Does the Alfa Romeo live up to to all its hype?
The Alfa Romeo 4C is one of the most anticipated cars of this year. It promises to be an affordable supercar that appears authentically Italian and can claim to take on the best the world has to offer - what could go wrong?
It was with great excitement that we arrived at the Alfa Romeo proving grounds in Bolocco (Italy) to drive the new 4C.
It was here that the car was tested throughout its development phase and unlike the harsh and overly-practical proving grounds of other manufacturers, Alfa’s was beautifully decorated with a focus on aesthetics as much as anything else. That’s perhaps why the Italians make beautiful cars; they are constantly surrounded by natural and man-made beauty. Be it the Italian countryside or century-old buildings full of history, it’s not hard to see why the Roman descedents are one of the leaders in design.
Striking as it is in photos, the Alfa Romeo 4C is something to behold in the flesh. The front is a magnificent blend of curves and lines that Alfa says is entirely designed for purpose. Even the quirky (read not universally loved) headlights are chosen instead of conventional ones to save a mere 2kg (though the company will eventually offer buyers the chance to get normal headlights as per the 4C Spider).
The back end is pretty much a mini-Ferrari. From a distance it’s actually possible to mistake it for the significantly more expensive Italian brand, which is a good thing for 4C buyers.
Though it’s certainly part of the same Italian family, it’s a car that stands on its own. It doesn’t need the Ferrari link to look good, it just looks good anyway. From all angles.
Although the engine is in the rear, the bonnet doesn’t open (to save weight and better package the front end’s components) which means the luggage space is good for an overnight bag at best.
Step inside and the carbonfibre monocoque chassis is the first indication that this car is all about power-to-weight. Weighing just 65kg, it is left raw to be seen and admired, which is a treat really, as most manufacturers go out of their way to hide the underbody while Alfa Romeo sees beauty in transparency.
The dash and everything else inside are all directed to the driver; the passenger seat is even permanently locked into place (to save weight). The best you can do as a passenger is play with the air-con vents as this is a driver’s car and the passenger is just along for the ride.
The seats are supportive, yet surprisingly comfortable, and despite the cramped look of the interior, it easily fits a tall adult thanks to reach and height adjustment for the driver’s seat as well as a telescopic steering wheel.
Turn the key (yes, there’s no push button start system to save weight) and the little 1.75-litre turbocharged four-cylinder engine roars to life. With 176kW of power and 350Nm of torque, it’s hard to call it a supercar on paper, but you have to consider that its total dry-weight is just 895kg, which means it’ll go from 0-100km/h in about 4.5 seconds - though it feels much faster in-gear.
There’s no power steering so every single thing that happens to the front wheels is delicately communicated to the steering wheel. The feeling is so sublime that you wish more cars had no power steering. It’s a civilised go-kart, built for corners, even if it is challenging at very low speeds.
Around Alfa Romeo’s test track the 4C feels planted and confident. It doesn't take much to get it sideways in Race mode (with the traction aids turned off) but the front-end grips so beautifully that it’s more fun to tackle a bend at a good speed and squeeze the throttle on exit to enjoy a smidge of oversteer (as you would in a Porsche Cayman, not coincidentally).
In many ways it feels like a mini-Cayman in its composure, as it’s relentless. When the rear end decides to go, it goes in a controlled manner that will come back to you with small adjustment. Nonetheless, its short wheelbase tends to react as you’d expect, so it can also bite when you get it wrong.
Out in the open the Alfa Romeo 4C is blisteringly quick. The six-speed dual-clutch transmission shifts in about 130 milliseconds and - best of all - the six-speed dual-clutch automatic obeys downshift commands in manual mode. At full blast you’ll be getting close to 200km/h well before you know it.
The dry dual clutch system (which isn't bathed in oil like similar units) makes gear changes ferocious and fast. There’s no mucking about. Launch control holds the revs at 3500rpm, but when it lets rip, you can tell the transmission is being preserved as the take-off is smooth without any dramatic wheel spin.
It sounds angry, too, growling and barking as the gears are hammered through. It’s not a defined or meaty sound but its loudness is Ferrari-like at full throttle (the lack of a muffler really helps).
Apart from having no muffler it also has no side or knee airbags and no carpeting (at least for our Italian test cars). A mere 40-litre fuel tank will see you at the local petrol station a little too often and don’t dare try and do any shopping; it just won’t fit. All these things, particularly the lack of side airbags, is generally a no-go, but in the 4C’s case it just doesn’t matter because it’s brilliant in every other way.
The mountainous countryside of Bolocco allowed us to exploit the 4C’s cornering ability on the road, which is more between a Lotus Exige S and a Cayman. In fact, that middle point is exactly where the 4C sits in many ways.
Given it can stop from 100km/h in just 35 metres - thanks to its low weight and oversized Brembo brakes - you can leave the braking late and almost just dab the left pedal to push the weight forward before turning in. The 40:60 front:rear weight distribution can be exploited pre-corner, and although it initially seems like it won’t hang on, it just does. It will grip and grip until your balls tuck up and you give in.
At speeds above 150km/h the Alfa Romeo 4C feels a bit unsettled in a straight line. It tends to follow the grooves on the road and be a somewhat affected by strong winds and if at any moment you don’t have full control of the steering wheel it can wander in an unwanted direction.
The cornering ferocity is so intense that numerous times our mounted on-board camera fell off, something it hardly ever does. Yet the ride comfort is surprisingly good; firm but not uncomfortable.
The 4C is the car that signals the rebirth of Alfa Romeo as a maker of beautiful rear-wheel drive Italian cars with flair, charisma and a sense of adventure.
In many ways it has no real competition. Alfa Romeo Australia expects the launch edition, which get bigger wheels and more carbonfibre, to cost around $100-120,000, a fair bit more than the regular model promised by the Italians to be $75,000 but may now reach up to $100,000 - we'll be sure to ask 'why?' if Alfa Romeo Australia can't hold its earlier promise. For that price point there is really nothing except a base model Cayman that competes in terms of drivetrain layout, acceleration figures and exclusivity.
Comparing it to the Porsche, logically you’d be mad to pick the Alfa. The Cayman has an interior that shames its Italian rival to no end, it absorbs the bumps with ease, it’s far more civilised and, let's be honest, probably will be far more reliable. But if you want a 4C, you can’t use your logical reasoning skills to convince yourself because it’s an emotional desire.
The Alfa Romeo 4C is truly something else. It has what car enthusiasts call ‘soul’. It has a harmful character which encompasses all its flaws and makes them features. It’s the type of car that Alfa Romeo should always aspire to make. Only 300 Alfa Romeo 4Cs are likely to make it to Australia in 2014 with the majority already claimed. If you want to be the kid on the block with the new shiny toy, it really is now or never.