The Return of Alfa Romeo

2015 Alfa Romeo 4C (Fiat Chrysler Automobiles)

2015 Alfa Romeo 4C (Fiat Chrysler Automobiles)

Think about what was going on in the year 1995: O.J. Simpson’s murder trial took place; Forrest Gump won Best Picture at the Academy Awards©; and the 55 mile-per-hour speed limit was lifted. And, it was the last year you could buy a new Alfa Romeo in the United States.

It had been a slow, painful death for the Italian brand. Never really a high-volume car line, the one remaining quirky Alfa Romeo — the two-seat Spider — pretty much went out with a whimper.

Well it’s a new era, and Alfa Romeo is back for the 2015 model year. They may have left with a whimper, but they’re returning with a bang. Soon, at select Fiat and Maserati dealers, you’ll be able to get yourself a brand new Alfa Romeo.

You just have to not be too picky about what kind of Alfa you want, as the sole lead-off model is the low-slung mid-engine super-sports car called the 4C. It’s cramped inside, it doesn’t have many of today’s amenities, and it has a base price of $54,000. Not a car for everyone, obviously.

But its true mission is to put the Alfa Romeo name back out into the public after so long an absence. The car is a head-turner, sounds great, and really doesn’t look like anything else on the road. More upscale than Fiat, but not nearly as dearly priced as a Maserati or Ferrari, the Alfa slots right into an upscale peg in the overall scheme of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles’ Italian car brands. (Yes, Fiat and Chrysler are one big cozy international car company now. And yes, their holdings include the storied Ferrari brand.)

They could have started with the Giulietta, a car sized and priced to compete with some popular BMW models. But the premium sedan market is pretty crowded right now, so the low-volume 4C is more likely to get noticed, and quickly.

The car is about the size and shape of the Lotus Evora, itself a low-slung mid-engine sports car that also sells in limited numbers. (Perhaps a bit too limited, as you hardly see any, even here in car-rich Southern California.) The looks are definitely Italian, and climbing in requires a very limber musculoskeletal system in the driver and passenger.

But once you do fold yourself inside, you’re in for a treat, at least if you like your performance raw and loud. The 1.75 liter 4-cylinder engine is quite literally right behind your ears. It barks to life easily, and its positioning in the car portends great athletic balance. Cranking out 237 horsepower thanks to turbo-charging and other tricks, the Alfa 4C’s engine is more than enough to zip the car along smartly.

If you’re wondering how a car with fewer horsepower than some Hyundai Sonatas can possibly do this, you have to factor in the 4C’s curb weight. It tips the scales at just under 2500 pounds, which is fly-weight by today’s standards. Thank the carbon-fiber main structure and other use of lightweight materials.

With that combination of lightness, balance and strong power, this is quite a performer overall. Mid-engine cars have always had a nice finesse when the road turns curvy, and the 4C is no exception. The steering is light and precise, and while I didn’t really flog the car in anger, I did scoot it around a couple of my favorite sharp freeway on-ramps to get a feel for it.

Unlike those old Alfa Romeo models from years gone by, there is no clutch pedal or conventional manual gearbox. But that’s okay, as the 4C’s dual-clutch semi-automatic transmission works very well, just as the ones in most new Ferraris do.

Creature comforts are minimal. In addition to the automatic, air conditioning, power windows and an okay sound system are standard.

The 86 U.S. dealers who get these cars won’t have any trouble at all selling them at first. Word on the 4C has been out for some time, and the first 500 “Launch Edition” cars (with a special “launch edition” price of nearly $70,000) are all pretty much sold out. Cars closer to base price will arrive later in the year.

So welcome back, Alfa Romeo. It’s been a long time.

I’ll see you down the road.

Dave Kunz is the automotive reporter at KABC-TV Channel 7 and can be heard on “The Car Show” Saturdays at 9 a.m. on KPFK, 90.7 FM. E-mail Dave at TVCarz @ Twitter: @ABC7DaveKunz, Facebook: ABC7DaveKunz

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