Firing up produces a malevolentrhythmic spit from the exhausts

Gorgeous styling? Check. Handles like a racer? Check. Spine-tingling exhaust note? Oh yes. No wonder this throwback to the great Alfa heritage is already sold out, says John Simister

Price: £111,000 approx
On sale: Early 2008
Engine: 4,691cc V8 petrol, 32 valves, 450bhp at 7,000rpm, 354lb ft at 4,750rpm
Transmission: six-speed automated manual, rear-wheel drive
Performance: 182mph, 0-62mph in 4.2sec, 17.9mpg official average
CO2: 377g/km

There are moments, as the Alfa Romeo 8C Competizione propels itself towards the next time zone, when its exhausts spit out a sound like gunshot. The fat, staccato blats fire rearwards when you're changing gear, an activity triggered by the finger-tug of an aluminium flap, the swapping of cogs occupying no more than a fifth of a second.

There follows a fleeting hesitation before the Alfa charges again, your ears electrified by a musical cacophony of threshing mechanicals. It sounds glorious, and reminds you what fantastic physical pleasure there is to be had from driving a beautiful, loud and virile car fast.

There's just as much entertainment when you encounter a bend, an event likely to come upon you quickly if you choose to indulge even half of the 8C's 450 horsepower. This Alfa is built for devouring twists, its engine and gearbox located separately to achieve a more even spread of weight and a better balanced way with bends, its big 20in wheels lavishly shod for a staple-gun purchase on the road below. It does not take long to conclude that the 8C Competizione is built for the joy of driving and little else.

This dramatic new Alfa is an expensive, potent, sensuous-looking coupé. Only 500 will be built. Every one has a name against it, making this the first sell-out Alfa since the early days of the handsome 1997 156 saloon.

Alfa will follow up with a soft-top Spider in 2009 and rumours suggest the company might produce more than 500 of these.

Like so many troubled car companies, Alfa has turned to the past to renew its confidence in the future. Those familiar with the more obscure corners of Alfa history might see echoes of its 1960s TZ and SZ sports coupés. Yet Alfa has no plans to campaign the 8C Competizione on the track. The company is merely reviving the name of a glamorous racer to add shine to this plaything.

This is not entirely fresh territory for the company. More than half a century ago, Alfa Romeo made cars for the super-rich – supreme examples of Italian artistry. Post-war, Alfa realised it had to build cheaper cars.

In the 50 years since, Alfa has built mainstream sporting cars with an upmarket cachet, but rarely anything truly expensive. What preserved its reputation as a maker of cars for the cognoscenti were the vehicles' handling, performance and sound. But then Alfas began to go front-wheel drive, and none has possessed quite the magic of the rear-drive Giulietta, Giulia and Alfetta of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s.

The 8C has clearly been inspired by one of the more obscure examples of this breed, the 1963 Giulia TZ – almost to the point of being a pastiche. Its three-piece grille is instantly recognisable in the 8C, and that isn't the only echo from the 1960s – the simplicity of its huge tail-lamps also recalls that fertile period. These features adorn bodywork fashioned from high-strength carbonfibre, with the car's upper structure attached to a steel floor adapted from the Maserati Gran Turismo coupé.

Maserati's contribution to this project is substantial. Not only does its Modena factory carry out final assembly of the 8C, it also supplies plenty of the hardware. The engine is Maserati-related, this 4.7-litre V8 being a version of the V8 used in the Gran Turismo and the Quattroporte.

This engine produces 450bhp at 7,000 yelling rpm, and a 354lb ft slug of torque at 4,750rpm. This second figure is more than the F430 can manage, and is enough to propel the Alfa to 182mph, with scope to demolish the 0-62mph sprint in 4.2 seconds. The 8C will outpace the Ferrari to 62mph, but Maranello's car has the higher top speed, probably owing to superior aerodynamics.

Alfa isn't saying much about the aero properties of this car beyond the fact that the flat floor and the management of air below it help to force the car on to the road at speed. It is not quoting a drag coefficient, probably because the figure isn't good. Why? Because Alfa's bosses insisted that the production 8C looks identical to the concept uncovered at the 2003 Frankfurt Motor Show. They have certainly preserved its beguiling lines, but that gave the engineers quite a challenge.

This is one reason why there isn't much luggage space in this car, whose compactness means two seats only. But such tedious impracticalities are forgotten when you drop inside. The seats are carbonfibre buckets trimmed in beautifully stitched leather. The centre console is extravagantly decorated with a passenger's panic-handle fashioned from a solid billet of aluminium. The instruments stare from beneath deeply hooded binnacles, and the pedals – just a pair, this being a paddle-shift beast – are solid aluminium, too. After a while, you realise that there is almost no plastic to be seen inside, and that just as much care has been taken with the rest of the 8C's finish.

Firing up produces a malevolent rhythmic spit from the exhausts. You can order up an entire mechanical orchestra by pressing the "sport" button, which sharpens up the accelerator. We got to enjoy this sensory feast on a test track whose surface is almost as ripple-free as the Alfa's paint. That's great for throwing a car around, but tells you little about how it will ride. A succession of bumps leading on to the track was the only clue, and the car's mildly urgent bobbing suggested that its progress over British roads could prove wearing.

Still, this car is more about athleticism than comfort. And you will not be disappointed by its sprinting skills, nor the magnificent soundtrack it produces to go with them. The brakes are potent enough to counter its savage momentum. The Alfa generates plenty of grip, too (on this dry, smooth track at least), but with 450bhp to deploy it's not hard to dislodge the tyres' purchase.

A stability control system reins in the slithers, while the sport setting allows you slightly more of a slide, though not enough for the keen. Turning it off reveals a tail that can flick as suddenly as an alligator's.

The Competizione runs wide more easily than expected if you power hard out of a bend. It rolls a little as well, to produce responses that aren't resolved enough to satisfy, especially as the steering, though precise and direct, provides too little feel. That's a shame, as this was once an Alfa forte.

In spite of these disappointments it's impossible not to enjoy this Alfa hugely. It lacks a little finesse, its capabilities may be a bit one-dimensional, but this car is wonderfully exciting for its inspirational sound, its red-blooded zest, its exquisite interior and its sheer beauty. Slightly flawed, then, but hugely desirable – as the best Alfas always have been.

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