I've tired of people asking me, "Hey man, did you hear Alfa's coming back to the States in two years?" The hell they are.
Even though it seems more likely than it ever will be, I won't actually grab a steering wheel with an Alfa Romeo badge in the center and stare out the window at American traffic. This is unfortunately depending on many ducks marching together in a row-and they might be badged as Chryslers and Dodges and Jeeps. Chryslers and Dodges and Jeeps, oh my!
All the Chrysler Group brings to the table is a really embittered dealer and distribution network, some average minivans, fattened pickup trucks, and a Jeep brand with zero clear strategy. Everything else is a Fiat Group automobile and both Alfa Romeo and Lancia remain practically stillborn. Some recipe for success.
And all the dorks looking through rose-colored glasses who snap back that the 8C Competizione is a clear sign that this is the real deal, it's all I can do to keep from bitch-slapping them with Fiat Group profit reports.
The 8C Competizione and Spider are not truly Alfas. They are beautiful sports cars on old Maserati chassis assembled between the Fiat plant at Mirafiori and the same line as the Granturismo in Modena. And, by the way, cost huge money yet add nothing to the bottom line.
Setting polemics aside, however, I have just driven the 2011 Alfa Romeo Giulietta, the 2010 Alfa Romeo 8C Spider whose raison d'être I maybe just ridiculed a little too much, and the Pininfarina Alfa Romeo 2ettottanta showcar that stopped all hearts at the 2010 Geneva show.
The 8C Spider is by far the best Alfa Romeo-badged street car, dynamically, technologically, and image-y, ever built. (Many will even agree that it is also the best looking.)
The new Giulietta is the best driving "civilian" Alfa Romeo ever built, and by that I mean a car that can take on the world and sell in many thousands of units-if only the back office's traditional dysfunction can be solved first.
The purely show Pininfarina 2ettottanta brings blood- red tears of excruciating lust to my eyes. If this gem doesn't get built, then this new push to make Alfa Romeo a global premium player will crash hard into the wall. Again. The apprehensive part of all this tear-stained lechery is that everyone begged Alfa to build the Italdesign Giugiaro Brera the moment we saw it at the 2002 Geneva show. And build it they did, badly. Both the Brera and current Spider from Alfa are nice lookers that drive like pigs on stilettos.
Alfa Romeo Giulietta
Alfa Romeo turned 100 years old in June and things have rarely looked worse for the brand we all still seem to love, even though it has delivered very little in the last two decades worthy of the name.
But the 2011 Giulietta honestly grabs my attention. The architecture, called "Compact," is a new construction using only a few old bits from existing parts bins. My drive time in and around Fiat's proving grounds at Balocco was fairly dynamic stuff with lots of forced lateral-g action on road and track, and it seems the Alfa boffins have squeaked out a good 'un on a very tight budget. The Giulietta comes the closest yet to being a new Alfa that can stand on its own and realistically dream of taking on the Germans. But it had better resist the temptation to cost like a German or it's game over.
Alfa must sell as many cars as each of the German three-Audi, BMW, Mercedes-Benz-to be taken seriously worldwide. Last year, while all the big German premium houses were tickling one million or more as usual, Alfa Romeo sold a grand total of 102,000 cars. In a bold effort to thrill, Alfa has declared that the Giulietta should sell 100,000 units per annum all by itself. They'll probably be lucky to hit 60k and it won't be the car's fault.
The 2011 Giulietta drops the terrific quadrilateral front axle scheme of its 147 predecessor and instates a much lighter aluminum arm assembly, a mainstream MacPherson strut setup, and electronically actuated steering. Before the drive, I was ready to despair over yet another missed opportunity.
But despair never came. The MacPhersons have been tuned on the money for this chassis; the actuator for the electronically assisted steering has been placed on the rack itself and not somewhere up the steering column, so the feel and response are damned near mechanical; and the low-flex aluminum arms make a big difference, too, letting the larger Giulietta still feel about the size of the 147.
As on cars like the Golf or MINI, Alfa Romeo has given the Giulietta a new compact multilink rear suspension design, so the trailing feeling of the car is less lumbering and heavy, more nimble and helpful.
All Giuliettas come standard with the company's DNA adaptive drive control. This is a toggle switch to the left of the console shift lever and the D (dynamic), N (normal), and A (all-weather) affect the steering assistance, throttle response, shift timings (an optional dual-clutch automated manual with paddles comes online after summer), behavior of the Q2 e-diff at the front axle, and the thresholds for VDC stability control.
In a good move, the software people have finally made Normal on the Giulietta feel more, well, normal for an Alfa Romeo. And this improvement is on all five available engines: a 1.4-liter turbo four-cylinder with either 118 hp or 168 hp, a 1.6-liter turbo diesel with 103 hp, and another 2.0-liter TD with 168 hp.
Then there's the latest 1.7-liter four-cylinder direct-injected gas turbo with 232 hp in the high performing Quadrifoglio Verde trim. I'm told they simply remapped the Normal setting to pump out greater torque at lower revs.
But the lingering quality problems persist in the choice of materials and some of the assembly. The cricks and cracks never stopped, especially in the rear doors. Touching the interior here and there, particularly the inner door panels, revealed the plastics quality was completely basic Fiat stuff, though designed real pretty.
If Alfa wants to take on BMW 1 Series and Audi A3 buyers, it needs to up the premium touch surfaces in major ways. Though the Giulietta has the body dimensions and general comfort to compete, the less expensive Golf beats it handily so far as livability.
2011 Alfa Romeo Giulietta
Transverse front engine, front-wheel drive, four-door hatch
1.75-liter I4, dohc, 16-valve, turbocharged, updated infinitely adjustable intake camshaft; redline 6500 rpm
Six-speed manual, DNA adaptive chassis-engine management
Front: standard MacPherson strut with anti-sway bar and aluminum control arms; Rear: multi-link structure of compact design
13.0-inch front and 11.0-inch rear steel/aluminum compound discs with four-pot aluminum calipers; VDA traction control
Wheels and Tires
Forged one-piece Cloverleaf alloys, 7.5x17
Pirelli P Zero, 235/35 (91W)
MSRP: $34,000 (est.)
232 hp @ 5500 rpm
251 lb-ft @ 1900 rpm
Alfa Romeo 8C Spider
What can be said about the 8C Spider, only 35 of which are destined for the U.S. by December 2010? Why it costs twice as much ($301,600) as it should and why only 500 are built I haven't a clue. Are these Alfa Romeo traditions I was unaware of? Doesn't Fiat already have Maserati and Ferrari to fill those low-volume-at-nutty-price shoes?
Regardless, I completely dig the car for all the right reasons. I thought having it in white was a bit fey, but it's a creamy sort of pearl and doesn't feel so Hairdresser Special close-up. And then I ignite the bastard and take off, and almost all conceptual troubles I might have fade to black. The 444-hp dry-sump Ferrari V8 works as well as it does in the Maser Granturismo S, flinging to 60 mph in 4.3 seconds while maintaining the Competizione coupe's top speed of 182 mph.
Fiat Powertrain Technologies is the absolute strongest world-player asset the entire company possesses. For having basically had everything that goes into the 8C Coupe and Spider handed to them on a mandate a few years back, the tech leaders have wrung the maximum from this Maserati cum Ferrari cum Alfa Romeo. Domenico Bagnasco is the 8C's chief engineer and he says the 8C Spider is exactly the version he and everyone else involved were shooting for under challenging circumstances.
The Spider adds just 198 pounds over the coupe for a total of 3,700, thanks in large part to the use of an easy cloth top, carbon-encased windscreen surround, and standard Brembo carbon-ceramic brake discs. Though especially in dynamic curves the overall damper/spring rates of the coupe feel lazy with plenty of body roll-and are not adjustable-in this open-top setting the feel is right at home.
Losing the roof, the 8C Spider is 30 percent less rigid than the coupe, but the thicker anti-sway cross braces combine with softer damper rates and sturdier springs to render the whole package likeable in this lifestyle car.
Hatefully, the V8 is still port-injected and the Marelli-Graziano six-speed automated manual is insufficient-though at its best yet here-but everything works well together. Press the Sport setting for gear changes, throttle touch, steering assist, and VDA traction control thresholds, and the performance exhaust channeling the max power at 7000 rpm lets you know you've entered the engineer's preferred territory. Knock out VDA completely and the 8C Spider is a smoking oversteer circus treat. The 20-inch forged lightweight alloys, Pirellis, and Brembo brakes take it all with suitable Italian machismo.
2010 Alfa Romeo 8C Spider
Longitudinal front engine, rear-wheel drive, two-door convertible
4.7-liter V8, dohc, 32-valve, dry-sump, port injection, updated infinitely adjustable intake camshaft; redline 7500 rpm
Six-speed automated Graziano-Marelli manual, Sport and Auto setups
Front/rear: double-wishbone, thicker anti-sway braces, softer damper settings, harder springs
15.0-inch front and 14.2-inch rear ceramic discs with six-pot aluminum calipers front, four-pot rear; VDA traction control
Wheels and Tires
Forged one-piece Cloverleaf wheels, 8.5x20 (f), 9.5x20 (r)
Pirelli P Zero Corsa, 245/35 (f), 285/35 (r)
MSRP: $301.600 (est.)
444 hp @ 7000 rpm
354 lb-ft @ 4750 rpm
Now the 8C Competizione and Spider need a smaller sibling. How's about a 4C Duetto Spider based on the Pininfarina Alfa Romeo 2ettottanta barchetta? I'd take one, if it can start at $38,000 or so.
There the svelte, tautly designed blood-red barchetta spider sat in the Pininfarina corral in Geneva, begging the Benjamin Braddock in me to hop in and go save the woman of my dreams from her bitter marriage altar.
To speak with everyone involved on the Pininfarina Alfa Romeo 2ettottanta (pronounced "du-eh-toh-TAN-tah," a play on the Italian words for two and duet, the Duetto nickname for the most famous Alfa spider, and ottanta for the 80-year anniversary of Pininfarina), it's pretty clear that the apex of the high-spirited sports car era all'italiana came in 1967 when Dustin Hoffman drove his red Duetto spider on the big screen in The Graduate. It's been a steady downhill since then. Fittingly, the Duetto was also one of the last Alfa Romeo models ever sold in the United States.
That long-lived spider, first sketched in the late 1950s and produced from 1966 through 1993, was designed especially for the U.S. West Coast. Whenever Fiat Group finally learns how to make Alfa Romeos sell like BMWs and Audis, a 2ettottanta image leader must be a key part of the product mix.
Beneath the layer of glossy red veneer there is a surprise: the 2ettottanta is made of finely machined, sanded, and shaped apple wood. This is a keen traditional touch, since the common way for years in Turin was to create wooden jigs around which aluminum panels were pounded into shape. It sits on an heavily adapted Fiat Group family architecture with a wheelbase that's 98.4 inches long, just an inch shorter than the current Alfa Spider of the 159/Brera lineup.
The 2ettottanta falls in somewhere between an Audi TT and a Nissan 370Z. In an added technical detail that makes Alfisti drool in anticipation, the intended layout is a turbocharged 232-hp inline four mounted longitudinally behind the front axle and driving the rear wheels.
Lowie Vermeersch, project design director at Pininfarina, says: "Back at the start of designing the showcar in October 2009 we were only thinking of capturing the pure fun and pleasure of that great wide-open style of driving." Vermeersch himself owns a '76 Alfa Duetto spider.
Regardless of its extreme pre-production state, sitting in the 2ettottanta and moving with it shows off the stunning potential of this design. Pininfarina has taken the Alfa Duetto spider concept and matured it, playing appropriately with the proportions for a modern world. The main change is shifting the passenger tub rearward instead of leaving it dead center. And then there are those imaginative flying buttresses a la Porsche Boxster Spyder, to give a most recent example. These latter 42-inch long and 11-inch high flourishes would never make it into production as is.
It struck me as a smaller 8C Spider with its roof permanently open. Over its lifetime, the original Duetto spider had three key iterations-the design on early ones is referred to as osso di sepia, meaning "cuttlefish bone" and referring to the curved tail. Then came the coda tronca styling that cut off that tail, and finally aerodinamica, which blended the two.
"We've taken a bit from both the osso di sepia and coda tronca designs," Vermeersch says. "But then the vast majority is much more modern and with, we think, better proportions." The 2ettottanta is slippery through the air in initial computer simulations, too, registering a cd of 0.32.
Inside, the controls are simple and clear. Here's hoping the eventual center tunnel on a 2014 Alfa Romeo 4C Duetto can stay this slim and still use the seven-speed TCT (twin-clutch automatic) transmission in a longitudinal layout. The small center lever is perfect in the hand and the Start button in red at the thumb is a great solution.
Alfa red, in fact, is everywhere. The flashy red dials are huge and very readable, and Pininfarina has exploited the round Alfa Romeo badge nicely by making it the fulcrum for all needles. They also redesigned the current Alfa DNA adaptive chassis interface just to the rear of the shift lever and the machined aluminum feels serious as we click the little trigger between D (dynamic), N (normal), and A (all-weather). It's a trick to let the driver see just enough of the forward hood without showing too much so you lose a sense of the front corners during sporty driving. The 2ettottanta gets it just right.
The 14-inch three-spoke steering wheel reminds me of the recent Camaro or Mustang heritage interpretations, a good thing. I'd like to think Alfa could find some miraculous way to stuff an airbag in the center for homologation.
The full brunt of 232 hp and 251 lb-ft of torque was not, of course, mine for the having. The proper rear-wheel-drive chassis at this dimension does not even exist anywhere in the Fiat family. And the current 1.7-liter turbocharged inline four desired, and soon to be launched in the Alfa Romeo Giulietta Quadrifoglio Verde ("green four-leaf clover") is not yet intended to be mounted length-wise. Plus, the seven-speed TCT automated dual-clutch doesn't come online until September. Severe prototype action.
That said, cruise time revealed a setup on 19-inch custom wheels that's very ready to rumble. The DNA system was fixed in Normal and the gearing was likewise limited. I was told that the chassis laid out this way could conceivably hold a smaller next-gen V6. The twin exhaust display with carbon-fiber-look front splitter and rear diffuser are designed for a car that will effortlessly zing to 155 mph-and possibly more. As is with the turbo four, the eventual 2,700-pound 2ettottanta will hit 60 mph in 5.8 seconds, right on a Porsche Boxster's tail.
Braking comes from a set of hit-a-wall good Brembo carbon ceramic discs. Way over the top, but hot to look at and a clear sign of things to come. To come, that is, if Alfa really wants to thrive and not just survive.
The real trick is to make certain that the 2014 Pininfarina Alfa Romeo 2ettottanta can provide all of this emotion at a base price that's not too much higher than the 332-hp V6-powered Nissan 370Z Roadster (about $37,000), but not as high as the 200-hp four-cylinder Audi TT Roadster 2.0 TFSI ($40,800). That'll be key.
Though, again, the car is not set to come to the States, the terrific Compact chassis and some of these smaller capacity turbocharged engines will arrive for 2012 and 2013 as Chryslers, Dodges, and Jeeps.
Alfa Romeo 2ettottanta
Longitudinal front engine, rear-wheel drive, two-door barchetta
1.75-liter I4, dohc, 16-valve, turbocharged, updated infinitely adjustable intake camshaft; redline 6500 rpm
Seven-speed dual-clutch TCT automated manual
Front/rear: double-wishbone, thickened anti-sway braces, DNA adaptive chassis-engine
15.0-inch front and 14.2-inch rear ceramic discs with four-pot aluminum calipers front/rear; VDA traction control
Wheels and Tires
Forged one-piece Cloverleaf wheels, 8x19 (f), 8.5x19 (r)
Pirelli P Zero Corsa
232 hp @ 5500 rpm
251 lb-ft @ 1900 rpm
Will we ever see more smartly priced 8C cars, 4C country road-stormers, a larger four-door premium sedan to replace the 166, a sexy crossover, et cetera? I have no clue, but my faith factor is low still even though Chrysler-Fiat boss Sergio Marchionne is one of my current idols.
What could easily happen, provided this whole Chrysler-Fiat dynamic works out and thrives, is the filling up of the Giulietta model range with a four-door notchback to perhaps arrive in North America as a proper Alfa Romeo.
The Alfa plan is still foggy, but everybody knows that sooner or later this is the only mass-market premium brand that will carry the Fiat Group banner worldwide. Only centenarian Alfa Romeo can pull it off.