted Ferrari is suffering from the sales slump, demand for Alfa's sleek 8C Competizione is certain to outstrip supply.
Flaunting the curves of a young Sophia Loren, the impossibly sexy coupe debuted, in concept form, at the 2003 Frankfurt Motor Show. Even the most subtle details of that design survive in the production version of the twin-seater. A salute to Alfa's grand racing heritage, the 8C nameplate recalls one of the marque's first models to gain real credibility, the 6C 2500 Competizione driven at Italy's Mille Miglia, in 1950, by the legendary Juan Manuel Fangio and Augusto Zanardi. But the 8C is no retromobile. The carbon fiber body enveloping its steel space frame seems to move, even while idling. The oversized air intakes framing Alfa's classic, triangular grille hint of the searing performance that matches the stunning styling.
A subsidiary of the mainstream Italian automaker, Fiat, Alfa is such a close cousin to the Italian conglomerate's Ferrari and Maserati brands that the 8C is built on the latter's assembly line, in Modena, the heart of Italy's performance community. The glorious front-center-mounted power train is a 450-horsepower, 4.7-liter V-8 shared with the new Maserati Coupe. To achieve a perfect 50-50 weight balance, the gearbox and differential are both mounted in the rear. While the ruby red paint job on the 8C we drove was deep enough to swim in, the interior package was equally enticing. Sitting in Competizione's race-style shell seats, you're staring at a back-to-the-future gauge and control cluster. But one feature stands out. Stab the start button and the engine ignites with a reassuring rumble. It takes a moment to get the hang of the semi-automatic gearbox, but the operation of the paddle-mounted shifter quickly becomes intuitive and lets you get the most out of the big V-8, which revs with the angry—and noisy—determination of a race car.
A double-wishbone suspension, big, 20-inch wheels and massive Brembo brakes keep the beast under control, though certainly don't tame it. Head for the highway and you're in for a wild ride. Find some tight curves and you may never want to head home.
The only disappointment? Alfa Romeo plans to produce just 500 copies of the 8C Competizione, and only a small fraction of those are bound for the States. But if this is any sign of what's to come, we welcome Alfa back with open arms.