2016 4C Spider New Car Test Drive
Alfa Romeo has been AWOL from the U.S. market for almost two decades, an absence that has produced anticipation and angst in equal measure among the Alfisti. With the arrival of the 4C, that long wait may appear to be at an end, and patience, for those who have actually managed to sustain it, is rewarded.
But an asterisk is required here, because America's Alfa drought will be over for only a few. A low-volume, hand-built sports car, the Alfa Romeo 4C represents a thimble of water when a deluge would be more appropriate. There won't be many of these cars, and it will be at least another year before other Alfas, better suited to a broader audience, begin arriving in any quantity.
Still, as a harbinger of Alfas to come, the 4C is a compelling ambassador. Fast, agile, and focused, it's the personification of the sports car ethos, a two-seat tiger that's as happy at an autocross as on the street. Happier, actually. Think small scale Ferrari, and you've got the essence. Plentiful power propelling a raceworthy chassis, packaged in sexy wrappings.
The classic definition of a sports car is a two-seater capable of acquitting itself well on a race track. But to be suitable for ordinary street use, the designers must make compromises aimed at comfort and practicality. The 4C makes fewer compromises than most. As an example, thanks to relatively modest curb weight (2465 pounds), the design team was able to refrain from power assistance for the steering. Suspension tuning conceived to minimize body roll and enhance directional changes will inevitably feel pretty stiff on gnarly pavement, while hard bushings and ultra-stiff structure conspire to transmit road noise into the cabin.
The manual steering effort isn't a real issue, but a creamy ride and quiet interior are simply not part of the package here. On the other hand, for the driver who wants a sports car that thrives on decreasing radius turns, aces autocross events, and is a solid contender for track day trophies, the 4C is as good as it gets. Think maximum partnership between car and driver, the automobile as an extension of the driver's will.
We mentioned hand-built, and that's no exaggeration. Fabricated at the Maserati workshops in Modena, Italy, the chassis is composed of carbon fiber, an expensive and time-consuming procedure that yields a chassis of exceptional rigidity. The engine, which resides behind the cockpit, is a stressed member of the chassis, a design approach called monocoque. Suspension elements are wishbones front, struts rear, and the braking system is robust with big vented discs at all four corners.
The chassis is clad in sheet molding compound (SMC), a synthetic composite, with an injected polymer material used for the fascias and rear spoiler. Windshield and side window glass are thinner by some 10 percent than conventional applications, one of many weight-saving measures.
As an aside, it's interesting to note that the U.S. version of the 4C is 342 pounds heavier than its European counterpart, a disparity that Alfa attributes to various U.S. regulations. Still, 2465 pounds is far from pudgy, and the thrust delivered by its 1750 cc four-cylinder turbo (237 horsepower, 258 pound-feet of torque) is more than sufficient to get the little Alfa off the line and down the street in a serious hurry. Alfa claims 0-to-60 in about 4.5 seconds, and after a day of driving California backroads, plus a session at the Sonoma Raceway road racing circuit, we have no reason to doubt that claim. Alfa also claims a top speed of 160 mph. No reason to doubt that, either.
While acceleration is always gratifying in a sports car, agility is at least as rewarding, if not more so. And in this trait, the 4C delivers a truly exceptional experience. Thanks to structural rigidity that rivals your average railroad trestle, the 4C's agility is on the order of a cheetah closing on an antelope at full speed. Alfa's philosophy identifies the driver as the completing element in the dynamic package, and the 4C's responses are so surgically precise and instantaneous that they seem almost to anticipate the intentions of the piloti.
Styling always speaks for itself, and the 4C's design speaks with a seductive Italian accent that's hard to ignore. Developed under the direction of Fiat Chrysler design chief Lorenzo Ramaciotti, a veteran of many years with Pininfarina, the 4C's wedgy shape and squat, muscular profile caused a sensation when it was unveiled at the Geneva auto show in 2011 as a concept. According to Ramaciotti, the design was inspired by the 1967 Alfa 33 Stradale, a mid-engine coupe created for racing and then civilized for the street. The 4C looks every bit as wicked, and given the progress in propulsion technology over the intervening half-century, is undoubtedly much faster.
All things considered, the 4C stacks up as an outstanding sports car for purists, with the bonus of Alfa Romeo heritage. It's a little too hard-edged to figure as an everyday ride, but will be a track day star. However, as noted, this is a limited production item. FCA (Fiat Chrysler Automobiles) will import only 1000 or so during a year. Better get your order in right now.
The 2015 Alfa Romeo 4C ($53,900) comes standard with air conditioning, fabric upholstery, four-speaker AM/FM audio system with USB and SD connectivity, iPod, Bluetooth, and music streaming, 12-volt power outlet, cupholders. Options include a leather package and a convenience package with premium audio, cruise control, security alarm, and rear park assist.
An initial Launch Edition ($68,400) offers special paint choices; bi-xenon headlamps with LED daytime running lights; carbon fiber rear spoiler and mirror caps; aluminum rear diffuser; stiffer suspension tuning; racing exhaust; bigger wheels and tires; red-laquered brke calipers; black microfiber sport seat upholstery; red or white accent stitching; launch edition plaques. As a limited run of 500 cars it's almost certain to become a collectible.