Alfa Romeo has long been a brand of unfulfilled promise. With the 4C it gets right back on track. Jonathan Crouch reports.
A rear-wheel drive, mid-engined sports car based around a lightweight carbon fibre chassis? That'll be a McLaren or a Lamborghini, right? That's usually the case but Alfa's £45,000 4C sports coupe joins that club. With a turbocharged 1.7-litre engine behind the driver and a serious power to weight ratio, the good times look to be returning to Alfa Romeo.
Has there ever been a marque with more public good will but less ability to capitalise upon it than Alfa Romeo? How car enthusiasts have willed Alfa to at least get things part way right but instead have all too often been palmed off with prettified Fiats, second-rate dynamics and the clear imprimatur of accountants getting their way over engineers. There has been the odd highlight along the way but for an enthusiast marque, Alfa Romeo has all too often not just missed the bullseye, but studiously managed to miss the entire target. That era ended with the arrival of the 4C sports coupe. Here is a car that seemed to promise so much that most just prepared themselves for huge and crushing disappointment. The wonderful news for sports car lovers is that the 4C delivers on its promise. It's revolutionary in the way it brings all carbon-fibre chassis construction to a sensible price point. And it goes in a way that those who demeaned it as just a 1.7-litre four-cylinder auto would never believe.
One figure tells you a lot about the 4C's potential. Its power to weight ratio is 259bhp per tonne. That's right up there with powerhouses like the BMW M3 CSL, the Mitsubishi Lancer Evo FQ-400 and the Audi RS5. Heck, it even beats the Lamborghini Countach LP500S. All of that comes courtesy of an all-aluminium, direct-injection four-cylinder 1750cc turbocharged petrol engine that makes 240bhp and is assisted by the 4C's kerb weight of just 925kg. That's about the same as a Lotus Exige, so you know that this is quite a special beast. It gets to 62mph in 4.5 seconds, which takes a Cayman S's trousers down quite easily, drive being deployed via a six-speed dual-clutch automatic gearbox with paddle shifters. The gearchange is 30 per cent quicker in Dynamic or Race modes and the clever rev-matching ability of the engine ensures that shifts are quick and smooth without any unnecessary dramatics. There's a lot of performance but also more flexibility than you might expect from such a small engine, with its best work coming between 2,000 and 5,000rpm. The exhaust note has been tuned for a raucous effect and this combined with the wastegate sound effects means that you won't miss an approaching 4C. The steering is entirely unassisted.
There was a little controversy over the decision by Alfa to change the 4C's front headlamp design to something akin to a fly's compound eye, but other than that the design looks neat and clean. Walk around it and you might well see elements of Lotus Elise or Maserati Gran Turismo but other than that, the styling is recognisably Alfa Romeo. It's small too, and you'll feel that after you've clambered over the wide sill and dropped into the driver's seat. The fascia is angled towards the driver and it's fairly easy to get a comfortable driving position, with the steering wheel adjustable for rake and reach. There are some ergonomic oddities, like the centre console's edge jutting into the footwells and you'll need to pack light for a weekend away as luggage capacity is a piffling 110-litres. You'll probably want to specify the optional rear parking sensors as well as the view backwards is almost non-existent. There's plenty of naked carbon fibre on display inside and although the interior finish could never be described as plush, the 4C gets away with it due to its quest for weight reduction.
The 4C is offered in coupe and Spider form, the coupe costing just over £51,000, while the open-topped Spider requires an £8,000 premium, meaning you'll need a £60,000 budget. These prices seem about right insofar as you're talking a little more than a Lotus Elise S and a little less than a Porsche Cayman S. Equipment includes features like a carbon-fibre bodykit, with door mirrors and headlight clusters finished in the same material. Plus dark alloy wheels and front air intakes, a sports exhaust and a firm suspension set-up. Buyers can also expect a dual-clutch TCT gearbox (the equivalent of which tacks another £2,000 to a Cayman's price), Brembo brakes all round, sports seats, a decent stereo and air conditioning, although you can delete the air and tunes if you really have a weight-saving fetish. Having said all that, this isn't really a car you should be looking at while considering what toys you're going to get. Instead, it's a vehicle where the money has been spent on the thing that really makes it stand apart - the 65kg carbon fibre tub that makes up the main passenger cell.
For such a focused sports car, the Alfa 4C records a stunning set of efficiency figures. Pause for a moment and it's easy to figure out why. The light weight, downsized turbocharged engine and efficient twin-clutch transmission means that combined fuel economy is rated at 41.5mpg and emissions are a mere 157g/km. For a car that's quicker than a Porsche Cayman S, that's really good going. Other costs are a little harder to assess. Residual values should be well propped up by the fact that only around 200 right-hand drive cars a year will ever make it to the UK, so no matter what demand there is, the 4C will remain a relatively rare sight. Its sporting predecessor, the 8C Competizione, has skyrocketed in value and previous rear-wheel drive Alfa specials like the RZ and SZ have also done well financially, so if you're worried about depreciation, it's likely to be a non-issue.
The Alfa Romeo 4C is an absolutely fascinating vehicle. It's exactly the car most petrolheads would have urged Alfa to build while positioning themselves as fantasy CEO. They would have demanded a carbon chassis, rear-wheel drive, light weight, unassisted steering, big brakes, sharp styling and affordable pricing. Well, it's now a production reality and despite many feeling that the 4C was always destined to be one of those cars that would grace motor show stands and then be quietly shelved, Alfa has been brave enough to bring it to market and looks set to be rewarded for doing just that. For these reasons, we'd love the 4C to succeed and we'd be even happier were it to spawn a host of imitators, because it's a car that does things the right way. It's not perfect. The engine and transmission look a perfect match on paper but at launch, there were some grumbles about the finer points of their calibration. If you like a zingy, high-revving, hair-trigger of an engine, the 4C's lazier, flywheely feel is probably going to frustrate. Likewise, there are elements of the cabin quality that could conceivably disappoint. Try it before you buy it as it's a car that touches greatness in so many areas. It might well get there, but this is Alfa Romeo, a company well known for snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. Still, this one looks too good to waste.
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