Can the term "supercar" be used to describe an Alfa Romeo, even one as beautiful to behold as the new Alfa Romeo 4C? Perhaps, yes, based on looks alone, but surely the title doesn't belong on a car powered by a four-cylinder engine, of just 1.75 litres, no matter how cleverly turbocharged?
Yet this is how Alfa Romeo chooses to describe its new hero car, as an "uncompromising, attainable supercar".
There are two raw numbers that make this seem more fantasy than fact. Firstly, the 0-100km/h time – 4.5 seconds is quick (as fast as a Porsche 911 Carrera S in manual guise, and more than a second faster than a Cayman), but surely anything labelled a supercar must be able to cut a number under four seconds.
And secondly, the price. Alfa Romeo has achieved something quite remarkable by bringing a mid-engined sports car, with a full, racing-spec carbonfibre monocoque to market for just $75,000 in Australia (or around $100,000 for the limited Launch Edition version). This deserves applause, clearly, but surely nothing under six figures qualifies as a supercar. What lawyer/dentist/drug dealer would be seen in something so cheap?
And yet, watching the production Alfa Romeo 4Cs roll out onto the Balocco proving ground in Italy for the first time, it's hard to argue that it looks, and sounds, like something closely related to a Ferrari.
Alfa makes much of the fact that it wanted the car to be made in Modena (at the Maserati factory), home of the world's best sports cars, "where a passion for cars starts in the cradle".
The 4C truly is a thing of beauty in the flesh, with its deep V bonnet leading to the Alfa shield, its organic looking headlights, air intakes and sweeping lines. It comes in six colours, two of which are red, and are the only choice anyone should make.
Inside, the view is distinctly less premium. The goal for the car's designers and engineers was always lightness – the Alfa Romeo 4C weighs just 895kg, which is how it gets away with such a small engine – and you can feel it in the cheap, thin plastics used on the dash, and even the shift paddles (tragically, a manual gearbox was never going to be an option). An American colleague pointed out that the Alfa would struggle to sell in his country with such a cheap interior, even though it's only going to cost US$54,000 – because Americans can have a Cayman for US$56,000.
There is plenty of carbonfibre on display, in the doorsills, behind the seats, and the pedal box is exposed, with huge aluminium pedals and footrest, which all looks supercar-spec, but overall the ambience is more Lotus than Lamborghini.
Like a Lotus, the Alfa Romeo 4C gets super-thin race seats and a mechanical steering system, with no power assistance, but unlike the lightweight legend, the steering feel here is not heavy or cumbersome at normal speeds; if anything it's a little too light until you really start attacking corners. A Porsche beater it is not, at least in this department.
It does make a Cayman look like a practical choice, however, with a boot that would barely fit a shoe and the kind of restricted rear vision that will make spotting police cars almost impossible. You forgive it this, however, when you look in the side mirror and see a swelling red flank and a huge air scoop. You could kid yourself you're in a Ferrari.
The seats could certainly offer more support, and bolstering, as well, but perhaps that would make it even harder to get in and out of what is very low car – the centre of gravity is just 40cm off the ground. Combine this with the stiffness and lightness of the normally supercar-only carbonfibre tub, and the mid-engined layout, and what you've got is a fantastic handling car.
You can throw the Alfa Romeo 4C at corners at absurd speeds and it just tucks its nose in and behaves impeccably. Changes of direction are a breeze, and an afternoon track thrash showed that it can cope with incredible punishment and still shine. The rear-wheel-drive layout and 60:40 weight bias makes for a car that's also easy to balance on the throttle.
It's properly quick, too. Figures of 176kW and 350Nm certainly don't sound supercar-like, but in a car that weighs so little, and with a drag coefficient of 0.33, the result is impressive pace, everywhere.
On the Balocco track, it was still pulling hard at 220km/h, and the brakes, even after a day of being pounded, stopped it from that speed with ease. The steering also really came into its own on the track; the more pace you throw at it, the more feedback you get through the wheel.
What was perhaps most surprising, out on the sometimes scrappy roads of rural Italy, was how well the super Alfa rides. With so much of a Lotus feel to the dynamics and design, you'd expect a super firm, spine rearranging ride compromise, but it's actually amazingly smooth.
With its sexy chin spoiler seemingly an inch off the road, we expected lots of scraping, as you so often suffer in Ferraris and other supercars, but other than one occasion on which we braked hard enough to drive the nose into the ground, there wasn't much to complain about here.
What was disappointing, at times, was the TCT paddle-shift gearbox, which gives fabulous 130-millisecond upshifts at full throttle but regularly denies you the gear you want on your way down through the cogs, which can be annoying when you're approaching a hairpin at speed, made even more so by the bonging "denied" sound the car gives. It's a weird foible in a car that allows you to smack into the rev limiter without changing up on you.
The only real let down in what is a seriously fun, stunningly beautiful and magnificently priced car is the sound. From the outside, particularly if someone is engaging launch control, it sounds supercar sweet, albeit slightly muted next to the V12 roar of the real thing. But at idle, on start up and around town, it really can sound a bit like a tractor; a turbocharged tractor with a seriously loud wastegate fitted. There's an enormous amount of woosh and whistle going on, but other than that the soundtrack is not entirely pleasant. To be fair, all of the launch cars were fitted with the optional sports exhaust, and we're yet to hear the standard version.
When the 4C arrives in Australia, in the second quarter of next year, hearing one go past might be as close as you get. Alfa Romeo has already taken 80 orders and has now closed its books. Just 100 of the Launch Edition versions will make it to the Asia Pacific region, and the local office is unsure how many it can get its hands on. It's a similar story of limited supply with the standard car.
What is sure is that this car, even in limited numbers, will be a huge image lift for the whole Alfa Romeo brand. Just seeing it on the street will create a positive halo for a company that is currently bumbling along with just the Mito and the Giulietta. Hopefully the Alfa Romeo 4C is a sign of things to come.