TURIN, ITALY -- A well-known ex-chief designer for a major global automaker was on the flight from Paris Charles DeGaulle to Aeroporto Caselle, of the Northwestern Italian industrial town that put the "T" in Fiat. Was he consulting to Alfa Romeo? Would he share the trip to the hotel in a Fiat MPV driven veloce style, like all the automaker's hired drivers, by a man hoping to step in if Ferrari needs a replacement for Felipe Massa?
Not quite. After catching up with him walking off the airplane in Turin, I was reminded that said ex-design chief lives in this part of the world. He was returning home after attending the Shanghai motor show.
How was it?
Pretty boring, he says. There's nothing memorable about the indigenous design of the world's largest automotive market.
One thing's for sure; China is no Italy.
Executives and the upper-middle class here may have long abandoned the local brands, as they have in most of Europe and North America, for Mercedes-Benz, BMW, and Audi.
Alfa Romeo, fortified by its connection via Fiat with Chrysler, its upcoming Mazda joint-venture, and perhaps, most important, by Audi parent Volkswagen Group's unwanted advances, is preparing to fill the gap between commodity cars and those German premium brands with a level of style and brio that should be as enticing to the right potential customers as any new luxury feature.
The Alfa Romeo 4C is Fiat/Chrysler's reset button for the brand. Alfa makes no apologies for its polarizing design, and whether you like or hate the 4C's design, you'll be challenged not to think of it as sex on wheels. No Ferrari or Lamborghini of recent vintage has managed to make function over form look quite like this.
Take the rear shoulder line that flows off the rear pillar and the backlight. Alessandro Maccolini, Alfa's chief exterior designer, says it's at that precise height to accommodate the rear vents that start behind the doors and direct air around the back for aerodynamics. After the shoulder line's sharp crease, the fender gets curvy and voluptuous again, and the result is tumblehome that will make Bob Lutz jealous. The sideview mirrors, he says, are mounted at the right point on the doors to avoid interrupting that airflow to the rear intake, and even the door sheetmetal is rounded around the mirrors' bases for optimal aerodynamics.
Creases in the 4C's hood flow into the familiar triangular grille. The underbody has its own set of little wings designed for aerodynamics and downforce. The round taillamps recall Alfa's gorgeous midengine 1967-71 33 Stradale, although the donor car is the MiTO, on which Alfa already uses the heritage cue. That backlight, which covers the 1746-cc turbo four from the Giulietta (it's called the "1750 Tbi" in some markets) is another 33 Stradale heritage cue, one that's more obvious when the rear lid is open, and one you won't find on the MiTO.
The rear lid has a thin aluminum prop-rod rather than the gas-filled shocks you might expect, and Alfa says this helps keep the weight down. There is some trunk space back there, aft of the engine; probably enough for a roll-on or one-and-a-half.
This car is all about light weight. Dry weight is just 1973 pounds, the result of its carbon-fiber monocoque, all-aluminum engine, composite body panels, and lack of superfluous gadgetry. The 1750 Tbi has been tweaked to 240 brake horsepower (European), up five horses over the Giulietta's engine, and 258 lb-ft, an extra 7 lf-ft. Redline is 6500 rpm.
Alfa claims a best-in-class power-to-weight ratio of 4:1 when calculating the mass in kilograms. That makes the ratio using pounds even better, at 8.2:1. The manufacturer's 0-to-62-mph estimate of four and a half seconds is preliminary, as is a maximum lateral acceleration estimate of 1.1 g. Insert a couple of lines of exclamation marks, here. Top speed is 155 mph.
Clearly, it's a driver's car, a more affordable Porsche Cayman (or Boxster, as CEO Sergio Marchionne has promised a convertible version). The interior is not what you'd call plush, although the real carbon fiber inside the tall doorsills, along the lower side of the tall center console, and on the floor represents its own kind of luxury. The car is partially assembled in Maserati's factory, and the synergies have made carbon fiber cost-effective for Alfa, the company says.
The motorcycle-like dashboard shroud covers a single-dial instrument panel, with water temperature to the left, and fuel level to the right of a combo digital speedometer/graphic rev counter/g-meter. The dial face's color changes depending on which "DNA" setting you choose. It should be "DNA plus Race," actually, as Alfa has added an all-stability-control-off setting to "normal," "dynamic" and "all-weather" settings for the throttle response, suspension, and six-speed dry dual-clutch transmission control. Buttons on the console select gears, or automatic/manual control, with the left paddle for downshifts, right for upshifts.
The major complaint about the interior, Maccolini says, is the handbrake. It has one, and it's not electronic. Why would anyone complain about a handbrake on a mid-engine, rear-wheel-drive sports car? Anyway, Maccolini says an electronic parking brake's mechanism would weigh more than said handbrake.
So when we first drive one, some time about mid-fall, the 4C should feel the way it looks -- which is to say, quick, though the emphasis will be on carving its way along twisty roads or road circuits, not straight lines.
There will not be a lot of these to go around, either. Production will be about 3500 units per year for the world. At this year's Geneva show, Alfa Romeo showed its 4C launch package, which features a small carbon-fiber rear deck spoiler, carbon-fiber sideview mirrors and headlamp shrouds, air intakes over the front wheels, and some extra carbon-fiber interior bits. Most of the 400 launch editions available in the region that includes Europe have been sold out, at 60,000 euro each, some of them with radio-delete. Another 100 are available in Asia-Pacific, and North America will get 500 copies. We’d guess a price of about $55,000-$58,000 in the U.S., considering that the European price includes taxes. The base 4C without these features will have a lower price, and most of the features will be added as options later on.
Alfa Romeo means it, this time. The brand will return to the U.S., in Fiat dealers, before the end of 2013 with the 4c. It's more expensive than any Alfa we would have expected (save the very low-volume 8c) since the return was first promised about 2006, though by the looks of it, the 4C is the best-possible diplomatic envoy the brand's image could have.
You Can't Prop Up a Brand on a Mid-Engine Sports Car Alone
The Rest of Alfa's U.S.-Bound Lineup
Giulietta: The four-door hatchback's architecture, longer and with wider tracks, is the basis of the Dodge Dart and 2014 Jeep Cherokee. Currently one of just two Alfa models available in Europe, along with the MiTO, the Giulietta launched in late 2009. It's due for a makeover before it is imported here next year as a '15 model.
2C Spider: This is the pure, two-seat sports car that Mazda will build on its next-generation Miata in Hiroshima, but with a Fiat-sourced engine, about one year after Mazda begins production of the Mark IV Miata. The irony is that it was the Mark I Miata that drove Alfa Romeo from these shores in the mid-'90s.
C-SUV: Expected to be a high-style crossover/utility vehicle based on the '14 Jeep Cherokee, which gets its bones from the current Giulietta. Anticipated for calendar '15 as a 2016 model.
Giulia: Confirmed -- this will be the name used for the rear-wheel-drive sport sedan that will share its architecture with the SRT Barracuda. This is a smaller platform than the RWD Chrysler 300/Dodge Charger and Challenger architecture, which will suit the Giulia well, though it may be a bit bigger than the 159 sedan/wagon replacement we had expected. It has been described as an "E-segment" sedan, which means it will be closer in size to the BMW 5-series than the 3-series. It's reportedly slated for late '15 as a 2016 model. We expect the Alfa Giulia to seriously undercut the 5-series' sticker, however, with a base price likely in the $30-35,000 range.