2009 Alfa Romeo 8C Competizione

Timothy Ferris

The engine fired up with a delightful burble that got deeper when I selected Sport mode, which opens the inner pair of the 8C's four exhaust pipes (otherwise they sound off only at high revs), tightens throttle response, and cuts shift time from four-tenths to two-tenths of a second. The only other drivetrain choice is fully automatic or manual shifting. I selected manual, pressed a button on the console to put the car in reverse - whereupon the stereo emitted a bleep like that of a tour bus backing up, the car's only aesthetically dubious feature - and ventured forth.

To reach the Fiat track, you drive down a single-lane road that has deliberately been left potholed for testing purposes. An '80s-era Alfa Spider would have jumped around on this wretched surface like keys in a jogger's pocket, but the 8C handled it with zero harshness, holding dead straight at 60 mph with my hands off the wheel.

Pulling onto the wide, wet track, I checked the mirrors and floored the throttle. The tail kicked out instantly but tucked back in with a flick of the wheel - no drama - while the engine emitted a heart-rending howl. The Alfa's song is lower in pitch than a Ferrari's and, to my ears, at least as gratifying: If Ferraris sound like the sum of all human longings, the Alfa 8C sings of longings fulfilled. Up through the gears, flipping the crescent-shaped carbon-fiber paddles behind the steering wheel - they're almost hidden from sight but always there when you want them - and soon the mouth of the first turn was opening like a whale's jaws. I trail-braked in, squeezed on some throttle, and let the dance begin.

It quickly emerged that this was a very driv-able car, a return to the old days when any decent driver could fling around a narrow-tired sports car without living too dangerously or squandering a lot of lap time. Induce oversteer with the stability control on, and the 8C catches itself as gracefully as you would, or would like to. Turn off the stability control, and you'll have to catch it yourself, all right, but the results are similar: The car straightens out with a casual Italian shrug, and you're set up to blast it through the hole. When you switch off the stability control, it's completely off, but should things go horribly sideways - delivering you, as one Alfa driver put it, into "the hands of Isaac Newton" - standing on the brakes reawakens it, hopefully before you have to learn just how much it costs to replace those carbon-fiber body panels.

The Fiat track, which incorporates turns copied from many of the world's great grand prix circuits, afforded ample opportunity to explore the 8C's considerable versatility. A blind, high-speed hilltop curve put my heart in my throat every time I took it without lifting, but the car went through it as happily as a horse trotting back to the barn. A diminishing-radius right-hander got me into the stability control about one lap in three, but the car was polite about it and the delays minimal. At one point, I passed the best of the prewar Alfas, a 1938 dual-supercharged 8C 2900B Speciale, known in its day as the world's fastest and most beautiful sports car. Watching this lanky masterpiece shrink in my mirrors was the closest I've ever come to time travel.

The transmission mapping was so good that I tried a few laps in full automatic. The car ran a trifle slower, but its upshifts, like its downshifts, were better than I could have managed with a stick (which isn't available anyway), and the computer always selected the right gear. (When I reported this to a Maserati executive, his mouth turned down at the corners as if I'd said I believed in ghosts. "Signore," he whispered, "this car will never give you the wrong gear.")

To sum up: In the 8C, Alfa has produced, right out of the box, one of the finest sports cars ever built. It's not the fastest car in the world, but it's gorgeous to look at, thrilling to hear, and capable of delivering enough dance-with-me-baby kicks to satisfy just about anyone. If you must experience brute force, set it for "launch control," turn the steering wheel to full lock, and floor it from a standing start to enjoy a 360-degree world tour while smoke pours from the rear wheel wells. It can do brutal, but that's like using a bottle of fine Chianti as a cudgel.

If you find the 8C appealing and have a quarter of a million dollars to spend, the good news is that it can be ordered in a beguiling variety of interior leathers, with options including a $9400 set of 40 percent lighter wheels (which I recommend) and a pair of green-on-white four-leaf-clover badges behind the front fenders (which I don't). The bad news is that you almost certainly cannot buy one. Only 500 8Cs are being made, and all have already been purchased. Alfa took 1200 orders in forty-eight hours, then weeded out all but what the Alfa design chief described as "proper people - collectors, friends, not speculators.

"Some of the speculators are pretty dumb," he added. "They place an order and immediately take out an ad offering the car for sale. We have people who keep an eye on that sort of thing, and we cancel the orders of those who try such tricks." So almost all 8Cs are going to wind up in the garages of wealthy collectors in Italy, Germany, the U. K., France, Belgium, Austria, Japan, Russia, Hong Kong, Singapore, and Saudi Arabia, with about ninety headed for the United States.

But it would be a shame to leave it at that. The car is just too good. One hopes that Alfa will go on to produce a less exotic version of the 8C, with a steel or aluminum body and enough additional horsepower to offset the added weight. Such a car would make a splendid flagship for whatever lineup of front-wheel-drive sedans, coupes, and station wagons - all with cupholders, no doubt - Alfa winds up exporting to the States. And it would let a lot more drivers get their hands on a wonderful creation whose soul is as beautiful as its skin.

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