Henry Payne Blog
Posted by hpayne on July 6, 2015
In 1984 David Hobbs assaulted Detroit’s street course in a Corvette Trans Am car, then climbed out and did color commentary for the Detroit Grand Prix. Just another day in the life of one of motor racing’s legendary talents and most recognizable TV personalities.
Today, the 76-year old Hobbs is a staple of NBC Sport’s Formula One coverage with his British wit, brutally honest commentary (“What a bone-headed move, you dork,” he quipped after one driver’s spin) and “Hobbs-sims” (“you need rather large appendages to make that pass”). His 31-year racing career (1959-1990) spanned the sport from Trans Am to Formula One to NASCAR to LeMans. Before the modern era of sports specialization, Hobbs came from a generation of racers who — like the ol’ three-letter college athlete — excelled in multiple disciplines.
I first saw him up close at Road Atlanta in 1979
in his ferocious, 650-horsepower BMW 320 turbo
where he put on a memorable show against the IMSA Series’ dominant Porsche 935s. Outside the car, the bloodhound-faced Hobbs was instantly recognizable with lamb-chop sideburns and a slow English drawl. He was inaugurated into the Troy-based Motorsports Hall of Fame in 2009 and returned this June to emcee the final Hall induction ceremony before it’s uprooted to Daytona.
I sat down with the now-Milwaukee resident to talk RenCen, mom, and liquid-suspensions.
Q: What was it like racing in Detroit in ‘84?
Hobbs: I really liked the circuit. Some of the corners were a bit sharp — they were right angles that would normally be a traffic light. It was a bit bumpy . . . and of course the old Corvette took a lot of stopping and starting. Particularly stopping. I dropped back because we had brake issues.
Q: Would you like to see Formula One here again?
Hobbs: I was sorry to see that race go quiet honestly because I thought it was a very good venue. I was walking around there today . . . and I thought they could still have a race. It could be one of those hot buttons Detroit is looking for at the moment.
Q: Special memories of race week?
Hobbs: We used to stay in the RenCen and of course got lost in there every night after a few drinks at the bar. You’d go around and around in circles and unless you took particular notice of numbers you never knew quite where you were.
Q: You still race?
Hobbs: I raced for a long time: 1959-1990. I did Indy, Daytona, LeMans 20 times, Trans-Am, Formula 5000, but somehow I never got hurt. My great friend (ed. note: and fellow racing legend
) Brian Redman always says: “That’s because you weren’t going fast enough, lad.” I was very fortunate because those were probably the most dangerous years of racing. I didn’t have a fire-proof suit until I had been racing at least 6 or 7 years. My mother used to put in Borax to give it some fire retardant. I’m not superstitious but I believe in the law of averages. I’ve been busy with TV the last 25 years. The last time I drove a race car was at Goodwood in 2010.
Q: Who’s the greatest driver you ever saw?
Hobbs: Joe Siffert, Brian Redman, Ronnie Peterson, Mario Andretti, Stirling Moss. Jimmy Clark was my hero. Among the current generation? Lewis Hamilton.
Q: I was saddened to see the great Barber School close shop at Laguna Seca Raceway. Is it harder for young drivers to get a start these days?
Hobbs: It’s so difficult. Because the money requirement is absolutely extraordinary. I started racing my Mum’s Morris Oxford. I drove it to races and drove home again. It had road tires, it didn’t have racing tires. My grandson is trying desperately hard now. Formula 1600 is costing him $90,000 for the year. If he wants (a co-drive) at Sebring (endurance race
) it costs something like $50 grand. It’s gone completely haywire. Say he wins the championship this year and moves up — then wants to do Indy Lights. That’s $1 million.
Q: Is Formula One in trouble?
Hobbs: It’s not going away, but at the moment it’s being mishandled a bit. There is a lot of unsustainability about it, but F1 is still top of the tree worldwide.
Q: Your favorite race? Worst?
Hobbs: LeMans in 1983. I had a terrific duel with Klaus Ludwig. We both had Porsche 962s. We’re averaging 150 mph lap speeds, doing 225 down the straight, passing and repassing. Worst race I had was in ‘69 – I think — Watson liquid-suspension special at Brainard road course with offset suspension for ovals.
Posted by hpayne on July 2, 2015
Posted by hpayne on July 2, 2015
Posted by hpayne on July 2, 2015
In the case of the Jeep Cherokee Trailhawk and Toyota RAV4, you can tell a book by its cover.
Named for the Appalachian Indian tribe, my Cherokee looks ready to saddle up for some serious, deep woods deer-tracking. The RAV4 (short for Recreational Active Vehicle with 4-wheel drive, if you gotta know) on the other hand, could just as well be the name of the Brother MFC-J5620DW inkjet printer that sits in my office.
The Trailhawk screams adventure, the RAV4 hums reliability. But the marvelous thing is that both are available in AWD trim for less than $30K in the small crossover department. Sport ute shopping is getting fun.
Small utes were once as useful as a microwave and just as sexy. Boxy lookalikes like the RAV4, Honda CR-V and Ford Escape pioneered the segment. But then the Escape got a notion in its tinny brain that utes could be stylish. Crossovers started cross-dressing in sedan clothing — a fast-backed roofline here, a creased body panel there — and next thing you know utes are threatening sedans for most-bought-vehicle supremacy.
Utes are where all the cool kids are, so Jeep has jumped in the pool and now it's really a party.
The '15 Trailhawk (introduced in 2014) brings the usual stubble-faced Jeep swagger to crossover utes. Knobby tires apparently hijacked off a Mars rover. Five-terrain modes so you can take the creek bed back from the grocery store. Front tow hooks to pull Chris Christie from a pool of quicksand. But upon closer inspection, the Cherokee is as radical a departure from Jeep as it is from the average ute.
Jeep styling has never strayed far from Uncle Wrangler. The square-jawed, boxy look was as much in Jeep's DNA as four-wheel-drive. But Cherokee is something out of a Hollywood makeup shop. Catch the Jeep from behind and you might mistake its smooth, round tookus for a Ford Escape. Swim alongside and its long nose tapers like a tiger shark.
Look it in the eyes and it's unforgettable. The slit running lights glow where headlights normally should be, while the actual headlights hide next to the grille. It's Jeep's famous seven-tooth grin no doubt. But it's less grin and more Hannibal Lecter in a mask. Unlike Wrangler-esque, little brother Renegade, the anti-Jeep Cherokee isn't festooned with Jeep tattoos either. No homage-to-WW2-gas-can "X"s carved in the taillights. No little Jeep silhouettes crawling up the windshield.
The RAV4 isn't nearly as hip. But neither is it old-fashioned.
While cousin Camry has grown a goatee and started crashing weddings to get noticed, the fourth-gen, 2015 RAV is clean-shaven, fit and well-tailored. The kinda guy you'd take home to Mom. The face won't give you Hannibal nightmares, but neither will it leave an impression.
It's a sure-fire cure for insomnia. The Toyota logo is flanked by a two-port grille. As I recall. Um, it's fading from memory already. ... The torso is more interesting with sharp beltlines and an aerodynamic greenhouse. No one will mistake RAV for a boy toy like my "Mango Tango"-painted Trailhawk tester (complete with macho "TRAIL RATED" badge), but the "Hot Lava" orange RAV I tested was no wallflower.
The chiseled torso suggests RAV has spent some time in the gym. Its 3,610 pounds is some 500 less than Cherokee's 4,108. With Washington nannies forcing autos to reach 54.5 mpg by 2025, RAV has ditched its previous-gen 6-cylinder option for a 4-banger only, while Jeep continues to offer Chrysler's workhorse, 3.2-liter, 271-horsepower Pentastar 6-shooter.
Forget the nannies — I like a confident V-6 in an SUV. The Trailhawk's 6 won't light Woodward on fire but it has nice, smooth power — until the fuel-efficient, nine-speed tranny (another nanny nod) kicks in like a mule on upshift. Given Jeep's near-bottom rating in the latest JD Power Initial Quality survey, this may make customers pause. Especially as Toyota is a perpetual front-runner.
Personality or reliability? As in dating, it's nice to have the choice.
But different as they may be outside, the Cherokee and RAV4 are similarly straightforward inside. Crossover customers want convenience and the pair aim to please. Both boast gadgetry— blind-spot warnings, voice recognition — that used to be luxe exclusive. The Jeep boasts Chrysler's terrific UConnect system and an organized interior décor that would make Martha Stewart proud. The Toyota, by contrast, is a mason's stack of building materials– my RAV4 XLE had layers of aluminum trim on top of stitched vinyl on top of faux carbon fiber – with console elements that seem to have been assembled from Micro Center's shelves. Yet the pieces all fit together simply and intuitively. No one understands how Americans live in
their cars better than Chrysler, but Toyota at least speaks the language.
Most refreshing is RAV's open interior architecture.
I drove a Camry recently with a center console aluminum bezel that carved my knee in half. Not the comfy RAV which separates dash from console providing enough leg room for an elephant up front. Or two. Ahhh, sweet legroom for my long legs on a long journey Up North.
But interior storage benefits as well — particularly in front of the shifter where a nifty triangular slot begs for smart phones so you can easily follow nav instructions or screen your phone calls. Cup holders are cleverly split with one fore (for the driver) of the shifter, the other aft for the passenger. All this space allows room for a full hand-brake, which is much easier to locate in a panic than today's trendy e-brakes. RAV only disappoints in the connectivity department where its single USB port and 12-volt charger aren't as generous as Cherokee's multiple offerings.
The roominess obsession continues in RAV's palatial backseat. I could easily sit behind myself (can we have Toyota design Delta's coach class seats, please?), and the seats recline to boot. Fold 'em flat and interior cargo room expands to an impressive 73.4 cubic feet.
The Cherokee can't match the RAV's room, but why bother when you can etch "Jeep: Since 1941" on your steering wheel. We all know what 1941 means.
Jeep rides that patriotic heritage into every new segment it tackles. That identity was good for a healthy 176,000 in sales last year as the new Cherokee hit the trail running. So what is Toyota's subcompact identity? That printer-like RAV4 badge has gotta go. May I suggest ROOMY-for-4 instead?
2015 Jeep Cherokee Trailhawk 4X4
Vehicle type: Front-engine, front or all-wheel-drive, five-passenger sport ute
Price: $30,890 base ($37,614 as tested)
Power plant: 3.2-liter Pentastar V-6; 2.4-liter, Tigershark inline 4-cylinder
Power: 271 horsepower, 239 pound-feet of torque (V-6); 184 horsepower, 171 pound-feet of torque (4-cyl)
Transmission: Nine-speed automatic
Performance: 0-60 mph: 7.2 seconds (V-6, Car & Driver); maximum towing: 2,000 lbs.
Weight: 4,108 pounds
Fuel economy: EPA 19 mpg city/26 mpg highway/22 mpg combined
Highs: Dude, you're lookin' good; go-anywhere rugged
Lows: Heavy; tranny gets the yips
2015 Toyota RAV4
Vehicle type: Front-engine, front or all-wheel-drive, five-passenger sport ute
Price: $26,935 FWD XLE as tested ($30,735 for AWD Limited, comparable to Trailhawk)
Power plant: 2.5-liter, double-overhead cam 4-cylinder
Power: 176 horsepower, 172 pound-feet of torque
Transmission: Six-speed automatic
Performance: 0-60 mph: 8.7 seconds (Car & Driver); maximum towing: 1,500 lbs.
Weight: 3,465 as tested (3,610 for AWD Limited)
Fuel economy: EPA 24 mpg city/31 mpg highway/26 mpg combined (FWD as tested); EPA 22 mpg city/29 mpg highway/25 mpg combined (AWD Limited)
Highs: Roomy; reliable as a collie
Lows: Themeless interior; how about a kick-actuated liftgate?
Posted by hpayne on July 1, 2015
Posted by hpayne on June 30, 2015
Posted by hpayne on June 29, 2015
Posted by hpayne on June 25, 2015
I think I've been cast as Lemuel Gulliver in the adaptation of a Jonathan Swift novel. Last week I was a giant testing the tiny Alfa Romeo 4C Spider in Lilliput. This week I've been driving around in a Brobdingnagian Ram 1500 diesel
This thing is huge. I may be 6-foot-5-inches but, when I climb into the driver's seat, I look like a six-year-old scrambling onto a bunk bed. Meanwhile, my 5-foot-5-inch wife is looking in the passenger-side door for a step ladder. Which is about the only option the luxurious, $52,620 Laramie model doesn't come equipped with.
For an auto racer like me, the jump from Lilliput to Brobdingnag is actually not as disorienting as it was for Lemuel. It's a normal occurrence on weekends where 8,000-pound, diesel-powered, heavy-duties tow 1,500-pound race machines to the track.
So what better way to test the Ram than to drive it to Indianapolis Motor Speedway?
For years my team has towed my pint-sized, 1966 Porsche 906 to the races with a 2003 Ram 3500 Heavy Duty. Talk about huge. Our 3500's 5.9-liter, Cummins diesel
inline-6 puts out 305 horsepower and 555 pound-feet of torque (the '16 model ups the torque to a staggering 900 pound-feet
) compared to the 1500's 240-horse, 420-pound feet, turbocharged, 3.0-liter "ecodiesel." Crank the ol' Cummins up and the ground shakes, trees topple, car alarms go off in three counties. This is a work truck, a purpose-built diesel meant for pulling stumps — and cars.
It's also a baseline for how refined modern turbo-diesels have become even as they deliver plenty of utility.
As I crossed the American heartland to America's racetrack in an All-American pickup, all is not as it appears. Brazilian Juan Pablo Montoya just won the Indy 500 in an Italian-built Dallara — and the Ram 1500 is assembled in Mexico and owned by Italy's Fiat. Which also happens to be where its diesel engine is made.
After decades of development Europeans know diesels. Gliding south on Route 23 out of Michigan, I wouldn't guess the engine beneath me was a diesel but for the 4,800 RPM redline and "DIESEL" etched in the fuel gauge. The turbo-6 is whisper quiet. Jump on the throttle and there's no rumble. No shudder. No belch of black smoke from the double-barreled exhaust. Diesel, thy name is Serenity.
And Efficiency. Forget your truck stop-phobia (please, Lord, let the toilets be sanitary). Your fear of running out of gas. The diesel Ram
will go 570 miles on a tank. Five-hundred-and-seventy miles. That's from Detroit to St. Louis. You could stash a Prius in the bed and then go another 530.
The $7,795 premium for the Cummins engine in the heavy duty is easily justified by the engine's off-the-charts, 30,000-pound towing ability — not to mention fuel saved over long trailer hauls. But does the $2,830 diesel premium over the standard Ram's 5.7-liter, gas-powered V-8 make sense?
After all, the ripped Hemi can clean and jerk 8,610 pounds compared to the
diesel's 7,660 tow capacity. The oil-burner's case rests on fuel economy. Ram claims 22 mpg
(I got 23.6 mpg in AWD mode, 25.8 in 2WD) versus the Hemi's 17. That 30 percent better fuel efficiency looks good on paper, but, with gas and diesel prices essentially the same (I paid $2.70 in Indiana vs. $2.77 for regular gas), you'll have to drive 15,000
miles-a-year for 5 years to earn it back. Plan on owning your truck longer that long?
You might, given the 1500's livability.
The Crew Cab's quiet interior is bigger than most Manhattan apartments and just as posh. The ram's-head sculpture on the console is a piece of art. The dash-mounted rotary shifter opens up even more room. I bought dinner at Chick-fil-A outside Toledo (ahem, more Chicks in Michigan, please?) and arranged it in the sprawling console like a high school cafeteria tray: The box of chicken nuggets in the deep compartment at my right elbow, my fries in the space behind it. My X-large soda occupied Cupholder A — right next to the bottled water in Cupholder B.
And I still had another compartment left over if I had had dessert (chocolate pudding was always my favorite in school). Try that in any other vehicle. No wonder pickups aren't just for construction workers.
A neighbor's teenage daughter drives a Ram. In a large family she provides essential shuttle service. I came across her one day at the local tennis club snacking in the cafeteria — er, cab — while waiting for her kid brother to finish his lesson. A repaired bicycle was in the bed. Little brother jumped into the back seat slinging his huge tennis bag before him. His back seat, hers front seat. Good for sibling relations.
Premium trucks have gone from 1 percent of the pickup market in 2009 to 16 percent today for good reason: They are rolling offices. In the searing summer heat of Indy's infield, I spent an afternoon between races getting work done. I lounged comfortably in cooled, ventilated leather seats. I kept my laptop juiced in a 12-volt outlet. I browsed the Internet via the UConnect Wi-Fi app. If I had had a port-a-john in the pickup bed, I would never have had to leave the truck.
In Lilliput I skimmed the earth in the Alfa. I felt every pore in the road. Saw every blade of grass. In giant pickup land you're above it all. It's like riding in a skyscraper. I looked across the landscape and saw people in other skyscrapers: GMC Sierras, Ford F-150 pickups, Chevy Silverados.
A signature feature of Ram is its smooth ride thanks to sedan-like coil springs in the rear suspension. But for the third-story view, I forgot it was a pickup a few miles into my journey. Big pickups — looking at you Toyota Tundra — can become annoying on long trips for their harsh ride on rear leaf-springs. Combined with an empty bed, the flutter rides right up your spine. Not Ram.
In the Big Three pickup wars
, every brand needs a calling card. Chevy's got the best bed access with corner step-up. Aluminum Ford wows with gizmos like mirror spotlights and bed cleats. Ram's got the silky ride.
America's roads have gone supersized with the calories to match. Jumbo candy bars at every service station. X-Large drinks at every drive-thru. How clever to have a supersized diesel pickup that uses fewer calories. A Brobdingnagian with a Lilliput appetite.
2015 Ram 1500 diesel
Vehicle type: Front-engine, rear or four-wheel-drive, five-passenger pickup
Price: $25,165 base ($52,620 Larami Crew Cab Diesel 4x4 as tested)
Power plant: 3.6-liter V-6; 5.7-liter hemi V-8; 3.0-liter, turbocharged, 3.0-liter diesel V-6
Power: 305 horsepower, 269 pound-feet of torque (3.6L V-6); 395 horsepower, 410 pound-feet of torque (Hemi V-8); 240 horsepower, 420 pound-feet of torque (diesel)
Transmission: Six or eight-speed automatic
Performance: 0-60 mph: 8.8 seconds (Motor Trend); Maximum payload: 1,340 lbs.; Maximum towing: 7,660 lbs. (as tested)
Weight: 5,611 pounds (diesel as tested)
Fuel economy: EPA 16 mpg city/23 mpg highway/19 mpg combined (3.6L V-6); EPA 15 mpg city/21 mpg highway/17 mpg combined (Hemi V-8); EPA 19 mpg city/27 mpg highway/22 mpg combined (diesel)
Highs: Roomy; the range of a stealth bomber
Lows: Diesel premium; won't fit in "compact car" space
Posted by hpayne on June 24, 2015
Posted by hpayne on June 24, 2015
Posted by hpayne on June 24, 2015
Posted by hpayne on June 23, 2015
Posted by hpayne on June 23, 2015
Posted by hpayne on June 21, 2015
Posted by hpayne on June 21, 2015
Posted by hpayne on June 20, 2015
What do ex-Indy car ace Max Papis, a 50-year-old Ford GT40, a 1966 Porsche 906, and your humble auto critic have in common? We were all on the grid in Gasoline Alley at Indianapolis Motor Speedway last weekend.
Indy isn't just for 230-mph open-wheel racers anymore.
From June 11-14, the second annual Brickyard Vintage Racing Invitational came to America's cathedral of motorsport, bringing with it a century of auto racing cars and stars. While Ford was announcing in Dearborn that it was returning to LeMans in 2016 with a new Ford GT — 50 years after it swept the podium there — I was racing neck-and-neck with the historic Ford GT40s that raced at LeMans a half-century ago.
Well, briefly neck-and-neck. The 7-liter, 1966 GT40 blew by my 2-liter 906 at 170 mph just like it did in '66 when the two cars dominated their respective classes. That is the intent of historic racing — to enable spectators to relive the past glories of motor racing.
Not just relive them, but reach out and touch them.
My 906 is virtually unchanged from 50 years ago when the marque won the under-2-liter class at LeMans and finished fourth overall — the first non-GT40 to cross the finish line. What changes have been made are for safety like 5-point harness seat belts, modern racing tires, and stiffer suspension settings. Such modifications are critical to my safety as I hurtled at 150 mph down Indy's main straightaway — and is even more crucial to the modern race cars that cross the same bricks at 230 mph every Memorial Day.
Fans can also reach out and shake hands with some of the greatest drivers who ever raced at the Brickyard: Al Unser, Lyn St. James, Eliseo Salazar, Willy T. Ribbs, and Papis. The gregarious, talented Italian Papis competed at Indy thrice in an illustrious career that included a fifth place at LeMans and a season in Formula One. He flashed his trademark smile at spectators then flashed me a thumbs up as he climbed aboard his 1970 Trans-Am Mustang Boss 302 for a Saturday practice session. Going by me on the main straight, "Mad Max" and that big V-8 shook my fillings.
On the same weekend that I was racing my 906 at Indy, a Porsche 919 won the 24 Hours of LeMans in France.
My Porsche shares little with the hybrid-powered, carbon fiber-chassis, 200 plus-mph 919 — except a nameplate defined by endurance racing excellence. Indeed, the Porsche endurance legend began with the 906 — their first fiberglass, tube-frame, purpose-built race car.
Under the direction of Ferry Porsche's then-29-year-old grandson Ferdinand Piech — just booted as the 78-year-old chairman of VW — the 906 set a standard for racing excellence that would be followed by Porsches from the 907 (first Porsche to win an overall endurance race in 1968) to the 962 (which dominated racing in the 1980s and '90s) to the 911 GT and 919 prototype racers of today.
My car (the last of 160 made by the factory) first competed at the 24 Hours of Daytona in 1966 — finishing eighth — then the 12 Hours of Sebring where it hit a stray dog and retired. The car then knocked about in American SCCA racing before my father bought it 1975. A family hand-me-down of sorts. He raced it sparingly before his eager young son took over the wheel in the 1990s where we've been an inseparable team ever since. I've raced it everywhere from Sebring, Florida, to Watkins Glen, New York, before we finally found our way to Indy.
It's the ambiance of Indy that draws the entries, not the track. Like the short-lived Formula One races at Indy, we run Indy's "roval" — an uninspired combination of oval track and infield road course.
The light, sleek 906 is just 3-feet tall. At 6'5" I'm squeezed into its cockpit like stuffing in a Thanksgiving turkey. And it's hotter than an oven in there.
But once on track, the nimble prototype is more fun than a Christmas toy. Obsessed with lightweighting, Piech laid the car's plastic skin over a tubular space frame weighing a grand total of 1,410 pounds. With carbon fiber monocoque chassis, modern open-wheel cars are almost as light as my car but offer much better protection should they hit, say, a nearby wall.
Extremely reliable, the 906 is powered by an air-cooled, fuel-injected, flat-six engine — a close cousin to the water-cooled power plants in today's 911.
The hybrid 919, however, is a different animal altogether. It requires a fleet of engineers to run. Thanks to safety advances, race jockeys like Mad Max live longer than ever. But in another 50 years you'll be more likely to see my 906 or a GT40 at the Brickyard Invitational than a diabolically-complicated 919.
1966 Porsche 906
Vehicle type: Rear-engine, rear-wheel-drive, race prototype
Power plant: 2.0-liter, air-cooled 6-cylinder
Power: 220 horsepower, 153 pound-feet of torque
Transmission: Five-speed manual
Performance: Top speed: 170 mph
Weight: 1,410 pounds
Fuel economy: 8 mpg (at race speed)
Highs: Gorgeous, first car wind tunnel-tested by Porsche; Perfectly-weighted handling
Lows: Hot as Hades inside; I need a shoehorn to get in
Posted by hpayne on June 18, 2015
Sure, the 2015 Alfa Romeo 4C doesn't have the landscape-swallowing horsepower of the Corvette C7 Stingray. It doesn't have a Porsche Boxster S's clinically perfect balance of turn-in handling and corner exit torque.
But the "Baby Ferrari" will make you a rock star.
It's a miniature diva with the body of Christina Aguilera and the outsize personality to match. And now it's going topless. Beginning this July, the 4C Coupe will be joined on dealer lots by the convertible 4C Spider.
Carmel-by-the-Sea south of San Francisco is a sandbox for the Bay Area's well-to-do. Folks here aren't easily impressed. But at a media test here, my red Alfa Spider stopped traffic. Rolling through the boutique-lined streets, women in $5,000 designer suits perched on Louboutin heels stopped and stared. At the corner of Seventh and Juniper a busload of tourists snapped pictures as if they had just spied Cher. The paparazzi treatment continued down the Pacific Coast. At a rest stop in Big Sur, the 4C was swarmed by kids. Can we sit in it? Sure. Can we take pictures? Yes. Can we take it home and feed it? Nope.
I haven't had a car get this kind of attention since a BMW i8. But the secret to the Alfa's celebrity is its accessibility. It has a supercar's mystique without the supercar price tag. It's a rare gem for less than six figures. There are 30,000 Corvettes sold a year. Some 7,000 Boxsters and Caymans.
Buy a 4C Spider or Coupe and you are a member of an exclusive club. Less than 300 4Cs have been sold in the U.S.
Alfa couldn't make more if it wanted. The mid-engine 4C's sturdy, lightweight tub is meticulously handcrafted over six months by elves in Lilliput who've handed down carbon fiber trade secrets for generations. They're the same gnomes that make Rolex watches (if I'm remembering the presentation correctly). Each one a piece of art.
Hounding a Cayman down the Pacific Highway, I was struck by the Spider's unabashed sex appeal compared to the handsome yet more conservatively-styled Porsche. The Spider is Mazda Miata-tiny, but Porsche-wide giving it an aggressive, ground-hugging, athletic stance. With its signature Alfa cat's face, raked windshield, and muscular haunches, it looks like an angry predator about to pounce. Step around the rear and it is classic Ferrari. Honey, I shrunk the 485!
The Alfa team took us to Laguna Seca Raceway to show off the car's track chops. But despite its lightweight, carbon tub (the Spider is just 22 pounds heavier than the Coupe), the Alfa pales on the track next to a Corvette or Cayman. I've had both out on Autobahn Raceway in Joliet, Illinois recently and they are worthy big track cars. Carrying 500 fewer pounds less than the Boxster S and a full grand less than Stingray, the 237-horsepower 4C's awesome power-to-weight ratio should — on paper — be a worthy a competitor to its similarly-priced competitors. But it's light on something else: Displacement. Even though the little car's 1.7-liter engine is turbocharged out of its
mind, it's still just 1.7 liters.
Throw this cat into a corner and it ferociously claws its way to the apex at which point the combination of little pistons and big turbo lag conspire to mute its progress. The Corvette and Boxster S explode off a fast corner, the Spider merely pops.
Better to take it on the tight California hill roads around Laguna Seca where the 4C is really in its element.
rails like the Pacific Coast Highway. Or Carmel Valley Road, which feels like Route 119 — aka, the Tunnel of Trees Road — north of Harbor Springs. Tight, leafy, narrow. Let the Alfa out of its cage here and it hunts like a wild animal. The short, 93.7-inch wheelbase rotates around tight curves, its hydraulic steering giving me feedback from every pore in the road.
Jump on the gas pedal and the turbo erupts with sounds never before met by human ears.
The gorgeous starlet is suddenly transformed into Linda Blair in "The Exorcist." It spits, growls and cackles. If it were human, its head would rotate 360 degrees. Get a priest. It's demonic and heavenly at the same time.
Every stomp unleashes a different manic note. Meanwhile, the car shoots forward like a scalded cat. Where the two-lane road straightens out, I gobbled SUVs stuffed with California tourists. A BMW M4 gamely kept up before more twisties arrived and it dropped from view. Buy a 4C and get a cottage up north to house the Alfa with quick access to twisty roads.
And because you and the missus won't be able to pack a bag and go back and forth for the weekend. There's simply no room.
This is the part where I tell you how quirkily inconvenient the Alfa is. Roll up the soft top into its bag and it occupies most of the trunk. Not that the tiny space could stow a small suitcase to begin with. Where the Boxster's roof automatically stows behind the front seats leaving ample storage in the trunk and frunk, the Alfa becomes trunkless when it goes topless.
Pack for a weekend getaway and you'd have to mail your suitcase ahead. Or tow a U-Haul trailer that would kill the whole handling thing. Not that you'd want to spend hours in the Alfa anyway. The ergonomics of a $30K Miata are like an Audi A6 by comparison. The spare console (just an Alpine radio is offered which I never turned on anyway because I was so enthralled with the engine demons) is so driver-centric that the passenger seat is a cramped torture chamber. The console cuts into passenger's knees already constrained by the low, glove boxless dash. At least Alfa thoughtfully included an "oh, crap!" handle for when those g-loaded country roads arrive.
A cruiser this is not. It's a speed toy. An afternoon getaway car. A Miata on 'roids. And it is something else: Alfa's alpha dog. The raucous 4C sets the tone for the sexy Alfa luxury sedans that are about to hit American shores.
Beginning with a BMW 3-series fighter to be introduced later his month, these sedans will also usher in more engine options for the Alfa lineup. Which means that someday there might be a 4C Spider with a proper, torquey 2.0-liter turbo. A rock star that can play the small country roads and the big stadium race tracks.
In the meantime you won't lack for attention.
2015 Alfa Romeo 4C Spider
Vehicle type: Mid-engine, rear-wheel-drive, two-passenger sports car
Price: $65,495 base ($73,395 as tested)
Power plant: 1.7-liter, turbocharged 4-cylinder
Power: 237 horsepower, 258 pound-feet of torque
Transmission: Six-speed, dual-clutch automatic (with paddles)
Performance: 0-60 mph, 4.1 seconds (manufacturer)
Weight: 2,487 pounds
Fuel economy: EPA 24 mpg city/34 mpg highway/28 mpg combined
Highs: Hollywood gorgeous; razor-sharp handling
Lows: Cramped passenger seat; small displacement, big turbo lag
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