We auto journalists, we’ve kind of had it up to here with the VW scandal. It’s a mind-blower, that’s for sure, but the thing’s sucking all the oxygen out of the room, topic-wise, even if it has turned into a lucrative cottage industry for the parade field of reporters, analysts and deadline-crazed blowhards with whom I run.
A more deserving bunch of folk you’ll never meet, mind you. But with the insatiable demand for indignant commentary, many days it’s 24-7 Volkswagen and that’s too much. Mercifully, the moment will pass. One day we’ll even look back and laugh – probably at how much money VW was forced to pay before it could put this abominable mistake behind it and let someone else’s scandal take over.
Yet for now I’m just happy to learn that the miscreant wing of FCA (Fiat Chrysler, Jeep Ram, Alfa Romeo et. al.) is also back in the news. The carmaker has just alerted federal regulators that a recent internal review acquainted it with the fact that for some years it had failed rather badly at meeting its legal responsibility to turn over to its Uncle Sam in a timely manner data concerning death and injury in its vehicles. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, to whom FCA were meant to report, are coincidentally the same folk to whom the Italian-American outfit (legally based in the Netherlands) just paid a $105 million fine on account of lackadaisical handling of almost two dozen recalls covering 11 million vehicles. (Hey, 11 million. That’s how many cars Volkswagen lied about! Is there a pattern emerging?) Although unlikely FCA will get close to being soaked for what GM paid out in government fines ($900 million) much less Toyota ($1.2 billion), the point is, NHTSA might ding FCA some more.
So now that just about every major carmaker has, in short order, been caught up in some heinous moral transgression or another, we can get back, if only briefly, to the cars themselves. In better FCA news, there is, for instance, the Alfa Romeo 4C Spider. A newly launched convertible version of the lightweight, mid-engine, low-production carbon-fiber sports car launched last year -- price tags start at $63,000 -- it’s the car FCA has chosen to re-launch the vaunted Alfa Romeo brand in America and, in my book, it really does the trick.
Despite competence and profiles in sheer horsepower that grow more formidable every year, cars in many ways seem to get duller and duller. The 4C is a shining exception, one of very few that speaks to drivers in the language of the old school. It’s not for everybody (a good thing as Alfa only hopes to sell 2500 a year in America), but when the highways become totally automated and we’re all being encouraged to pass car trips eating, shopping and tweeting, the 4C is one of the cars we’ll look back to as having reminded us how fun the act of driving could be.
I like it so much, Car Talk producer Doug Berman didn’t have to ask twice to tempt me into driving a test example 400 miles from New York to Pittsburgh the other day, with a pair of fourth row seats he’d picked up to watch my beloved Pittsburgh Pirates’ final regular season matchup with their arch-nemesis St. Louis Cardinals. Ended the day badly on the field at PNC Park for Pittsburgh fans, so despite the second best record in all of baseball this season, the Pirates post-season plans now begin (and may end) with a single-game Wild Card playoff against the Cubs’ lights out ace, Jake Arrieta. Wish us luck.
While I couldn’t celebrate the results on the field, the 4C drive was its own reward. If your idea of a good time is conducting a lightweight, super-sporty sportscar -- with razor sharp handling, profoundly communicative steering and a rev-happy noisemaker of a small-displacement (1.75-liter,) turbocharged multi-cam engine -- through Pennsylvania hill country, you can’t make a better choice. In looks and spirit, this Alfa reminds one of the sublime (and no longer sold in the U.S.) Lotus Elise, except the Italian car is faster, quieter, more comfortable and rides better.
The kinship is not surprising, though -- in layout and conception, both cars are quite similar, except the Lotus has an aluminum chassis where the Alfa is all carbon fiber. I know Elises well, buying one new in 2005 and still owning and loving it. But having driven mine to Pittsburgh a couple times, I can say that despite the Alfa’s seriously hardcore focus, it is a veritable Coupe de Ville compared to an Elise. And with fuel economy of 32.7 mpg while running at speeds of 70-80mph, with a little traffic thrown in, the 4C isn’t even a little bit anti-social.
So get as mad as hell at FCA and all the other carmakers that have fudged, cheated and lied. But don’t forget there’s more to them than just breaking the law. As the 4C proves, they provide valuable public services for those who can afford them.