Alfa Romeo had chosen a suitably hip venue in which to showcase the coupe that will mark the brand's honest-to-God return to the US market - a graffiti-festooned warehouse housing a boutique furniture company in San Francisco's Mission District. The curvilinear sports car proved a lovely stylistic counterpoint to its concrete and metal backdrop while feeling perfectly synced with the eye-watering square-footage prices of the environs. Where the young, rich, beautiful people gather, the 2015 Alfa Romeo 4C will be a star.
And wherever they drive, expect things to get pretty loud. No sooner had I doubled over, dropped into the driver's seat, and fired to life the Alfa's utterly raucous little 1.7-liter engine, did the 'symphony' of the 4C begin. An introductory note of an inevitable chin scrape as I pulled out of the hipster parking lot and into the street was quickly followed by the uncivilized racket of the engine warming up, with only wafer-thin glass to filter the hubbub just behind my head. At a cold idle, the sound isn't unlike what I'd imagine it would be like to live inside of a Volkswagen TDI engine bay.
Thankfully, as traffic cleared and The City's streets turned swiftly into undulating coastal roads, the experiential delta between heartthrob looks and project-car manners started to shrink. Unlike the last Alfas to be sold en masse on our shores, this is no beautiful boulevardier. What the 4C is, however, is hot hell's own driver's car.
Last year, newly minted Infiniti PR maestro (and former Autoblog European editor) Matt Davis had the cheek to call the 4C a "baby 458." That's an awfully powerful endorsement for a $55k featherweight rocking a mid-mounted turbo four, but the setting of the bar so high wasn't without just cause. Despite gaining a few hundred pounds worth of thicker carbon fiber, heavier US-spec airbags, standard AC and audio equipment and the like, the handsome Alfa coupe really does live up to its Italian sports car roots.
On public backroads, the Alfa is nothing short of a scalpel.
With respect to the punchy engine, it's that carbon fiber tub that really sets the stage for this coupe to handle and perform so brilliantly. Added weight noted, let us pause for a moment to note that the 4C still tips the scales at an improbable 2,465 pounds. That number makes it about 50 pounds lighter than a soft-top Mazda MX-5 Miata, more than 400 lbs down on a Porsche Cayman and a tremendous 600 lbs below the awesome (non-supercharged) Lotus Evora. It's light enough that my driving experience – at roughly 235 lbs – may be significantly different than someone closer to an average size and weight. That both blows my mind and makes me want to cut out carbs.
The CF superstructure, bookended with aluminum subframes front and rear, also allows the 4C to be exceptionally stiff and flex-free when flung with increasing madness along California's golden coast. Taking "the long way" from downtown Frisco to Sonoma Raceway (called Infineon in a previous life, and still referred to as Sears Point by the graybeards in our group), means mile after mile of mountainous, coastal switchbacks connected by graceful lengths of wide-open two-lane blacktop. Save for the Italian Alps, it's pretty much the place in which the Alfa feels most at home. Carving precise lines from corner to corner was a matter of course with the 4C, its impressive underpinnings deleting any hint of roll and its brief, 93.7-inch wheelbase allowing for terse changes of direction.
Despite enough space between Prius drivers and work vans to take many of the Highway 1 corners with speed, I can't say that I was ever able to upset the rear end of the 41/59-weight-split 4C. The wide tarmac and soft-looking runoffs of the racetrack gave me enough confidence (eventually) to find the grip limits of the piquant coupe – as well as a dose of throttle-off oversteer if you're silly enough to lift when you shouldn't – but on public backroads, the Alfa is nothing short of a scalpel.
The 4C has the best-judged steering for the enthusiast driver this side of an F1 car.
It must be said, too, that the desire to toss the 4C from bend to bend is enflamed by its throwback, no-power-assist, 15.7:1-ratioed steering. Back in San Francisco, the unassisted steering would doubtless become thorny – and quick – for anyone that didn't practice regular upper-body resistance training. This isn't a car setup to cosset the stylish-coupe driver with the demands of an urban/suburban driving route. In stark contrast to ever more livable models from Porsche and the Chevrolet Corvette, for instance, the 4C seems to turn up its shield-emblazoned nose at compromise for comfort. The upside is a steering experience that's jaw dropping for those who care about things like tactility and weight mid-corner, while still avoiding the almost too-chatty character of things like Elise and Evora.
In short, the 4C has the best-judged steering for the enthusiast driver this side of an F1 car. It's f------ brilliant.
The power unit amidships is a pretty entertaining thing as well. Afla keeps calling the direct-injection, turbocharged four-cylinder a "1.75-liter" engine, but the truth is that it displaces 1,742cc. Normally those 42cc of cylinder would get rounded out to 1.7-liters, but Alfa claims a history of 1.75L engines is powerful enough to keep the tradition going... fine. The important bit is the way the engine delivers its 237 horsepower and 258 pound-feet of torque, anyway, not its exact displacement.
Alfa claims a 0 to 60 sprint of 4.4 seconds, which feels very accurate.
With the single-turbo engine making its peak power at a fairly high 6,000 rpm, and its max torque starting at 2,200 rpm, the accelerative experience is slightly more linear than most current turbo engines I've driven. Lag isn't a particular issue for the 4C, as the quick-spinning four is up to speed in almost no time at all when given a solid bootful of accelerator. Alfa claims a 0 to 60 sprint of 4.4 seconds, which feels very accurate. (The 4C also offers launch control when its DNA drive mode has been toggled into Race, making a real, mid-four-second starting sprint very doable.) The ample torque also allows for excellent response at speeds over 60 miles per hour, an area in which other, higher-strung small displacement engines don't always shine.
Back in the city, the clatter of this direct-injected mill was rather grinding, as I mentioned, but out on the open road (or on the track) and fitted with the optional racing exhaust ($500), the 4C sounds like a thoroughbred. At least from the outside. Listening to cars start, run, accelerate and downshift out at Sonoma was enough to raise the hairs on my arms at some points; so stirring was the deep, Italianate resonance of their exhausts. And, to be fair, the overall sonic vibe was pretty stirring when I was behind the wheel of one, as well. Still, the audio experience when doing something as mundane as highway driving could be charitably described as "droning."
The six-speed dual-clutch transmission has a similar kind of bipolarity. Yes, I found the trans remarkably adept at snapping off every shift I asked for as I caned the Alfa up and down the hills of the racetrack, and have no complaints about the quickness with which it executes on its own when left in automatic modes. But the compact packaging of the pushbutton gear selector wasn't enough to make up for its clunkiness in mundane operations like, say, finding reverse. The buttons take a solid depression before they'll activate the desired gear (probably by design) and even then the response time seems glacial compared with a traditional shift lever. I'll admit that I've always loathed button-activated transmissions, and this Alfa setup does squat for changing my mind on the subject.
I've always loathed button-activated transmissions, and this Alfa setup does squat for changing my mind on the subject.
There's no question that the small confines of the 4C cabin are also a compromise to the kind of motive comfort we all now expect, but I was ecstatic to find that there's more than enough room in the driver's chair for a big Dutchman like me. (There was a lot of chatter among the Autoblog staff about whether or not my six-foot, five-inch frame would find a home in the slinky Alfa... haters all of them.) With an inch more headroom (38 inches) than is offered by a hardtop-raised Mazda Miata, not only could I swing in and out of the 4C cabin with relative ease (see video below), I could even wear a helmet while doing so. The only issue my above-average height posed for driving was my ability to see the top 10-percent of the central, digital speedometer and information display (which is pretty small, really), and a reduction in visibility from a low roof.
The story from the passenger side is totally different. Infringed upon by the hugely wide carbon-fiber sill on my right and a super-low dashboard above, it was all I could do to straighten my legs and hang on tightly while I rode shotgun. The posture that I (and any larger person) had to adopt to even fit in the right chair, was roughly analogous to that of a woman who's just discovered her skirt is way too short and tight while sitting down to a dinner in a public place. Ladies, beware your clothing choices when faced with a ride in a 4C; egress in anything but pants or a maxi dress is best performed in a concealed spot. I'll say no more.
The 4C will never win with numbers crunchers.
None of that, nor the slightly underwhelming cabin decorations, would keep me from owning this Alfa, I should add. It's just too good a steer and too stunning to look at for me to summon up the effort to care about mildly unsatisfactory in-cabin plastics. The heart wants what the heart wants.
And that axiom basically holds true for the 4C value proposition as a whole. I'd stake my bottom dollar on the fact that, with one glance at the $65,945 as-tested price and the 237-hp output, some Autoblog reader is going to sound off, "that's Corvette money!" They will, of course, be correct and be utterly missing the point all at the same time. The mid-sixties pricing that Alfa Romeo believes the 4C will sell at, will of course buy any manner of sports car that is 'better' than this Italian coupe in some regard. Clearly cars like the BMW M4, or Porsche Cayman S, or Jaguar F-Type Coupe or the beloved C7 offer advantages of power, practicality, price, poshness or some combination therein. The 4C will never win with numbers crunchers.
It will win with those that want something pure, complex and beautiful, however. Drivers who value handling and touch more than top-speed figures and rank in the horsepower wars. At just 500 units, the Launch Edition of the 4C – and its all-options-in $69,695-price tag – will also help seduce those buyers seeking something rare, and possibly iconic, depending on how well Alfa's larger American resurrection plan takes hold. For those of particular, discerning and idiosyncratic driving tastes, this car and its impressive subdermal technology will be a bargain. Everyone else will unblinkingly buy the 'Vette.
It will win with those that want something pure, complex and beautiful.
As my first downtown stint behind the wheel proved, the 4C is not a car that will suit as a daily driver for anyone but the deeply masochistic. Yet driving it as intended is so magical – perhaps even improved thanks to the character of its most obvious flaws – that I think it deserves a rank among the very best sports cars one can buy today. Welcome back to the neighborhood, Alfa; now, show us more like this one, please.