The 4C upholds the Alfa Romeo tradition – by being nearly great | by Andrew frankel
My introduction to the Alfa Romeo 4C is not the one I would have chosen. As those who keep up with my weekly blog on the website will know, it involved strapping myself into its passenger seat and being flung around the Balocco test track in the middle of the night. I don’t like being a passenger, I hate being a passenger on a race track and I now know such feelings of loathing are in no ways moderated by not being able to see where you’re going. Trying not to be sick, I idly pondered the likely consequences of the sectionable lunatic next to me – who presented as a perfectly pleasant chap called Emanuele – throwing us into the unforgiving scenery without so much as a helmet to protect me or a disclaimer to protect Alfa Romeo. But Emanuele knew his stuff and delivered me back to base with a broad grin and not a hair out of place.
I learned nothing about the Alfa that night, save its capacity to induce nausea in its passenger in certain freakishly unlikely circumstances. But it told me rather more about how Alfa feels about its first proper sports car for over 20 years. Since then – and excepting the 8C on the grounds it’s no more an Alfa than an Aston Martin Cygnet is an Aston Martin – there hasn’t been an Alfa Romeo you’d feel inclined to drive around a track, day or night. By contrast, when my turn to drive came the following day, there are few forces on earth that could have stopped me.
The 4C has many claims to fame. Astonishingly, given that its compatriots Ferrari, Lamborghini and Maserati first made theirs more than 40 years ago, it is Alfa Romeo’s first mid-engined road car, if you except the tiny number of ‘Stradale’ 33s that were built in the 1960s. It is the first to be built around a carbon-fibre tub and it is the first only to be available with two pedals in its footwell.
It was first shown to swooning journalists in a concept form in 2011, a shape from which the production version differs very little save its headlights, which now give the impression of the car suffering from an unsightly skin condition.
The carbon tub extends only so far as the base of the A-pillars, all but proving the existence of a convertible version waiting in the wings, while the engine is the 1.7-litre turbo four used in the Giulietta but recast with an aluminium block saving, says Alfa, some 22kg.
Indeed, encouraging weight loss has been at the very heart of Alfa’s strategy for this car and if you believe the official blurb they’ve been so successful the 4C weighs just 895kg. Too good to be true? It depends how you look at it: if you take a base 4C with none of the many available go-faster options such as fat tyres, big wheels, different suspension, a rear anti-roll bar and sports exhaust, and then empty out all the fuel, oil, water and washer fluid, then it will probably weigh 895kg. I doubt however that once they’ve been put back and the weight of a driver added, any 4C will ever set foot on a public road with a kerb weight significantly less than a tonne. Even so, when you consider a Porsche Cayman S weighs 1320kg and that even a Lotus Elise S is very little lighter than the 4C, it’s clear the designers have done great work to reduce mass.
The cabin is a wonderfully spartan place to sit. I was disappointed to see central locking and electric windows in there, but then remembered this is the car that will spearhead Alfa’s return to sales in the US after 20 years away and apparently the Americans would lose interest fast without such needless creature comforts. More encouraging is that air-conditioning is an optional extra and at no cost, too. So you sit in front of a space-age TFT screen set into a plain black dashboard. You will amuse yourself watching your passenger rootle around for a way to adjust his or her seating position before telling them there is none. Not unless you visit a dealer.
Hallelujah! The engine starts by turning a key, not by then having to find some stupid button. But the engine sounds awful with its sports exhausts. If you are in the market, spare yourself and get the standard ones instead and put up with a merely dull sound instead. No matter, we’re in Alfa’s first proper sports car since the 1990s SZ and I’m not going to let a loud farting noise behind my head spoil the experience.
It’s properly fast, quick enough for me not to doubt Alfa’s claimed 4.5sec 0-62mph sprint. The double-clutch gearbox isn’t the best of the breed and it goes without saying that I’d far prefer a quick-shifting six-speed manual, but it does its job well enough if you select ‘dynamic’ mode.
More impressive still is the car’s body control. I always knew its grip would be prodigious, but far more interesting and important is the way it maintains its ride height regardless of whatever provocation in terms of crests, dips and camber changes you can place in its path. It’s all the more remarkable for the fact that the car is actually quite softly sprung and provides almost Lotus-like ride quality: the Magneti Marelli dampers check all excess vertical, lateral and fore/aft motion before it can start.
And were our story to stop there, an almost exclusively happy one it would be because its most notable shortcomings – the pathetic boot, tiny fuel tank and lack of almost anywhere on board to store anything are flaws it shares with its closest conceptual rival, the Lotus Elise S. Contrary to the naysayers who thought Alfa Romeo had long since forgotten how to build a decent driver’s car, it has made one that at times borders on the brilliant.
But it can also leave you with the sense of a car only 98 per cent developed. The issue is the unassisted steering that at first appears able to do no wrong. It is well weighted, beautifully geared and, once you’re in a corner, admirably precise. It even has an adequate lock. What’s not to like? Only that when you first apply the lock to turn into the corner the car reacts overly aggressively, making it feel nervous and tempting you to reduce the lock before applying it again. This is compounded by front suspension too keen to follow the cambers in the road so that at times even long, straight roads required constant small corrections.
It may well be all this is symptomatic of the optional big wheels and tyres and the sport suspension of the car I drove. I’d not be surprised if a standard car were the next best thing to a Lotus Elise S on a mountain road. But I can report only as I find from the car I was given to drive. And the sense it left me with was of a car that was not only very, very good but with a little extra tuning could, and perhaps should, have been even better.
Engine: 1.7 litres, 4 cylinders
Power: 237bhp @ 6000rpm
Torque: 285lb ft @ 2200rpm
Transmission: Six-speed auto double clutch, rear-wheel drive
Top speed: 160mph