Alfa Romeo 4C: Love, Italian style

The tortured, teased Alfisti have suffered long enough and it’s time somebody told it to them straight about the baby supercar, that one your favourite Italian carmaker has promised you.

Alfa Romeo has promised that the 4C is everything the brand’s most fervent defenders have been hoping for, a modern version of the classic machinery the company built in the 1950s and ‘60s. And, broadly speaking, it is.

Vital Stats

2014 Alfa Romeo 4C

  • Type: Two-seat, mid-engine coupe
  • Powertrain: Turbocharged 1.7-litre four-cylinder gasoline engine, six-speed dual-clutch transmission, rear-wheel drive
  • Output: 237hp, 258lb-ft torque
  • 0-62mph: 4.5sec
  • Top speed: 160mph
  • Fuel consumption (combined): 6.8 litres/100km (about 35mpg)
  • Base price (Italy): 53,000 euros (about $73,000)

But the faithful should think twice before declaring Porsche and Lotus defeated, because the 4C is a long way from perfect and it exhibits some frustratingly basic shortcomings that go beyond its disturbingly insect-like headlights.

Alfa has pledged driving nirvana, yet very few machines will leave a sports car aficionado with such mixed feelings as the 4C. Its development path is riddled with confusing decisions, and its handling begins as a neurotic and headstrong frustration before morphing into an enveloping, full-sensory wonder, just before falling away again .

The 4C  was intended as the point of the spear; the car to bring the brand back to North America after a nearly 20-year absence. That it needs to be brilliant is a matter of faith; not all Americans remember a Spider Duetto’s star turn in The Graduate, after all.

It was precisely this lack of recognition that prompted Alfa to turn its 2011 Geneva motor show concept car into a reality, complete with a carbon-fibre chassis,  a stripped-out interior and one of the most powerful four-cylinder production engines in the world.

A glance at the specifications indicates that the 4C hitches itself beautifully to Alfa’s conceptual vision, achieving a sub-four-metre length, a wide, low stance and a core ingredient list that would find favour with the likes of Ferrari. It’s all built around a carbon-fibre tub weighing a scant 143lbs, with plenty of thick, exposed weave to admire, and it runs an improved version of Alfa’s 1.75-litre, four-cylinder turbo motor.

In a resourceful gambit, Alfa took the powertrain of its Audi A3-size Giulietta Quadrifoglio Verde, turned it around, then moved it behind the driver’s head. It now wields a cast-aluminium block (which slashed 49lbs); more urgency for its turbocharger; more free-flowing direct fuel injection and variable valve timing; and ingenious air-scavenging technology to minimise turbo lag. Alfa also eschewed balancing shafts in favour of eight counterweights in the short-stroke engine’s crankshaft. The metallurgy and physics homework nets 237 horsepower – modest only before considering that the car in question, in European specification, weighs less than 2,000lbs.

Not many 4Cs will be that light, mind. Most buyers will ask for an audio system, for one. Air conditioning, cruise control and an adjustable passenger seat can add as much as 200lbs to each US-bound 4C.

Alfa’s six-speed, dual-clutch transmission (now with a launch-control mode) nests beside the engine, but the big omission is a mechanical locking differential to help the car track around a curve. Another dubious no-show is a multi-link rear suspension – de rigeur on most sports car – in favour of a MacPherson strut suspension system. Alfa nevertheless insists all that is enough to push the 4C to 62mph in 4.5 seconds and on to a top speed in excess of 155mph.

The Giulietta-reminiscent seats  belie their support and grippiness, though the passenger bucket is bolted in place – all part of Alfa’s efforts at weight reduction. (Seats on the US-bound cars will have normal adjustment.) Facing the driver is a flat-bottomed wheel that for all its thickness and heft, skews a bit too mid-‘90s kit car for a halo vehicle, let alone an Italian one.

The rest of the interior is an equally beguiling mix of the well-wrought and the just, well. The negatives include ventilation controls that clunk and scrape with no damping. Beneath the dash, driver and passenger can caress completely exposed cables, pipes and connectors. The  instrument cluster, however, is unalloyed magic, changing colour to match the car’s four driving modes.

There’s an immediate depth to the 4C’s vocals when it fires up, but if it’s rowdy in the cabin (and it is), it is even louder outside of it. There is the mandated catalytic converter, but between that and the open air, there is just a couple lengths of exhaust pipe. No muffler? No problem.

Sadly, the engine isn’t a boisterous, rollicking enchantment. It’s violent, it’s raucous, it hides nothing of its strain and, once above 3,500rpm, produces a piercing whistle. There is no sound deadening to speak of, and even at a traffic light, the fuel injectors can be heard squirting away.

For all that, the tiny, tinny Alfa is strong. From 2,000rpm, it lunges forward in ways that heavier, metal-based sports cars just cannot. Every miniscule change in engine speed brings a discernible change in attitude, and there is virtually no turbo lag.

But it’s the 4C’s ability to carve that makes it sparkle. Not a lot of cars transfer their weight from front to rear, rear to front with such alacrity, and the chassis instills  the confidence to delve deeper and deeper until you’re fiddling the throttle mid-corner, searching for more. So engaged, the 4C’s steering grows heavier and heavier from the custom rack as you ask more of it and the car feels like it would never waste a scrap of energy or speed.

Flowing from one corner to the next, over crests and down into compressions, the 4C is a marvel.

At any other time, the 4C is your own personal carbon-fibre albatross, exhibiting a disconcerting lack of straight-line directional stability, only to find a handling sweet spot in the first bend before falling away, shy of cementing its legend.

And that’s the 4C all over. Where it might have been top-to-bottom brilliant, it settles for very, very good. In the face of Porsche, ‘twas nearly ever thus, and deep down, the Alfisti know it to be true.