Savory lasagna, creamy gelato, great artists and Sophia Loren are some of Italy's greatest contributions to the world. But many would argue, especially we car buffs, that the best gift this boot-shaped country has kicked forth is a buffet of delicious automotive treats. Although great style has much to do with their appeal, Italy's cars bring joy to the ear with their fantastic mechanical music along with joy to the enthusiast's heart with their involving driving dynamics.
New or old, Italian cars are lusted after and enjoyed by enthusiasts everywhere. Whether one is cutting through traffic in a diminutive, old Fiat Cinquecento with sunroof open and opera blaring, or slicing through a mountain pass in a newer Ferrari 458 Spider with its top off and its V8 providing the soundtrack, grins are virtually assured for anyone within either.
To celebrate the irresistible cars of Italy, we've picked our favorites both old and new from the major manufacturers. Our choices come via a rather unscientific approach, yet one fully befitting Italy -- they are based on pure emotion.
For a classic Alfa, it's hard to beat the simply named Spider (which is essentially Italian for roadster). Available in the states from the mid-'60s to the mid-'90s, this affordable, Pininfarina styled roadster defined the Italian sports car experience. That is to say it looked sexy, sounded great and had its steering wheel laid down to almost a bus-like degree. It also meant it could be finicky and wasn't the most reliable car on the road.
Alfa Romeo just came back to the states after leaving in the mid-'90s and offers but one model thus far. But what a firecracker the 4C is. With its snarly, popping, 237-horsepower turbocharged four, light (around 2,500 pound) curb weight and track-focused handling dynamics, this sports car is a blast to drive. It may be a bit harsh for daily driver duty, but the 4C, available in both coupe and Spider (removable targa top) body styles, makes no apologies for its "fun first" personality.
Choosing a favorite classic Ferrari is like trying to pick a favorite Beatles song. Nonetheless, we welcome the challenge and will go with an early '60s 250 GT SWB (short wheelbase). Even those without 93 octane flowing through their veins would find it impossible to ignore this Ferrari's handsome Pininfarina styling and incredibly melodic V12. Although these are priced in the millions (keep playing that Powerball), they are somewhat versatile, being able to serve as both a fairly comfortable grand touring car and a vintage racing track toy.
For a newer Ferrari, the 458 Spider pushes our buttons with its free-revving V8 engine cranking out nearly 600 hp while making all the right noises, open roof capability and of course the head-turning styling expected of the marque.
As with the Alfa, we're with a classic roadster here, in this case the similarly-named Fiat Spider. Earlier versions ('67 to '78) were actually called the 124 Sport Spider while the '79 to '82 versions were called the 2000 Spider. A Pininfarina design, the Fiat was powered by a double-overhead-cam, eight-valve inline four that grew in size from its initial 1.5 liters to 2.0 liters (hence the later "2000" designation.). A turbocharged version was also produced for '81 and '82. From '83 through '85, the car was marketed by Pininfarina as the Spider Azzura. Regardless of the year, the styling and driving experience are going to be similar, meaning those classic lines and the classic, arms-out Italian driving position.
Nowadays, not only has Fiat come back to the states, but they've brought the latest incarnation of the little 500 ("Cinquecento") with them. Our choice is, no surprise, the feisty 500 Abarth, whose snappy turbocharged four makes us grin every time it crackles and pops when we downshift. Although it boasts a sport-tuned suspension that makes it a hoot on a curvy road, just don't try to catch Miatas as its somewhat top-heavy feel and body sway when pushed harder show its athletic limits.
Miura or Countach…Countach or Miura? We'll probably change our minds tomorrow, but for now it's the Countach. The official poster car of 10- to 20-year old American males during the mid-'80s, the outlandishly styled (by Gandini) Countach looked like a land-locked spaceship. Adding to the effect were the so-called scissor doors that swung upwards and made for a grand entrance or exit. A mid-mounted V12 with output ranging from about 375 to 455 hp provided the appropriate gusto.
For a newer Lambo, we'll go with a Gallardo. Yes, it's not as powerful as a Murcielago or Aventador, but we prefer its smaller, more easily managed dimensions and lighter weight. Besides, we could get by with just a V10 and its 500 or so horses. Now the question is just coupe or Spyder…coupe or Spyder?
Although Maserati made some great sports cars – Ghibli (the original sleek sports car, not the current sedan with the same name) and Bora to name just two – the company was also known for its grand touring coupes and sedans. Although the Quattroporte ("four-door" in Italian) has been produced off-and-on since 1963, we're going to go with the third-generation version. Why? Because we're Rocky fans and it's what the Italian Stallion drove in 1982's Rocky III. Fitted with a 4.9-liter V8, the Giugiaro-designed sedan put about 276 hp (respectable output back then) at the driver's disposal. Fitted with plush, overstuffed seats and trimmed with gathered leather and real wood, the cabin of the Quattroporte was more business jet than road car.
Our modern Maser choice would be the GranTurismo convertible. Sporting Ferrari-sourced V8 power and a superbly detailed interior fit for four (provided the rear passengers are on the smaller side) the GranTurismo exudes class and power that are fully befitting a Maserati.
Editor's note: For more insights into the vehicles of the world, check out our recent feature on the Cars of Ireland.