I met the Alfa Romeo 4C with mixed feelings. For certain, I was excited to drive the exclusive little Alfa; just look at how gorgeous it is. But I wasn't sure what frame of reference was most appropriate for evaluating it. There isn't much like it on the road. It's priced to compete with the likes of the Porsche Cayman, but it looks like it should be going wheel-to-wheel with a McLaren 650S. But to which class does the 4C belong?
To find out, I (awkwardly) climbed into the driver's seat and disappeared over a long weekend with the gorgeous and rare Alfa. What I learned is that the 4C is the missing link between the two classes with the head-turning looks, single-minded design, and all of the impracticalities of a supercar, but with a driving character and performance that's as accessible and rewarding as my favorite sports models.
The 4C is uncompromisingly designed for the business of a thrilling drive and equally thrilling look. This single-mindedness means that there is a mountain of compromises where daily driving is concerned. However, to my enthusiast's eye, these compromises are easily remedied.
Space is at a premium in the compact 4C. The two-seater configuration only leaves room to share your driving enjoyment with one passenger, and the small trunk behind the engine compartment -- there's no front trunk, like you'd think -- has space for only one carry-on size bag; so you won't be taking much wherever you head. You've nowhere to safely stow a phone while driving as there isn't a proper glove compartment -- only a thin leather pouch beneath the dashboard - and the cup holders are too small to even fit a drink. Beverages, gloves, phones, and luggage would only weigh the 4C down; leave them at home.
To call the 4C "low slung" is an understatement; you'll be sitting at road level. Entrance and egress are complicated by the extra wide door sill that you'll have to step over and into. One doesn't just enter the little coupe; it's more like sliding into a pair of exotic carbon-fiber sports trousers. Needless to say, your first few times getting in or out of the Alfa Romeo 4C will be embarrassingly awkward and clumsy affairs. And as my driving companion learned, retaining your dignity while getting out of the 4C in a dress or skirt is almost out of the question. My solution: get into the Alfa Romeo 4C once and then never get out again. Trust me, you won't want to.
Rearward and over-the-shoulder visibility is nil. You get a pretty good view of the engine cover in the center mirror, but not much of the road behind you. That said, I didn't have very much trouble negotiating tight spots and traffic in the compact 4C. One of the benefits of the car being so small is that there's not much of a blind spot because there's not much car behind you. Alfa has thoughtfully included rear parking sensors that beep when you approach an obstruction while reversing to keep you from damaging the exotic bodywork, but the lack of a rear camera is a gross safety and convenience omission. Rearward visibility is less of an issue on a closed circuit, so always drive the 4C on a racetrack. Another problem solved.
Perched at the center of the dashboard is the familiar, which serves as the infotainment hub for the Alfa. This is a quirky little single-DIN unit that I reviewed back in 2012. You can check out my full review to learn about the an assortment of Android apps that can be installed to enable navigation, audio streaming and more, but none of this matters because the four-speaker setup (two tweeters and two midrange drivers) is impossible to hear when the 4C is moving. To keep weight down, the Alfa uses very little (if any) sound deadening and very thin glass for the windows. This means you'll be getting lots of road, wind and engine noise even at moderate speeds, and the afterthought of an audio setup is woefully inadequate in the face of the 4C's cacophonous ride. My solution: Turn off the radio and listen to the engine over your shoulder along with the whoosh and whistle of the turbo instead. In fact, just remove the stereo and speakers for weight savings.
No, the 4C is not a good daily driver; it's a special occasion car and a showpiece. The coupe is good for only one thing: driving fast.
Exotic looks, exotic chassis
It's fun to crack wise about the 4C's impracticality, but at the end of the day, it is probably the most gorgeous car I'll ever have the pleasure of driving.
The little red coupe flaunts a sexy Italian design with curves that rival those of a Ferrari. The proportions remind me of the Lancia Stratos, and I even managed to get a thumbs-up from a rubbernecking gentleman in a Maserati Gran Turismo. Actually, for better or worse, the 4C turned heads and thumbs everywhere it went. To my horror, I'd catch other drivers in traffic taking cameraphone shots of the car. Funny old guys with funny mustaches stopped me to chat about "Alfa Romeo's triumphant return to the US." Most annoyingly, every dude in a lightly modded Accord V6 wanted to have a go at outrunning the Alfa. If you're the kind of person who's made uncomfortable by a lot of attention, this isn't the car for you.
Behind the beautiful form is purpose and function. The chassis is a lightweight carbon-fiber monocoque that tips the scales at a scant 236 pounds before the engine, suspension, and other support systems are added. Here and there, exposed in the door jamb and behind the seats, you'll see the bare carbon weave exposed. This lightweight and stiff structure gives the suspension (double wishbone up front and multilink in the rear) an excellent platform to work from.
The short body is shaped around a mid-engine configuration which puts the powerplant behind the passenger compartment, but still ahead of the rear wheels. This allows the engine to be showcased under the rear glass, but also gives the car a very neutral weight distribution. The wide and low stance looks race-car cool but also keeps the center of gravity low.
It's no surprise that the 4C's ride is stiff, but with such a good platform it's not punishing (unless you hit a pothole; you'll want to dodge those). The 4C is both predictable and joyful when swaying back and forth between apexes on my favorite mountainous testing grounds. With my rear just inches above the tarmac, it's also no surprise that the 4C boasts some of the best seat-of-the-pants road feel that I've experienced in a long time. You'll feel every pebble on the road, every change in the pavement's camber, every adjustment of the car's attitude as you rotate through a turn. And you'll be able to react to those changes quickly and deftly.
Interestingly, the Alfa Romeo 4C is a modern car that features absolutely no power steering. It's been a very long time since I've driven a road car with an unassisted steering rack, so this was weird at first but quite natural once I got going. The wheel can feel pretty sluggish at parking-lot speeds and requires a lot of muscle to turn when stopped -- one more reason why parallel parking the 4C is a chore. However, the effort lightens significantly once the speed picks up. With no electrics or hydraulics between your fingertips and the front wheels, the 4C offers a very direct steering feel -- sometime verging on too much feedback -- with a predictable weight and almost telepathic responsiveness. If you've got the upper-body strength, this is clearly a case of less tech being a more engaging drive.
Sports car feel, performance
With such an exotic chassis, you'd expect that the 4C is powered by an equally exotic dozen-odd-cylindered engine, but the actual specs may surprise you.
The Alfa is powered by a compact 1.75-liter turbocharged and intercooled four-cylinder engine. Power is stated at 237 ponies and torque at 258 pound-feet. Naturally, the engine's construction is all aluminum to keep weight down. The mill is mated to a six-speed, twin-clutch automatic transaxle sending power to the rear wheels. Sorry, purists: no manual transmission is available.
The dual-clutch transmission isn't the best gearbox for traffic or daily driving, where it can be a bit jerky and stuttery, but the shifts are sharp and lightning-quick when the pace quickens. The gearing was a tad tall for my favorite back roads -- I often found myself wishing second gear was a bit taller or third a bit shorter - but I figure this car was tuned for the higher speeds of a race track. The driver selects forward, reverse, or neutral, and toggle automatic or manual shifting with a bank of buttons on the center tunnel and can manually choose gears with standard paddle shifters.
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A metal lever near the transmission's buttons enable the driver to toggle between the 4C's DNA driving modes. Dynamic is the sportiest mode, with the most aggressive automatic transmission program. Natural is the base setting. All weather is for slippery conditions, such as rain or snow. Continue to hold the lever in the Dynamic position to activate a hidden Race mode, which is the most hardcore setting and activate launch control for aggressive off-the-line acceleration.
The 4C's power isn't overwhelming, but the sound of the engine is. The 4C's doesn't sound like your typical four-banger. Mostly it is that the engine is perched over one shoulder and its intake is breathing over the other, but the 4C's 1.75-liter turbo is louder at a cruising 2,000rpm than the recently tested Volkswagen GTI's 2.0 turbo at full bore. It's fantastically dramatic in every way. The whoosh of the turbocharger is complemented by the deep burble of the sport-tuned exhaust.
There's more than enough torque to get the 2,465 pound 4C moving at a good clip off of the line. (Note: At 2,153 pounds, the base European 4C is lighter due to less standard content and looser safety standards.) Zero to 60 mph happens in a claimed 4.1 seconds under launch control, but I was too busy laughing maniacally to confirm.
Once under way, the coupe manages its speed well; its lightweight chassis and well sorted suspension allow it to carry a good deal of velocity through each turn with a smooth surge of power past the apex, rather than relying on brute force at the exit. I find this neutral driving character a more natural and easy way to go fast, since I didn't have to constantly correct for under- or oversteer caused by dramatic weight transfer.
The 4C is often placed in comparison with the mid-engined Porsche Cayman, but I was reminded most of my time behind the wheel of the Lotus Elise. The 4C rides like a slightly wider and more powerful version of the even more diminutive Lotus. However, with a wider track and a similar bantamweight bulk, the Alfa feels no less nimble.
The missing link
I love that this car exists. The Alfa Romeo 4C is an excellent expression of my favorite class of vehicle: the compact sports car. The engine, its noise, and the power delivery are good, but what I enjoyed most was the way that engine worked with the excellent chassis to create a driving experience that is both novel and dramatic, but also extremely neutral, natural, and -- most importantly -- pure. If you've ever driven and liked a Lotus Elise, Porsche Cayman or even a Mazda Miata, you'll love the 4C.
The 4C stands out to me because its chassis and design are so exotic, but from the driver's seat it is quite accessible. In many ways, the little red Alfa feels like the missing link between exotic supercars and attainable sports cars.
Speaking of attainable, the 4C is also significantly less expensive than I expected it to be. The 2015 Alfa Romeo 4C starts at $53,900 with our performance-enhanced Launch Edition rolling off of the lot at $68,400. That's not cheap, but this is a car that looks like it should cost twice that. In the UK, you're looking at a starting price of about £45,000, while Australians can expect an AU$80,000 price tag later this year.