YORKSHIRE, U.K. – A proven ability to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory is all part of Alfa Romeo’s romantic charm. With bodywork like red satin draped over a carbon fiber tub and the promise of a mid-engined, Italian exotic for Cayman money, the 4C was certainly a bold vehicle to relaunch the brand to the American market. Pebble Beach types could appreciate its inspiration in the gorgeous, minimalist Alfa Romeo coupes of the past. Everyone else could kid themselves it was basically a baby Ferrari, never mind the fact it only had 237 horsepower and a four-cylinder engine. At first blush, the 4C was a riot, and remains so in the Spider form it’s still sold in.
And it gets the blood pumping in the way a fling with an exotic Italian should, especially compared with the Germanic 50 shades of gray alternatives. I can remember the thrill at driving one back in 2014, its Italian license plates making it feel all the more exotic. It may only have cost $60,000, but it hogged attention like a Ferrari worth four times that. The fun didn’t last. As seductive as the fundamental formula was and still is, time and more measured eyes ultimately found the 4C to be lacking.
The ugly, fat-rimmed steering wheel turned out to be a useful visual metaphor for the feel it delivered, simultaneously under-geared and punishingly heavy, especially at low speeds. At higher ones the kickback was violent enough it needed quarter-turn corrections even traveling in a straight line. And the binary power delivery smothered whatever finesse there might have been in the chassis. Its on-limit handling, on track and in the wet, was spooky. Shocked, I called a friend with an old Exige and asked to drive his car along the same route. That I concluded you’d be better off with a 10-year-old Lotus definitely didn’t win me many friends in Milan.
Which begs the question: What does the apparently similar Alpine A110 do differently to have earned such overwhelming praise among the same reviewers here in Europe who damned the 4C? Performance stats are comparable, as is the Alpine’s pricing in markets in which it is sold. Both tap into the nostalgia and heritage of their respective brands, not least in the historic long-distance European road rallies both excelled in. Five years after writing the 4C off as a ‘nearly’ car, the chance to revisit it in the company of the Alpine throws some interesting new light on the 4C, and how the French car concocts a very different dish from seemingly similar ingredients.
On paper they look pretty similar, after all. The 4C has a mid-mounted, 1.7-liter four-cylinder turbo and a dual-clutch gearbox derived from a transverse front-wheel-drive installation in a regular mid-sized hatchback. The Alpine’s similar arrangement is motivated by a 1.8-liter that sends 249 horsepower through seven gears over the Alfa Romeo’s six. At launch Alfa Romeo claimed a sub-2,000-lb dry weight, while U.S. cars were closer to the 2,400 pounds of the Alpine. Performance stats are comparable, as is the Alpine’s pricing in markets where it is sold.
The Alpine’s real trick is creating a sense of surprising comfort and refinement without compromising on the purity and minimalism of its lightweight construction. Alfa Romeo drilled the 4C down to the pavement like a race car, contributing to its uncompromising behavior on the street. Money spent on that signature carbon fiber tub meant inevitable compromises elsewhere, not least the adapted front-wheel-drive suspension hardware where Alpine and Lotus use proper double-wishbone setups all round. And, again like Lotus, Alpine has backed off the spring rates, taking full advantage of the delicate curb weight to let it flow along canyon-style roads as well as it mooches on freeways.
This is typical of Alpine’s appreciation of how to express that lack of weight in advantages the driver feels, however hard they happen to be going. Take the steering. With so little rubber to act on the power, assistance is less intrusive than on a fat-tired equivalent, meaning genuine feel as the wheel gently ripples with the cambers, bumps and surface changes. It’s subtle enough that only those who appreciate such things will notice it, and it's enjoyable at all speeds. And while you’re not going to blow anyone’s socks off with straight-line acceleration in the way you might a 911 Turbo, the A110 always feels alert to the throttle, even with its heavily boosted power delivery. Because the springs aren’t needing to prop up a heavy body in the corners, they can run more travel to keep the tires connected to the road through bumps, rather than skipping over them as a more stiffly sprung rival might. Alpine’s trick is to make these qualities a virtue; Alfa Romeo, meanwhile, seemed to miss the same trick entirely, making the 4C harsh when it could have flowed like an A110 or Elise.
This becomes clear switching back to the 4C, and is writ large in the way it looks. Parked side-by-side, the Alpine looks like an SUV in comparison, the 4C every inch the junior Italian supercar it always promised to be. The exposed carbon fiber tub is a visual reminder of what’s underneath, the way the seats butt up to the bulkhead and the proximity to the motor behind making it feel genuinely more racer than street car. That sense is heightened by the visor-like window line, pitter patter of gravel on the floor and unfiltered connection to the powertrain’s every vibration. I’d forgotten just how ferocious this little car really is, returning from a short loop freshly impressed with just how hardcore Alfa Romeo went with this car. In this context, it’s easier to be kinder to the 4C’s legacy, its ability to pluck the heartstrings being an authentically Italian experience – foibles and all.
Alfa Romeos have always scored well emotionally, of course. And the Alpine isn’t far behind, feeling genuinely exotic but also as usable and undemanding in daily driving as an 718 Cayman. Which only makes it the more frustrating that Alpine's parent company Renault doesn’t see the worth in selling it beyond Europe, Japan and Australia.
Maybe on reflection it’s harsh to say the 4C failed. Perhaps we needed that rude and noisy awakening to jolt us out of our obsession with meaningless horsepower and pointless performance. Alpine deserves all the praise it gets for its more sophisticated twist on the formula. Both cars should be celebrated for proving there’s more to performance than big numbers alone, especially in the environments most of us get to actually drive.