Less roof, more awesome: On the road and track in the Alfa Romeo 4C Spider

Starting at $63,900

To say the Alfa Romeo 4C is an impractical car is an understatement. But it's also a remarkable car that justifies every bit of inconvenience with thrilling looks and sharp performance. The 2015 Alfa Romeo 4C Spider features a removable fabric top that makes it even more impractical, but somehow that just makes it even better. How's that for Italian exotic logic?

The standard 4C chassis is already quite stiff thanks to its carbon fiber monocoque construction, so the Spider didn't need to add a bunch of braces to retain its rigidity for its topless transition. At 2,487 pounds (1,128kg), the Spider is only 22 pounds heavier than its fixed roof sibling.

The Spider visually and structurally distinguishes itself from the coupe with a carbon fiber windshield frame, and a carbon fiber rear halo that forms a roll hoop over the passenger compartment. The interior features much more carbon fiber trim and standard leather upholstery. The Spider also hides its engine under a ventilated body panel instead of the coupe's glass greenhouse.

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The Spider covers its engine rather than display it under glass. Antuan Goodwin/CNET

The engine in question is the same 1.75-liter turbocharged four-cylinder mounted amidships and mated to a six-speed dual-clutch semi-automatic transmission. Power and torque, stated at 237 ponies and 258 pound-feet, is put to the rear wheels.

The negligible change in mass means that the Spider's performance estimates don't change when compared to the Coupe. Zero to 60 mph still happens in 4.1 seconds and the top speed is still a lofty 160 mph.

Removing the fabric top is as easy as undoing a pair of fasteners at the top of the windshield and then pulling a pair of latches above the windows. The lightweight fabric panel and its solid rails then fold up into a soft bag in the trunk. Once there, the roof takes up pretty much all of the 4C's meager storage, so don't plan on bringing more than a very small bag on any trip.

Because of the way the fabric roof tucks under a lip in the windshield frame, the Alfa is capable of hitting its top speed of 160 mph with the fabric top in place. Alfa Romeo will also offer an optional carbon fiber panel to be used in place of the fabric, but there's almost certainly no way you're fitting that into the trunk.

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The 4C Spider looks as good with the top on as it does topless. Antuan Goodwin/CNET

Perhaps one of the best upgrades that the 2015 4C Spider gets over the coupe I tested earlier this year is the new Alpine CDE-HD149BT single-DIN CD receiver that replaces the almost universally hated Parrot Asteroid unit. Alfa tells me that this change is in response to feedback from customers, that the new stereo is easier to use with better audio quality, and that it doesn't really matter because the stereo isn't a big selling point with its customers anyway.

After spending a day listening to the Spider's new, more refined exhaust note, I'm inclined to agree that the stereo doesn't matter.

The Alfa isn't available with a manual transmission, but it comes standard with "manual" steering. That's right, there's no power steering. With nothing between my fingertip and the pavement save the 4C's communicative steering rack, the Spider gives excellent road feel that borders on too good. The little Italian has a tendency to follow the ruts and contours of the road rather too slavishly, which can make the car feel a bit unstable.

Personally, I rather like the direct feel of the Alfa's handling. It makes the car feel alive in my grip. This isn't the sort of vehicle that you can drive with one hand. You need both hands on the wheel at all times, which is probably best anyway seeing as the 4C totally lacks armrests.

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The new Alpine receiver is only noteworthy because it's better than the old Parrot unit. Antuan Goodwin/CNET

I spent a bit of time comparing notes with my co-driver trying to figure out whether the Spider's suspension has been retuned for a smoother ride. Ultimately, I reckoned that the roads on that particular stretch of the Pacific Coast highway were just in better condition than those around my San Francisco home base. The ride is stiff, but not punishingly so. The Alfa is comfortable enough that I felt like I could dance back and forth around the bends of the PCH all day, enjoying the buzz of the turbocharged engine, the responsive but supple handling, and the thrust of acceleration when the time came to pass one of the dozens of Camaro convertibles full of tourists.

Many miles later, I found myself behind the wheel of the 4C Spider in the pit lane of Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca. I've got at least 200 laps around this circuit under my belt, but I'd never tackled the course in a mid-engined car. Pulling out of the pit, I was able to experience the 4C's acceleration, which is noteworthy for its linear power delivery and exotic sound. The 4C Spider will be available with a dual-mode sport exhaust that gets louder at the touch of a button, but I can't imagine that it sounds much better than the dual fixed pipes fitted to my example.

My laps were taken with the DNA drive mode selector in its Dynamic mode (I was forbidden to test the aggressive Race mode) and the six-speed dual-clutch gearbox in its Manual shifting mode. Paddle-slapped upshifts and downshifts initiate immediately, the transmission changes ratios quickly and crisply. However, I didn't have to do much shifting. Like most cars in this power range, the 4C can pretty much tackle the entire course in third or fourth gear with a downshift to second in preparation for the long front straight.

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Both on the road and on the track, the 4C Spider felt nervous and alive in my hands. Antuan Goodwin/CNET

The low-slung center of mass and point-and-shoot steering combine to reward the driver with almost telepathically responsive handling. Meanwhile, the easily rotated mid-engined chassis combined with the 4C's "lively" steering translates into a slight squirreliness on the track. The 4C exists in a weird state of being fairly easy to drive and a challenge to master.

Braking hard for the Turn 5 left-hander -- typically an easy bend in a car like the Subaru BRZ -- the 4C's rear end starts to feel a bit light and the carbon fiber chassis sort of shimmies underneath me. It's nothing so dramatic that I needed a huge amount of steering input; just a bit of attentiveness, a minor correction and a lot of bun clenching.

Through Turn 6, my favorite turn of the track, the Alfa squatted on its suspension and slingshotted through the banked bend like it was anchored to the apex. Through most corners, the 4C feels planted, but it never really feels stable. The Italian is always on its toes and ready for the next input through the wheel or the pedal. It feels nervous, like it's as amped-up on adrenaline as its driver.

Whether on road or track, the 4C is an impractical, emotional car and the open-air Spider is even more so. The 2015 Alfa Romeo 4C Spider starts at $63,900 -- about $10,000 more than the fixed-roof variant. The red example I was able to test with its Rosso Alfa paint, convenience package, silver wheels, xenon headlamps and other options roll out at an as-tested $72,695. In the UK the Spider starts at £59,500. Australian pricing is yet to be announced, but the 4C Couple starts at AU$89,000.

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