|It took a lot of work to turn the impossibly gorgeous 8C coupe into the even more stunning Spider|
Light rain is falling on the tarmac of the Balocco test track, mid-way between Milan and Turin. Grey early-morning skies hang over the rather featureless Piedmontese topography. It’s not the most promising of starts. But this is a story of contrasts, and our day is about to be made immeasurably brighter as we’re directed to a block of unusually attractive garages on the outskirts of the complex. A small man in smart Alfa Romeo overalls opens the door of one of them to reveal what is almost certainly, on a rainy November Monday morning in 2009, the most beautiful car in the world.
As we take a few moments to drink it in, chief engineer Domenico Bagnasco describes what it took to turn the already impossibly gorgeous Alfa 8C coupe into the arguably even more stunning Spider while, at the same time, improving the poor ride and rather tail-snappy handling.
It took a lot, apparently, including extensive lateral and longitudinal cross-bracing, recalibration of springs and dampers, the adoption of carbon-ceramic brakes (reducing unsprung weight, though overall the Spider is 90kg heavier) and a general fine-tuning of the extra masses to achieve a perfect 50:50 weight distribution. Oh yes, and the addition of a motorised, Z-frame fabric hood with manual header-rail latching (another 3kg saved).
It’s raining more heavily now, so someone suggests I take the £174,000 Spider out for a few slithery laps of the track. Natch. The hood’s down but I don’t really mind. If anything, the cabin looks even better ‘drizzled’ – an artful melange of carbon and leather crowned with a sublime hand-brushed aluminium centre console and decorated with a few globules of water. Very fetching. The seat lacks a little side support, but the driving position is comfortable and relaxed and the instruments are cast in the fabulous grand Old School Italian tradition: flamboyantly big dials, bold and clear, shrouded from sunlight by deep cowls. The switchgear is tactile and well-sited, the simple steering wheel a sensual delight and the detailing exquisite. Key in, ignition on, press the big red starter button for two seconds. The engine barks instantly into sonorous voice, as if it had been last silenced merely by the intervention of a ‘Pause’ button.
All right, I’ve never driven around Balocco before, and I’m not about to stack it before our drive south to a sunny rendezvous with the Italian Riviera has even begun. My Italian passenger is clearly a little bemused at my reticence to fling ‘the gorgeousness’ at every glistening curve with the accelerator pedal buried in the footwell and my arms tangled in a blur of opposite lock. He looks equally disappointed when I don’t shift down a cog for my first pass under the short bridge tunnel that supports another part of the track just before the fake Monza banking. Strictly speaking I don’t need to but, second time round, I blip-shift into third and ease back on the throttle as instructed. The overrun sounds exactly like a slightly uncoordinated firing squad. It’s a surprise, when I glance in the rear view mirror, not to see a groundsman stagger across the track clutching his chest.
Hard on the gas again and the Spider hurtles back into daylight, spray winding off its flanks, with a vast, stereophonic bellow so intensely Italian it’s almost as if it’s been mastered at Abbey Road to sound that way. It’s hard for my thoughts not to be consumed by the magnificent noise, but there are a few more initial impressions to be gleaned. The chassis feels less edgy than the coupe’s, and the management of air in the cabin is so good with the wind deflector in place that when we eventually return to the garage barely a drop of rain has moistened our remarkably untousled barnets.
Under the cover of the garage door, Alfa PR chief Davide Kluzer has unfurled a large map of Italy and sparked up a Marlboro. The plan is to work our way across to the A26, aka the Autostrada dei Trafori (or Autostrada of the Tunnels), and blast south to Genoa on the Mediterranean coast with all the unreasonable haste we can muster to make Santa Margherita and our overnight hotel for lunch. I suspect we’ll need a breather and a few tranquilisers when we get there because, even by Italian standards, the A26 has to be one of the most challenging stretches of motorway in Europe. Not just because of its serpentine nature as it slices through the Apennine mountains but, more crucially, because of its narrowness, the sheer number of tunnels of varying lengths – each one with its own name, some better lit than others, more still with a lane closed down by roadworks halfway through – and the fact that every vehicle that travels along it, even the trucks, treats it as an Olympic skier would a downhill slalom.
We hit the mayhem mid-morning and enter the automotive equivalent of a cage fight, funnelled into a shifting canyon of rock and metal that makes demands on nerve and commitment unlikely to be exceeded by a lap of the Nordschleife on a frosty winter’s morning. Drivers in Audi A3s and Volkswagen Passats seem to be the worst, stuck in the fast lane as if held there by a giant slot in the road, lights ablaze, speed regulated purely by that of the vehicle in front and the degree of resolve detected in its driver’s eyes, which presumably can be studied in some detail owing to the small distance between their reflection in the rear-view mirror and the bonnet of the pursuing VW Group missile.
The Alfa is up to all of this. It has the pace and the poise to go with the flow and keep plenty in hand. It also feels fabulously secure, with reassuringly meaty steering in the faster sweeps and the kind of instant acceleration to nullify potential-death race manoeuvres from other combatants before they’ve had the chance to execute them. But its greatest asset is the sonic firepower of its Ferrari-derived V8 engine. Of course, we can hear it now without the attenuating filter of metal and glass – soaring, staccato-interrupted yowls generated by 4.7 litres and 450bhp as it winds through the six-speed paddle-shift transmission’s stack of ratios. And in the endless concrete tubes that snake through the increasingly dramatic scenery, the aural onslaught is so loud, augmented by the activities of that itchy trigger-fingered firing squad on the overrun between 3000 and 4000 revs, that it seems to cause a temporary paralysis of would-be derring-do from the Audi/VW contingent and allows us clear passage to the ever-sunnier light at the end of the tunnels, which we burst into with a triumphant bellow.
This becomes addictive. It is doubtful whether the late, great jazz trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie (the guy with the bullfrog cheeks that looked like they were about to burst) ever coaxed a greater variety of rude sounds from his horn than the 8C Spider manages from its quad exhaust pipes. Yet there’s an epic, almost operatic quality to the sound. It’s Plácido Domingo covering Guns N’ Roses, Motorhead’s PA system installed in La Scala. If there is a better car in which to explore the acoustics of the 30 or so tunnels we’ve just driven through, I’d love to know what it is. The 8C Spider is one of the reasons the V8 engine is the greatest machine ever invented and a Tesla can never be a true sports car.
Davide’s assertion that this is a car in which to savour the good life gathers pace as we cruise into Santa Margherita and pull up at the almost absurdly palatial Hotel Miramare – where Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh honeymooned and from the terrace of which Marconi made some of his earliest radio transmissions – and wind down over a splendid lunch of seafood and Pigato wine, local to the Ligure region. The view from ‘Marconi’s terrace’, where we drink our espressos to the sound of breaking waves, is a majestic sweep of Mediterranean heaven.
At around 4pm, the evening draws in. Lights begin to twinkle around the bay and are matched by early evening stars in a sky graduated from a pale to a dark translucent blue, like the flame of a gas burner. It’s a scene as close to perfection as anything I’ve ever encountered. And, if the weather holds, tomorrow will be more magical still.
IN THE MORNING we drive into bright sunshine on the way to nearby Portofino along a perilously narrow but gorgeous road with sheer rock walls on one side and giddying Med vistas on the other. It’s another irresistible opportunity to exercise the Alfa’s wonderful singing voice, which even on light throttle openings has a deliciously deep and sonorous timbre that not so much obliterates as complements the dawn birdsong. It’s also a reminder of its sub-supercar size. Just as well – large single-deck buses ply this tortuous little road too, and they don’t move over. Fortunately, visibility over the 8C’s curvaceous bonnet is good and it’s an easy car to place with confidence.
Portofino looks as wonderful as I hoped it would. The air still has a fresh, pristine feel to it as we watch the place slowly come to life – residents and restauranteurs sweeping up, heaving down awnings, folding out shutters with a clatter that echoes across the crescent of the harbour. The views to the open sea are sensational.
I suggest to Matt, perhaps unhelpfully, that it’s impossible to take a bad photograph here. Like the 8C, Portofino doesn’t have a duff angle; the colour palette described by the buildings couldn’t be bettered if da Vinci had chosen them himself and the Alfa’s deep metallic cherry paintwork fits right in, providing a rich counterpoint to the pale sand, terracotta and limpid greens of the huddled dwellings. Parked on the quayside, the Spider looks as right for the part as Marcello Mastroianni in La Dolce Vita. It’s the sort of location that almost demands you sit out of doors with a cappuccino, feel the sun on your face. It’s calm and seductive, radiates contentment. Unfortunately, although the harbour is lined with outdoor cafes filled with tables and wicker chairs, none of them is yet open. It doesn’t really matter. While Matt clicks away, there are plenty of cool and shadowy alleyways to explore. All too soon, though, it’s time to leave.
We head back to Balocco on the A12, A10 and A7, taking a pleasant detour to Monterotondo near Serravalle in the heart of the Gavi wine district for another excellent lunch. There are some seriously twisty country roads here and the Spider confirms my earlier inkling at Balocco that Alfa really has sorted the chassis, softening the ride and building in much more progressive manners on the limit.
As with the coupe, the nose feels absolutely nailed to the tarmac. And the steering initially seems so weighty, I wonder if it has any power assistance at all. But with the meatiness comes oodles of feel and the appreciation that the helm’s responses are very direct and accurate. No, you know precisely where you are with the front wheels. The big change is how much more faith you can place in the rear end. The tail is still very mobile, it still wants to play, but the process of it letting go is more progressive, despite the Spider’s body rolling less. With the coupe, you almost have to wind on the opposite lock before the slide has begun.
Or, of course, you can leave the traction control on. With the Sport button engaged (which also keeps the exhaust pipe valves open all the time), the traction electronics permit a few degrees of rear-end slip before gathering it all up. If you want to keep it fast and tidy with a nibble of corrective lock here and there, it’s probably the best option. The good news is that the Spider feels a more complete, friendly and capable drivers’ car than its coupe sibling. The bad news is that there will only be 500 of them and they’ve all found homes, some 35 in the UK.
But as we close down the last dozen or so miles back to the Alfa proving ground, I don’t feel inclined to exploit its new-found dynamic prowess to the last degree. The 8C Spider is one of the great ‘live in the moment’ cars. Driving it you feel more aware, more alive, more inclined to play a trumpet solo with the exhaust. I think Dizzy would have approved.