Payne: Cruisin’with the top down . . . in a 4-banger?

Henry Payne
The Detroit News

Courtesy of the fine folks at Chevy, Ford and Fiat-Chrysler, the official Detroit News Dream Cruisers this year were a 2015 Corvette Z06 convertible and a pair of topless turbo-4s: The Ford Mustang and Alfa Romeo Spider.

Which begged the question: Can a 4-banger find love at the Dream Cruise?

After all, the Cruise is V-8 country. Hellacious supercharged Hellcats. Earth-shaking ’67, 389-cube GTOs. And of course, ’Vettes, ’Vettes, ’Vettes. But in the early 21st Century, the Green Church rules and in our zeal to save the polar bear the V-8 is an endangered species. With 54.5 mpg-by-2025, the new fuel mileage standard automakers are turning to fewer cylinders and more turbochargers to both conserve gas and quench our thirst for speed.

Turbo-4 Mustangs, turbo-4 Camaros, twin-turbo BMW M3s ... Rumors even swirl that a mid-engine, turbo-6 Corvette is in the works. Clearly, we’re going to have to get used to fewer V-8s. Six-bangers aren’t much of a stretch. But can a pony car be a classic with a 4? Can a $70,000 sports car?

My fellow News writer, Tom Greenwood, and I put the Alfa and Mustang to the test in a week of top-down driving along with the undisputed King of the Cruise, the Z-OMG-6.

That the ’Vette is king is not in dispute. The new C7 Stingray is an instant classic. A muscled Michelangelo sculpture. Its base 450-horsepower, 6.2-liter V-8 makes grown men weep. Supercharge it to 650 horses and they bow before it. Porsches inspire. The Z06 you’d follow into battle.

Even at 5 mph (the Official Average Speed of the Dream Cruise) the V-8 is authoritative. Between 11 and 12 Mile Saturday a kid holds up a sign: “REV IT UP!”

I pop the eight-speed auto tranny in neutral, stomp the gas, and the 389- cubes of pistons jackhammer the pavement. BRAAAAPPA! BRAAAPPA! Car alarms go off for blocks. All hail the king!

The Alfa pales by comparison. At 13 Mile I pass another kid. Another “REV IT” sign. Surprisingly, the turbo-four – which has a wonderful, obnoxious growl at speed – sounds bashful. The kid and I look at each other in mutual disappointment. How can such a wicked-looking schnauzer have such a weak bark?

The rev test aside, however, the Alfa is a Cruise star.

Begin with its supermodel looks. They don’t call it the “baby Ferrari” for nothing. Curved flanks, mid-engine layout. Our matching yellow Alfa and Z06 cruised Woodward together and the Italian got more attention. Maybe because only 500 4Cs have been sold in the U.S.

But good looks are just the beginning. The Alfa is simply the most fun car on the road today.

Put your foot in it and the turbo-4 barks on upshifts, snorts under power, and generally sounds like a Rottweiler with indigestion. But handling is what sets it apart. Driving the ferocious Z06 around Metro Detroit feels like having a nuclear war in your living room, while the nimble Alfa is a much more precise weapon. Its stiff carbon fiber tub gives it an over-sized, go-kart feel as you fling it through Oakland County’s lake hills.

But the real payoff is the bottom line. The 4C is not just half the price of our $113,835 Z06, it is the only carbon sports car under $135,000. At a remarkably affordable $53,000, both the base Alfa and base C7 offer totally different performance experiences.

At $43,290, the Mustang was our bargain cruiser, but its 310-horsepower turbo-4 was the big question. After all, muscle cars have been defined by its throaty V8s back to the 1960s.

Greenwood cruised happily in our bright, “Competition Orange” pony all week. It’s striking, comfortable and powerful. Ford has worked wonders with its Ecoboost turbos which offer greater power than similar fours from BMW and Audi. It’s no slouch against V-8s either.

In Royal Oak Sunday night, I drag a recent vintage, 370-horse Dodge Charger R/T V-8 out of a stoplight to a draw. Impressive.

But does the 4 feel out of place in the herd? North of Maple, I hook up with Andrew Fallon, 23, of Warren cruising in a gorgeous, red, fourth-gen Mustang GT. Hood scoop. Black center wheels. Rear spoiler. The works. He revs his 4.6-liter V-8 and the earth shakes. My turbo-4 responds with . . . was that a loud hum? Like I just plugged a vacuum cleaner into a 220-volt socket.


“You need a 4 cylinder in the age of emission controls,” Fallon smiles. “But a muscle car’s gotta have a V-8.” Yes it does. Long love the eight-holer.

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Email him at hpayne@detroitnews.com. Follow him on Twitter @HenryEPayne. See all his work at HenryPayne.com

2015 Ford Mustang Turbo-4 Convertible

Vehicle type: Front-engine, rear-wheel-drive, four-passenger coupe

Price: $34,800 base ($43,290 as tested)

Power plant: 2.3-liter, twin-turbocharged, inline 4-cylinder

Power: 310 horsepower, 320 pound-feet of torque

Transmission: Six-speed automatic transmission

Performance: 0-60 mph, 5.2 seconds (Car & Driver)

Weight: 3,524 pounds

Fuel economy: EPA 21 mpg city/32 mpg highway/25 mpg combined

Report card

Highs: A dream cruiser; Torquey turbo power

Lows: Little room for backseat cruisers; Where’s the growl?


Grading scale

Excellent ★★★★

Good ★★★

Fair ★★

Poor ★

2015 Alfa Romeo Spider

Vehicle type: Mid-engine, rear-wheel-drive, two-passenger sports car

Price: $63,900 base ($76,495 as tested)

Power plant: 1.7-liter, turbocharged, inline 4-cylinder

Power: 237 horsepower, 258 pound-feet of torque

Transmission: Six-speed, dual-clutch, automatic transmission

Performance: 0-60 mph, 4.1 seconds (manufacturer)

Weight: 2,487 pounds

Fuel economy: EPA 24 mpg city/34 mpg highway/28 mpg combined

Report card

Highs: Body of Aphrodite; Go-kart-quick handling

Lows: Cramp-inducing passenger seat; No room for luggage


Grading scale

Excellent ★★★★

Good ★★★

Fair ★★

Poor ★

2015 Corvette Z06 Convertible

Vehicle type: Front-engine, rear-wheel-drive, two-passenger sports car

Price: $83,000 base ($113,835 as tested)

Power plant: 6.2-liter, supercharged V-8

Power: 650 horsepower, 650 pound-feet of torque

Transmission: Eight-speed automatic transmission

Performance: 0-60 mph, 2.9 seconds (manufacturer)

Weight: 3,524 pounds

Fuel economy: EPA 13 mpg city/23 mpg highway/16 mpg combined

Report card

Highs: Awesome power; Thrones fit for king and queen

Lows: Chemical-like interior smell; Tire-squirm in tight turning radius


Grading scale

Excellent ★★★★

Good ★★★

Fair ★★

Poor ★