Alfa Romeo's carbonfibre featherweight, the 4C, loses its top in Spider form. Does it still have the baby sportscar DNA of the coupe version? And the propensity to both thrill and infuriate in roughly equal measure?
Few other cars on sale, at any price, are quite as bittersweet an experience as the 2016 Alfa Romeo 4C Spider. Unsurprisingly, the coupe version is one of them. They're different approaches to exposing the elements but the same animals under the skin, as fantastic as they are flawed, as furious as they are frustrating, and which tend to draw praise and condemnation from those who’ve sampled them.
To date, I’d only driven – or, more accurately, been assaulted by – the coupe in Launch Edition trim, which loads in the hardcore Race Pack, usually a $10K option, and is a fine specimen of motoring as masochism, particularly on the lumpy open roads where I’d sampled it. Twelve months on, I’m in the base Spider – at $99,000 before on roads, an extra $10K of investment over the entry coupe, together with 10kg (now 1035kg) penalty – ready to hit a private, closed-road test track.
In its happy yellow paintwork and quite bland-looking, smaller (17-inch front, 18-inch rear) rolling stock, I’m expecting a markedly diluted experience from the rag-top. And I’d presumed wrongly. Bar headlight and engine cover differences and the drop-top's unique carbonfibre A-pillar/windshield surround and adjustable passenger seat, the coupe and Spider versions of 4C are essentially otherwise identical.
I’ll lay it on you straight. It’s marginally less ragged around the edges than the coupe I’d driven prior, but this is still a noisy, uncomfortable, impractical, fatiguing, tiresome experience whether you’re cruising or punting it hard, and pretty nonsensical, and it’s easy to see how some buyers in sensible mindset might wholly dislike it.
It’s a rare provocateur on a landscape full of panderers. But it’s precisely because the Spider is so unabashed and unapologetic about its very nature that it is, for some of us at least, utterly adorable. Not for everyone, but I, for one, ‘get it’.
And I get it even before climbing in and turning the key (in a real key barrel and everything). It looks fantastic stationary, impossibly squat and curves in all the right places. The carbonfibre construction taps my inner gearhead, being cocooned by the exposed material in-cabin merely amplifies it.
You don’t so much climb as fall into the cabin: preferably backwards, bum first, then swinging the legs through into the footwell. Clambering out, though, deadlifting your body weight on the boxy doorsills, is something of a clumsy chore. Just getting in and out of the thing is an event you have to work for.
Then there’s a daft roof. Removed, it’s two load-bearing roof rails joined by canvas-like fabric stowed in a baggy in a compartment under the rear engine cover. And erecting or stowing it is quite an adventure.
You climb out (awkwardly), pull a latch in the door jamb, lift the engine cover (no struts so it’s a two-handed job), unpack the lid, then attempt to clip one roof rail (your choice) into its slot before tensioning the roof taut and guiding the canvass' leading edge into a groove in the carbonfibre windshield surround before climbing through the cabin (or walking around the car) to clip the opposite roof rail into place. Yes, really. Inevitably, though, you’ll discover that you’ve attempted in vain to mount the roof backward – there’s no indication on the roof itself which way it’s facing. Complete the oh-so-Italian challenge and you still need to go and close the engine cover again as every step is a two-handed job.
Call it a couple of minutes work at best.
So you climb back in (possibly half drenched) and realise there’s nowhere to stow your personal effects in the cabin. Except, perhaps, out back under the engine cover. You may well sit there weighing up whether to weather the, erm, weather once more or simply jam your wallet and phone between the seat and your thighs…
Again, the 4C challenges you, annoyingly and endearingly, in roughly equal parts.
Nothing really changes for the driving experience, where the positives, in a certain mindset, certainly outweigh the gamut of negativity the car throws at you.
Characteristically, the 4C Spider is no overpriced Mazda MX-5 substitute. Nor is it an Italian-flavoured Porsche Boxster wannabe. It’s different enough to drive than either sportscar because, as you quickly discover, the 4C isn’t trying to be a sportscar at all. Instead, it’s one part honey-I-shrunk-the-supercar, another part super-sized go-kart. And more so than its appearance suggests.
The supercar vibe runs deeper than the conspicuous carbonfibre trappings. It’s in the perilously low-slung seating, natural driver ergonomics and placement of the driver controls, in the view across the shapely bonnet and all the fizzy, un-insulated rattles, vibrations and noise. It’s in the luxury-free simplicity and the purpose of everything from the fully digital TFT instrumentation to the push button controls for the dual-clutch transmission. It feels like a miniature Ferrari to a degree that little else more affordable than a proper 488 might.
And it goes like a baby supercar, too. Or, at least, feels like one. Plenty will match its 4.5 second 0-100km/h best but such is the generally unfiltered sensory nature of the 4C, amplified in roofless Spider form, that it seems quicker than it is by the seat of the pants.
The engine is half of the effect. Its 177kW (at 6000rpm) and 350Nm (at 2000rpm) are competitive for a small turbo four and impressive for just 1.75 litres of capacity, but it sounds more soulful and sonorous here than anything you'll find in a hot hatch, related Giulietta QV included. It’s not just the ever-present induction whoosh from the air inlet perched behind the driver’s right ear or the carefully tuned exhaust system, but also the near lag-free pull from low in the rev range through to the relentless shove as it barks with gusto through to the 6500rpm redline.
Even in the D.N.A drive mode selector’s Dynamic mode – a notch short of full-bore Race mode – the dry-clutch transmission’s upshifts are more urgent and brutal than most dual-clutch gearboxes, let alone anything you’ll find in a go-fast hatchback. This powertrain is a thing of sheer focus and purpose, aided in no small part by the sense of lightness the drop-top’s modest 1035kg kerb weight brings to the party.
If there’s disconnect in this enhanced sensation of launching towards the horizon, it’s that the volume swell of wind noise overcomes the bold exhaust note beyond about 100km/h, and as the digital instrumentation can become obscured in direct sunlight, it can become difficult to either hear the engine or see the tacho. A head-up display would be a welcome addition to the list of standard spec.
Tipping the Spider into a corner is where the go-kart factor comes into play. ‘Go-kart like handling’ has a history of misuse in describing road car dynamics, but the 4C embraces it as convincingly as any: in the impossibly broad and staggered wheel tracks, in how it places its weigh across its axles, in how heavily weighted and unmasked the unassisted steering feels and how it ‘points and swings’ through even tight corners.
The 4C Spider channels more grip than an MX-5 could dream of and is more lively, response and light on its feet than a Boxster. While not completely immune to understeer when entering a corner too hot, the Alfa can carry tremendous corner entry speed with very assertive front-end point, the chassis always poised to swing its tail at even the slightest lift of the throttle.
Alfa’s baby supercar has an infamous reputation to bite, snapping its tail sideways if provoked on purpose or not. But it’s certainly not the case in this standard, non-Race Pack chassis sat on softer-set spring, damper and anti-roll suspension hardware.
While, by most measures, the chassis sits incredibly flat loaded up in a corner, there’s a degree of body roll dialed in to cushion the breakaway of the rear tyres’ lateral grip. When it does slide, it’s predictable and progressive, making it easy to point the Spider’s nose through an apex…much like a go-kart does. You can treat it with abandon and it’ll remain a faithful ally.
If there’s a markdown in the dynamic package – or the Dynamic mode package - it’s that it’s nigh on impossible to induce a powerslide out of corner using throttle alone. Not quite enough energy from the turbo-four is one reason, no proper mechanical limited-slip differential on the rear axle is another (though there is an LSD effect by individual wheel-braking at play). Instead, you’re forced to induce any slide entering a corner and basically bury the right foot and hope for the best thereafter (FCA Australia responded to my inquiry as to whether an LSD is being saved for a flagship QV variant with a wry ‘no comment’ smile).
With Race mode, the Spider puts its game face on, and it’s not a friendly face at that. Gearbox shift speeds quicken by 25 per cent, the E-diff effect becomes more aggressive, it’ll hold gears bouncing off the rev-limiter and the Dynamic mode’s loose stability control safety net becomes complete removed. (‘Race’ also activates launch control). Thus set, the drop-top two-door becomes that much more wicked, demanding a circumspect approach wrapped in complete driver attention. I imagine there’s an Alfa Romeo 4C chassis engineer somewhere with a particularly evil laugh…
The Spider is best enjoyed in short and furious bursts, not because it runs out of brakes or the tyres overheat – the featherweight is kind on both despite severe punishment – or that it's surprisingly thirsty when pushed, but because only Popeye will have enough arm strength to drive a marathon. That gloriously unassisted steering becomes an arm-burner even after a handful of red hot laps, and whatever strength isn’t drained through steering input is consumed keeping your body upright. A car capable of generating this much lateral G force in corners really needs race seat-like lateral support, which it patently doesn’t have.
We didn’t get to sample the Spider beyond the test track gates out in the real world, but there are enough signals in the pliancy of the ride and handling package to suggest that you could - just possibly - get away with using a 4C Spider as an everyday proposition. Whether or not you should, though, is very different indeed.
“You couldn’t live with it,” some argue. “It’s no daily driver.” But would you need to?
The 4C is much more the fairweather indulgence, fit for that third carspace parked alongside vehicles more comfortable and convenient; a place you’d otherwise reserve for Ducatis, jet-skis and Lotus Exiges. It’s a toy you’ll anticipate greeting on sunny Sunday mornings where you hope to return it thereafter in a state of raised pulses and sweaty pores, with slightly aching arms, ringing ears and, in the Spider’s case, suitable unkempt hair atop your Sunkist brow.
Alternatively, if you want to be sensible/practical/rational about choosing a $100K-odd sportscar, you’d go Porsche Boxster and be done with it, no glances sideways required. Or buy three Mazda MX-5s. I myself wouldn’t lump either of those cars in 4C Spider’s territory. Instead, it perhaps fits in the same pigeonhole as, say, a Land Rover Defender 90: so wonderfully daft and confrontational enough to make some ‘normal’ choice seem downright boring. And because of it, the motoring world is all the richer.
Imagine, instead, if you simply took an MX-5 and did little more than remodel its appearance with Italian 'fair' (nod, wink). The result wouldn’t be anything like the 4C, and the motoring universe wouldn’t be quiet the melting pot because of it. For this reason alone, the fiery mid-engined lightweight, be it coupe or targa top form, should be celebrated for what it is, rather than merely berated for what it’s not…