Italians always notice a unique something about a car. Kids to grandmothers turn, point, and make comments. Seeing as the car this day was the new Alfa Romeo 4C coupe, they had every good excuse to come gather round whenever I stopped to pose in some piazza.
The 4C (pronounced “kwah-troh chee” by the locals) is flat-out stunning. The only aesthetic tidbit that doesn’t excite me on the outside is the front light design borrowed from spider eyes.
The big return of Alfa Romeo to the United States has been planned, rumored, and cancelled a multitude of times since the buzzing started around 2005. In this latest case, we were all given to believe that the 4C was the official relaunch on American soil of the sporty brand and was due to arrive here by the end of 2013. Well, that has now been revised out a bit to give the 4C a landing date of May 2014.
The bigger question: Is depending on the limited-production impractical (albeit fantastic) 4C for the relaunch into American heartstrings really smart? How long do we have to wait then for a higher volume sedan to rival BMW? If the answer, as I suspect, is three or more years, then I can just wish Alfa lots of luck.
But the 4C is a tough thing with a clear purpose. Cash-bleeding Alfa Romeo cannot even dream of a global 3- or 5-Series BMW fighter that we all take seriously. So, what do they do? A really tight and well-arranged sports car sexy enough to turn heads, even in mother Italy. The 4C is dynamically just about 100 percent more interesting than the hot mess Alfa called the 8C Competizione. The engine here is in the right place – right behind the passenger cabin – and thus natural balance is in the 4C’s game. Weight distribution fore/aft is at 40/60 percent, so we’ve got a legit rear-drive funhouse on our hands.
There will be many North Americans who will beat up the Alfa 4C when it arrives because it only has 237 hp and 258 lb-ft of torque, and “only” accelerates to 60 mph from a stop in an estimated 4.4 seconds. For this particular Alfa, those numbers not only make sense but stay true to its heritage. Besides, even in portlier U.S. curb weight with driver aboard, the 4C will most likely tip a scale at close to 2,500 pounds – still a featherweight among sports cars.
I was invited to test the 4C at Fiat-Chrysler’s hallowed testing facility near the foothills of the Alps. My test car was given the optional Sport chassis with Race exhaust option, so would be the top trim in the U.S. at around $65,000. (Base price for the normal chassis and exhaust is $55,000.) Having this silencer-free system translating the internal combustion and turbocharging of the 1.75-liter transverse four-cylinder is pretty sweet Muzak.
That nice mill is bolted down to the only piece of steel subframe on the 4C, while the fore and aft crash structures use aluminum and the central passenger tub and shell come from carbon fiber. There is some body sway in harder curves, but just the right amount. The chassis’ twist and bend stiffness is enormously high.
The current plan for the 4C does not include a six-speed manual transmission, clutch pedal, or mechanical self-locking differential. The gearshift interface here is a six-speed dual-clutch automatic mapped by fellow Italians Magnetti Marelli and told to shift either by steering-wheel mounted paddles or by using your right arm on the console’s sequential lever. In this stand-alone testing, too, I didn’t miss the differential; the 4C is so light and perfectly balanced in its specific dimension that I am not entirely sure if such an add-on would help much.
Determining the sort of 4C experience you have is the so-called Alfa DNA switch, meaning dynamic/natural/all-weather. If you hold the lever toward the “D” in dynamic for about five seconds, the powertrain goes into Race mode. In Race, you’re setting loose the hounds as the gauges take on a yellow tint and all traction helpers are knocked out. Here, too, the gear changes and throttle response are at their fastest. But no matter the powertrain’s mood, the steering action remains 100 percent unassisted — a unique touch in any class of car and the utter opposite of the current market tendency to over-boost power steering.
The engineers made a bold choice here. The best part about the steering comes through on a well-maintained track or road; the communication through the front axle and rack is thoroughly inspiring. As soon as the road gets lumpy, rutted, or dull, the charm of the steering wears away with a quickness. On normal two-lanes, the wheels were tram-lining into every imperfection of the road surface, the result being really tired arms and hands from gripping the steering wheel so firmly at all times. There were no 4Cs present to test the standard 17-inch wheels and tires to see if they perform less erratically in this sense, but one would have to doubt it. On the plus side, I guess, is that you will not fall asleep at the wheel
I wanted to snuff out some healthy skepticism, so I pushed the 4C extremely hard during my track time. The Alfa representative in the passenger seat during my hottest laps was visibly fretting, whining squeaks coming from his pursed lips, sweat building up on his forehead. When I set the 4C’s setup to Race mode for the final two hard laps, it was like breaking through a barrier at last. Everything on the 4C fell into step, and it was letting me dance through the tight test course. Even the Alfa guy found a sort of inner peace as he saw how well the car and its optional 18-inch Pirelli P Zero tires were doing in my rough Yankee hands.
In a full year of 4C production at the Maserati factory in Modena, Italy, the plan is to build 3,500 cars per year with 1,200 of those coming to the United States. Ours are heavier due to several added safety bits like additional airbags, not to mention our typical higher trim levels with more standard features.
Everyone wants to say the 4C competes with the Porsche Cayman, but it doesn’t. Then they all want to say, too, that it competes with the Lotus Elise S, which gets closer to the truth. In reality the 4C occupies its own place in the piazza —not as rough as the Lotus and not as refined and sophisticated as the Porsche, while being less expensive than either.
But, face it, this toy is mostly about sports car sex appeal. At that, it succeeds like only an Italian can.
Full disclosure: The manufacturer provided meals, air transportation and lodging for this review