Driven: 2015 Alfa Romeo 4C
By Bradley Iger
September 19, 2014
Automotive luminary and Top Gear host Jeremy Clarkson once proclaimed that in order to be considered a bonafide gearhead, one must own or have owned an Alfa Romeo at some point in his or her life. This was formerly a distressing prospect to those of us in the United States that were born after, say, 1970, as Alfa Romeo packed up and left the American market altogether in 1996, giving those without the masochistic urge to pick a second hand 164 little recourse to meet Clarkson’s decree outside of the handful of $250,000 8C Competiziones that made it to the US in the 2008. But this year that all changes, as the 4C serves as the opening battle cry of the Italian automaker’s charge back into the American market with cars that people with typical incomes might be able to afford, putting this otherwise almost unattainable commandment of the gearhead ethos suddenly within reach. The question now is whether or not it’s a prospect worth seriously considering, so with keys in hand, we set out to determine just what Jezza was on about.
What’s the idea behind the Alfa Romeo 4C?
The 4C is a two-seat, mid-engined sports car designed to go up against cars like the Porsche Cayman and Lotus Elise. Utilizing a carbon fiber tub and an aluminum frame and engine cradle, the 4C weighs under 2000 pounds in European specification and just under 2500 in US-spec, due to about 100lbs of additional carbon fiber reinforcement along with side-impact airbags and added standard equipment. Despite the extra features included to appease American customers, once you’ve spent any time in the 4C, any notion you might have had that this might be a soft-edged and compromised sports car will go right out the window. Truth be told, those looking for a suitable two-seater for all their daily driving duties might want to inquire elsewhere, as there’s no mistaking the fact that the 4C was designed to be driven mercilessly down a twisty strip of tarmac, and any other usefulness it offers is largely serendipitous.
How does the 4C handle?
In an era dominated by the generally over-boosted and numb steering, a trend which is only bolstered by the onset of electronically-assisted power steering, the fact that the 4C’s steering utilizes no assistance whatsoever is a flat-out gleeful discovery. While getting into and out of parking spaces might require more effort that most drivers are used to, once the car is out on the road and up to speed, the level of communication through the steering wheel, as well as one’s ability to put the car exactly where you want it on the road and make precise, informed corrections when necessary is an absolute revelation.
“Go-kart like” is a phrase Mini likes use to describe the Cooper, and while that’s something of a subjective matter for that vehicle, it’s wholly apt with the Alfa. With so little girth to contend with, the 4C offers near-instantaneous reactions to steering inputs and is willing to dart to and fro with utter tenacity, with turn-in that’s devoid of body roll. With the engine sitting behind you (along with most of the rest of the car), it’s no surprise that the resulting weight distribution is 38% on the front and 62% at the rear, though the 4C remains thoroughly tossable without giving constant cause for concern as to whether or not the ends of the car are going to suddenly switch positions at speed.
The 4C is fitted with Brembo four-piston calipers up front and two piston units in the rear. Braking is extremely linear in operation, and the system has a firm pedal feel along with an incredibly minimal amount of pedal travel that further enhances the connected feeling that starts at the steering wheel.
How does the drivetrain perform?
While the steering and braking might find their virtues from old-fashioned simplicity, the drivetrain is an entirely different - and thoroughly modern - affair. Much to the chagrin of three-pedal proponents, the 4C will not be offered with a manual transmission, and instead comes equipped with a six-speed dual-clutch gearbox with paddle shifters. Despite some needed low-speed refinement, this transmission works very well when driven spiritedly, with fast upshifts and co-operative downshifting with the paddles, though we did note that unless the gearbox set to full-manual mode (a setting which has its own bespoke button on the center console), the system is far too eager to take back the reins and return the gearbox to a less urgent cog, even when the car’s driving mode set to Dynamic. Interestingly, Track mode, the most aggressive driving setting, disables automatic shifting altogether.
The exclusion of a manual gearbox makes more sense when seen through the context of the powerplant that Alfa Romeo chose for the 4C – a turbocharged 1.7-liter inline four cylinder motor, which outputs 237 horsepower and 258 lb-ft of torque. That may not sound like a massive amount of grunt, but since it doesn't have much weight to lug around, the 4C is capable of hitting 60mph in a scant 4.4 seconds. That is undoubtedly good news, and the 4C is certainly not lacking for power.
However, the issue we came across arises from the fact that the power comes on very hard and in a fairly sudden fashion when the boost kicks in, and if it happens at a less-than-ideal moment, it can be enough to unsettle the car. Due to this behavior we found ourselves subconsciously always trying to keep the motor on boost when driving the car hard, and dips into the throttle when mulling around in traffic often resulted in sudden surges of speed that weren’t always easy to predict, making the car feel lethargic one moment and nervous the next. We imagine that this effect would only be exaggerated if we had the ability to row our own gears.
How comfortable is the 4C?
Often times when designing an honest sports car in which light weight is one of the highest priorities, comfort is one of the main tradeoffs, and the 4C does not escape that paradigm. At freeway speeds, both wind and road noise are loud enough to require raising one’s voice to carry on a conversation, and the ride feels quite busy at low speeds, though we found ourselves less bothered by it than expected, perhaps due to how rigid the car feels as a whole.
Rear visibility in the 4C is laughable, quite frankly, and with an infotainment system that presents itself as a sheer afterthought with no option to add a rear-view camera, much of the driving which required knowing what was behind us had to be taken on faith and knowledge procured in ways other than looking out the envelope-sized rear window. With a car of such diminutive dimensions, the side mirrors can often get the job done, but there are also undoubtedly many instances in traffic in which they do not.
As sports car enthusiasts, it’s rare that we get behind the wheel of such a rewarding car to drive but are left with the overwhelming sense that it just wouldn’t really work as a primary vehicle, but there’s a number of design elements in the 4C that work directly against daily drivability – even for a sports car. For instance, there is no place designed to rest your arms anywhere inside the car (although they did see fit to include two cup holders). Additionally, not only does the interior of the 4C lack any real storage (including a glove box), the only storage that is available is only accessible through the engine hatch – the front of the car is not a trunk. Moreover, when getting to that ice-chest sized storage area, we noticed that instead of using struts to support the engine hatch, a metal arm must be hooked to a loop on the door while the surprisingly hefty hatch is being held up.
This doesn’t seem like much of an issue until you attempt to put something you’re holding in the trunk, requiring you to either set whatever it is on the ground or attempt to wrangle things into place while holding whatever you have in your hands. That might come off like a trivial gripe, but if this is your primary mode of transport, these are the kinds of things that will begin to become more grating over time.
How are the design, materials, and fit when you see the car in person?
Few other cars in this price range can command the level of attention that the 4C gets around town. With the exception of the bright orange SRT Viper TA we drove earlier this year, no other car has turned heads quite like the Alfa. Crowds gathered around it. It certainly looks the business, and does so for much less coin than its exterior presentation might imply.
Inside, the narrative is a bit less outlandish but nonetheless looks the part. The exposed carbon fiber tub, flat-bottom steering wheel, LCD gauge cluster, and aircraft-style toggle switches all make this car feel convincingly special. At the same time, elements like the barely-functional stereo system and the annoyingly loud (and long in duration) seat belt warning chime seem like the glaring oversights of a rushed product. With a design focused so keenly on minimalism, these issues have a tendency to detract from the overall experience more than they should, but the fact of the matter is that they are there and it’s likely that the car would benefit substantially from some subtle refinement.
After a few days with the car, your author proclaimed that he was getting “the full Alfa experience”. The 4C offers some of the most rewarding driving we’ve had at any price, but it may come at the cost of some of your sanity. If you’re considering the 4C as a weekend toy, or you’re simply willing to tolerate its foibles and don’t mind the lack of a third pedal, the 4C makes for an incredible sports car that reminds us why we all miss communicative steering and low curb weight. But then again, the Alfa also makes a C7 Corvette seem practical, which is both amusing and frightening simultaneously – and probably exactly what Clarkson was getting at.
2015 Alfa Romeo 4C
Price: $53,900 (base) / $60,195 (as tested)
Engine: 1.7-liter, turbocharged and direct-injected inline four cylinder
Output: 237 horsepower / 258 lb-ft of torque
0-60 mph: 4.4 seconds (with launch control)
Fuel Economy: 24 city / 34 hwy / 28 combined
On Sale: Fall 2014