The Alfa Romeo name, in all its gloriously stylised script, is back in Formula One, you may or may not have heard.
It continues a history in which Alfa was winning F1 championships before Ferrari – the very first two in 1950 and 1951 – even if today’s existence is purely a rebranding exercise (of the Sauber team).
While the 4C precedes the (latest) Alfa rebirth kicked off by the Giulia sedan, its rear-wheel-drive layout sits neatly with the repositioning of the Italian brand.
Of course, not even the sportiest version of the Giulia, the Quadrifoglio, can match the 4C’s use of carbon fibre; the light yet strong composite material from which its monocoque chassis is constructed.
At $99,990, the 2019 Alfa Romeo 4C Spider carries a $10,000 impost over the 4C Coupe, and is the most expensive Alfa you can buy that doesn’t wear the cloverleaf badge.
There are echoes of Lotus design in the 4C’s profile, while from the rear more than one intrigued passer-by mistook the Alfa for a baby Ferrari.
It certainly looks like a pint-sized supercar inside with its exposed carbon tub, with more of the black weave thrown into our test car’s mix through a $4000 Carbon and Leather Package. This includes a rear-view mirror cover, instrument binnacle and surround for the transmission centre console buttons made from carbon fibre, plus a leather dash with red stitching.
The rest of the cabin materials are less impressive. Many of the switches and toggles are seemingly borrowed from parent company Fiat, and the door plastics look like black foam (though the leather door pulls are a nice touch).
Infotainment is very retro: an aftermarket-style Alpine unit (which at least, with its trademark mint-coloured buttons, gave me fond memories of my first big car-audio investment back in the 1900s). It’s tricky to use, though, and good luck getting your phone to pair via Bluetooth (I gave up after 15 minutes).
There’s a dearth of storage options, which probably doesn’t come as much of a surprise considering we’re reviewing a two-seater that measures less than four metres in length. If you don’t count the passenger seat, storage is limited to a leather ‘glovebox’ pouch, awkwardly positioned cupholder and stowage behind/between the seatbacks that’s accessed via a buckled leather flap. Love the coat hooks behind the headrests, though.
Getting into (and out of) the 4C is a bit of a clumsy affair, but once you’ve slid across the carbon tub’s large sill and ensconced in the red, leather-ribbed seats you find a classic, low-slung sports car driving position.
Taller drivers will want more adjustment of both steering wheel and seat, though it otherwise immediately puts you into a mindset of finding a good road.
En route, the urban ride is more comfortable than you expect, especially as our tester was equipped with the stiffer suspension, bigger wheels and racier rubber of the $12,000 Racing Package (plus Sports Racing exhaust).
While the ride is firm, it’s clear the super-stiff body has allowed Alfa’s engineers to dial in a decent degree of cushioning. The 4C doesn’t crash over potholes, and there’s enough pliancy that the suspension doesn’t become excessively fidgety or overly fatiguing over bumps.
Cambers and ruts are a different matter, however, because the 4C will tramline to its heart’s content, tugging left and right to keep the driver on their toes even at relatively low speeds.
There’s another reason you’ll need both hands on the steering wheel. In today’s world of electric power steering, the Alfa’s unassisted rack is unbelievably heavy. You’ll at least save on gym fees if looking to build your biceps.
On more open, flowing roads, the steering’s vague on-centre feel also becomes noticeable, shedding the pin-sharp accuracy that’s highly preferable for a quick sports car.
And as speeds climb, the 4C places even greater emphasis on driver attention. With the unwieldy steering, this is a car you manhandle through tight sections. For hairpins, I found myself moving my hands from the quarter-to-three position to both grabbing the opposing side of the steering wheel to help negotiate these tightest of corners.
The flat-bottom design of the steering wheel is a bit of a hindrance in this respect, mind you.
Yet, if the purpose of the sports car is to entertain, the 4C is a riot to drive (and about as noisy as one). The Alfa is a full-on assault on the senses, and it left me laughing after my first run.
The 4C’s optional tyres – 18s up front, 19s rear – offer an abundance of grip, lateral and vertical body movements are minor, the chassis feels lighter on its feet than the steering ever suggests, and the excellent brakes – while not having to haul up a car focused on lightness (it weighs just over a tonne) – are strong and easy to modulate via the large floor-hinged pedal. (The front brakes are four-piston Brembos.)
The throttle pedal is also organ style. Its relationship with the 177kW 1.7-litre four-cylinder turbo engine is by far at its best with Dynamic mode selected, with response somewhat dulled if you’ve selected either Natural or All-Weather from the DNA selector toggle. (There’s also a Race mode, which we would recommend for track driving only as it turns off stability and traction control.)
4C owners will all surely use the paddle levers during their weekend adventures. The levers don’t feel expensive, though importantly they’re attached to the steering wheel rather than steering column, and they swap the cogs of the six-speed dual-clutch auto with sufficient speed.
The auto is a bit of a grumbly thing in everyday driving, and shifts at lower speeds or on a light throttle can be rudely abrupt.
Maximum torque of 350Nm is delivered from 2200rpm (up to 4250rpm), though it’s not until revs have passed three-grand that the turbo is spooling up nicely to deliver some satisfyingly urgent in-gear pace.
It can sound faster than it actually is, with the whooshing and whistling turbo making quite the racket immediately behind your ears. Settle into a cruise and the acoustics aren’t much more refined, with a drone from the exhaust a near-constant presence.
If it’s not particularly characterful, it’s certainly dramatic – and amplified if you go targa style and remove the fabric roof, which stows in the little boot behind the engine but is fiddly to put back in place.
Use the Launch Control system and Alfa says the 4C Spider will run the 0–100km/h sprint in 4.5 seconds – the same as the Coupe version that’s only 10kg lighter.
And going fast is what the 4C does best, because it’s certainly not a car designed for commuting or cruising. You get cruise control, but there’s no integrated navigation, no armrest, and we couldn’t find a fuel-range indicator.
It would be useful, as drive the 4C like it needs to be driven and it won’t take long to drain its 40L tank, despite official consumption of a relatively frugal 6.9 litres per 100km. We had to make an emergency refill detour during the latter part of testing.
The 4C is an exhausting car to drive – and expensive to run with annual servicing costs ranging between $895 and $2495 – yet also capable of being exhilarating if you’re feeling committed.
It won’t deliver the nuanced handling you’ll get from a Porsche Boxster that is almost identical money compared with our extras-heavy 4C, or even the Alpine A110, but neither will give you the sensation that you’re driving or owning a cut-price piece of Italian exotica.
And in an era of emerging electric cars and a potential future of autonomous vehicles, let's be grateful cars like the Alfa Romeo 4C continue to exist.