It seems like only yesterday that automobiles had distinct personalities traceable to their lands of origin. Call it national character. You see wisps of it still, but cars once had it in spades. Today—owing to the homogenizing effects of mergers, regulation, fewer and larger component suppliers for grand-scale outsourcing, and the industry’s ever mounting aversion to risk—stocks of national character are limited, and dwindle with each model year.
Once, American cars were known for road-hugging weight (come to think of it, they still are) and weight-hugging chrome. Lumbering down the interstate with big, under-stressed engines for effortless power, and woozy chassis seemingly suspended by marshmallow, they were wonderful in their profligate ways. They helped define American style and notions of automotive luxury—aesthetically, dynamically, and in engineering terms.
But in their plus-size conformity, American cars also provided an opening in the market for alternative visions of personal transportation. And so the foreign-car movement took off in the U.S. in the 1950s, bringing the new entrants’ homeland twist on automobility very much to the fore.
German cars were thought to work like clocks, carefully machined from ingot and assembled by skilled craftsmen. British cars were lined with leather and wood, making them less sterile than the Deutschlanders, with handling more adroit than that of the ponderous barges to which Americans had grown accustomed.
French cars were haughty egalitarians. They charmed most with ride quality, a class-blind excellence available both at the top and bottom of their model ranges. Their long-travel suspensions and veritable easy-chair seating smoothed out furrowed farm tracks as readily as they did the urban potholes of bustling financial centers.
Swedish cars were rugged road-pounders, with furnace-like heaters for when the weather grew frigid. And though they touted a greater-than-average concern with safety, the machines were blessed with no little zest for barreling down muddy forest ruts at high speed with nothing but trees and moose on either side to keep budding rallyists headed in the right direction.
French cars were haughty egalitarians. They charmed most with ride quality, a class-blind excellence available both at the top and bottom of their model ranges.
We could go on, but today we pause for Italian cars. The past century’s improved metallurgy and new precision tools were never better exploited than in this nation of artisanal metal-benders. The proof being that Italy has sent forth many of history’s best-driving and most beautiful cars, and some of its most clever.
As joyous to operate as machines can be, at their best, Italian cars are more than appliances. With the greatest tactile sensation, exceptionally high levels of relevant information filter from steering wheel, gearshift, and brake pedal to the human behind the wheel. The exuberant, fizzy personalities of their classical multi-camshaft combustion engines aside, the shapes and forms of Italian cars have delighted for the better part of a century, with designs both subtle and outrageous. Style and lightness of touch that might sometimes seem celestial were they not so identifiably Italian make it easy to see why many of the world’s most valuable collector cars come from the land of Michelangelo and da Vinci, more recently the birthplace of sainted car stylists such as Pinin Farina, Giugiaro, Bertone, Gandini, Michelotti, et al.
Though you might not realize it from a visit to your moribund local Fiat dealer, Italian cars do still exist. Those that remain on sale in America retain gioia di vivere, the essential hallmark of an Italian car, as two machines Air Mail has just driven—the Alfa Romeo Giulia Quadrifoglio, a sport sedan, and the Lamborghini Huracán EVO Spyder, a mid-engine convertible supercar—richly attest. Unlike those few Fiats still nominally on sale in the U.S., these products of storied Italian brands are not cheap. And, in the case of the Lambo we’ve borrowed, can be nosebleed expensive.
Alfa and Omega
The Alfa, with 505 horsepower (an output inconceivable not long ago) from its twin-turbocharged, 2.9-liter V-6, is one of the fastest Italian sedans we’ve ever experienced. Zero to 60 miles per hour comes up in an extraordinarily fleet 3.8 seconds, and it’s not too long before a top speed of 191 miles per hour is achieved. It runs with the best, too, even winning the superhot sedan bake-offs several buff books have conducted by besting the brutally fast likes of BMW’s M3 and Mercedes’s AMG C 63. For the enthusiastic motorist, the Alfa’s speed and pin-sharp driving dynamics outweigh what has been universally judged the lesser quality of its interior finish and inherently suspect—because it’s Italian—reliability.
It’s only fair to mention here that those intrigued by Italian machinery but wary of 191 m.p.h. speeds might be better served (and happier about the price, versus $91,245 for the Quadrifoglio, as tested) by Alfa’s more than sufficiently spirited Giulia TI. The equally handsome car has a smaller, 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine (still good for 280 horsepower), more humble brakes, and less aggressive (read better-riding) wheels and tires. It also starts at a more reasonable $39,400. It offers all-wheel drive as a low-cost option, while the Q is rear-drive only. The handling is plenty good, and the day-to-day driving experience is more relaxing.
As nutty as the Quadrifoglio may be, the Lamborghini Huracán EVO Spyder is nuttier. It looks supercar fast, supercar stylish, and supercar expensive. And it is. Six hundred thirty-one horsepower and 442-foot-pounds-of-torque strong, its 5.2-liter V-10 engine will thrust its two occupants to 60 m.p.h. in 3.1 seconds, while revving in classical Italian fashion to a spicy 8,500-r.p.m. redline without complaint. However, the neighbors might not reserve their complaints should they fail to find the light-alloy power plant’s angry bellow, expressed through a pair of high-mounted exhaust pipes, to their liking. This noise is especially striking when starting up or when the driver selects Sport or Corsa (race) mode over the standard setting. In addition to firming up the rear-wheel-drive EVO’s handling and hastening the shift times of its seven-speed, paddle-shifted manumatic transmission, these add even more auditory-assault capability to a car that looks loud standing still. The teenager in me kind of likes it.
More wieldy, more comfortable, and easier to see out of than its wickedly creased lines might suggest, at $364,979 the Lambo looks most of all like serious money, which has made it particularly popular among rich extroverted men in capital cities around the world. Its 202-m.p.h. top speed is merely a boast-worthy figure to mention before they peel off, hopefully not to wrap themselves around an unsuspecting telephone pole.
The Sport and Corsa (race) modes add even more auditory-assault capability to a car that looks loud standing still.
Diagnosis: national character here is broadly intact. Less certain, though, are these brands’ future characters. Lamborghini, owned by Volkswagen through its Audi subsidiary, has strong modern-German elements in its conception, switchgear, and driver infotainment interface. Alfa, 110 years old and frequently ailing, has suffered sometimes under its too-often-inattentive Italian stepdad, Fiat, since the latter’s 1986 takeover, buffeted yet again when Fiat took over Chrysler to form FCA, an association seen today in the Alfa’s touch screen, which could have come from a Jeep. (That’s no bad thing, given how bad Italian infotainment systems were even a few short years ago.)
But now Alfa is along for a ride on the wildcat of all roller-coaster rides, with FCA set to join France’s PSA in a merger that will bring together the precarious union of Fiat, Alfa, Chrysler, Dodge, Jeep, and Ram with the shaky combination of France’s Peugeot, Citroën, and DS brands, Germany’s Opel, Britain’s Vauxhall, and China’s Dongfeng in a new automotive giant called Stellantis. Like FCA, an Italian-American concern, incorporated in the U.K. and legally domiciled in the Netherlands, it is guaranteed to blur national boundaries even further. And, if history is any guide, Stellantis (ask your doctor if it’s right for you) will also inevitably euthanize some of history’s most distinctive brands in an effort to keep up, while watering down the rest. It’s a small world, after all. And getting smaller.
Jamie Kitman is AIR MAIL’s car columnist