Friday 20th September 2013


ALFA ROMEO 4C: REVIEW

Alfa Romeo 4C driven as PistonHeads muscles to the front of the queue and Harris delivers his verdict


There was much razzmatazz and pomp at Fiat's Balocco proving ground the other night - far more than a sports car scheduled to find just 3,500 homes per year should warrant. But the new 4C is much more than a new hotshoe. It is a metaphor for the rebirth of Alfa Romeo, and brings with it an expectation that the brand can finally assert itself in a German-dominated world. It's hard not to find yourself rooting for them - I think all of us agree that a fully-functioning Alfa is a good thing for the car world - and I suppose I have to mark a word of caution now before describing the new 4C. I want us to avoid what should probably be called the TVR factor, allowing ourselves to wish success on a brand so much that we care willing to forgive what, in hindsight, history judges as unforgivable shortcomings.

The 4C has to be a good car.

Alfa says it's a supercar - what say we?
Alfa says it's a supercar - what say we?
Or does it? The 500 launch edition versions priced at £53,000 sold in 10 days and Alfa ended up with over 1,000 requests. The total yearly volume looks pessimistic and is of course limited by the labour-intensive carbon tub. You would not need to be cynical to suggest that the 4C could sell on badge, looks and perhaps the simple fact that it is not a Porsche. I get the feeling that there's an aching, burgeoning need among enthusiasts to own an Italian car at this price point, the 4C might not satisfy all of them, but it is a timely safety valve.

Jump right in
There are perhaps two ways to appraise the 4C: the first is to deconstruct its engineering and the specification Alfa has chosen for it. The other is simply to judge it as an object to behold, own and, most importantly for us, to drive. I think a hybrid approach is probably best: drive it and then see if the brave engineering has done its job.

The 4C is a small car. Much shorter than a Cayman, but actually quite wide. I will not comment on the styling, but will add that a day spent with it has made me much, much more of a fan. The headlights? Don't go there just yet.

Yep, it can do this even with just four cylinders
Yep, it can do this even with just four cylinders
Uniquely in this class, it sits on a carbon tub which weighs just 65kg, was designed initially with the help of Dallara, but is now built and assembled by Alfa itself. Well, Maserati. The 4C is actually assembled over with the triple-pronged lot. It makes sense - they know more about building sports cars.

Strutting its stuff
To the front of the tub are attached double wishbones and at the rear a subframe houses a turbocharged 1,750cc four-cylinder motor. Packaging constraints precluded double wishbones at the rear, so there's a strut-type suspension instead. I find this slightly odd in a no compromise machine, but Alfa insists it has made the layout work.

The engine is heavily modified over the one found in the Guilietta, with a crank running in eight bearings. The result is 240hp at 6,000rpm and 258lb ft at 2,200rpm.

Reduced mass was the 4C's goal from the start and with a dry weight of 895kg (925kg wet) it's far daintier than a Cayman. Seemingly nothing has escaped the liposuction treatment, the dash is a single, bare lump of plastic, the passenger seat is fixed and has no runners, there is no gas strut for the rear boot. This is Alfa digesting the Colin Chapman book of luxury and regurgitating it in Latin form - it makes compelling viewing.

The bare carbon tub peeks through the minimal carpeting. The carbon-composite seats weigh just 12kg and the creature comforts are minimal, but it's not too sparse.

Looks like a supercar but does it go like one?
Looks like a supercar but does it go like one?
Thumbs up
Best of all, it starts with a key. No button-BS here, just twist and go. The starter motor has an appallingly blue-collar drone to it and my heart sank as I heard its minicab clank, but then - Ka-BOOM! - the motor catches with a completely outrageous volley of noise. If you've ever stood near a proper four-cylinder turbocharged racing car as it starts in the paddock, you'll understand how raucous the 4C is. Alfa clearly wasn't going to allow this outwardly ordinary engine room to run quietly. Push the throttle and it fizzes away eagerly.

The twin-clutch gearbox is Fiat's own system and you select a forward gear either by pulling a paddle or pressing a button down by your knee. You do the same for neutral and reverse. The rather fiddly DNA switch is down there too. The cabin is intimate: I'm too small to judge whether it's hard to get in and out of, but your bottom is very low and the wheel comes back to meet you. It also adjusts up and down. The seat has very thin padding and doesn't appear to offer much lateral support. When you look right, your passenger seems too close. When you look in the rear view mirror, you can just about see the roof of the car behind. A Cayman is like a Mulsanne after this.

Rolling away is easy, but you immediately get the sense that the right pedal will require some learning. Being so heavily turbocharged and light on its Pirellis the lag is amplified - at low speed I found myself simply selecting as high a gear as possible because it made for smooth progress, and the thing has such guts it'll haul from 2,800rpm in sixth with meaningful results.

Fancy stuff underneath as much a selling point
Fancy stuff underneath as much a selling point
Up to speed
The problem with the 4C going slowly is that it cannot show you any of its tricks. A manual Cayman can still titillate through its slick gearchange, immediate throttle response and musical six-banger; the 4C just burbles, surges and those dual clutches moan as they try to smooth each slightly ponderous part-throttle shift. The ride comfort is pretty good and the unassisted steering is no hardship. But it's like a speedboat running below planing speed - outside its intended operational window.

The great news is that the 4C doesn't need to be hooned on a circuit to show itself, it comes properly alive on the public road, and not just at unreasonable speeds. The steering initially feels disconcertingly light just off-centre, and this can allow the car to wander across the crown of the road slightly, but you soon learn to just relax and work with it. Once into a corner it weights up significantly, and the chassis immediately feels right. At normal speed, there's no understeer, you just turn and it flicks into corners with the agility you'd expect of something so light - it definitely feels closer to an Elise than a Cayman in the way it changes direction and links sequences of flowing turns. The roads I used were quite broken in places, and the damping remained very composed. The car is certainly not over-sprung, and it does lean in bends, which gives much appreciated feedback to the driver.

Contact point
There is just one problem though - it seems trivial, but it is in fact quite important: the 4C has a truly dreadful steering wheel. It is too thick, oddly shaped and doesn't allow the driver to complete his or her connection with the car. I cannot understand the thinking behind providing the purest un-assisted steering system and then destroying its delicacy right at the point of human connection. It's such a shame. With a Lotus Elise wheel the 2.5 turns of lock would feel far more appealing. Even so, the 4C still demolishes the Cayman for steering weight and feel, but think what it might have been!

Nope, no gearstick and never will be
Nope, no gearstick and never will be
The powertrain is surprising too. This is not a car that shines on a two-hour test run - you need to calibrate yourself to its behaviour and then you are left with one of the most effortless ways of covering ground I've experienced for a while. The torque to weight ratio is so impressive you can just leave the car in sixth and mow your way past slower traffic. The gearshift in the slower of the DNA modes isn't very impressive, I just left it in race (which disconnects the ESP) and then, under full throttle, the 130 millisecond claims are quite believable. There's a lovely crack of exhaust on each upshift and some good, lingering burbles coming back down again. I was worried about the transmission, but it suits the engine's power characteristics and when you're pushing it feels sharp. Interestingly, R&D boss Mauro Pierallini let slip that Alfa hasn't discounted a manual version in the future, but it'll take some serious re-engineering.

The brakes are just magnificent on the road: great pedal feel and even with 305mm front rotors you feel like you can brake deep into a turn the way you just can't in heavier machines. All Lotus and Caterham owners will understand this.

Pain in the-
Refinement levels sit mid-way between an Elise and a Cayman. Road noise isn't too bad, the motor is pretty raucous, but settles to an acceptable grumble when cruising at 85mph. Wind noise is well contained and I could happily drive the car for several hours if I actually fitted the seat properly. Now I'm loath to go in too hard on the seat, because it might just be me, but it gave me a very sore lower back and I just didn't get the lateral support I expected or needed. Let's see if anyone else has the same problem before suggesting this isn't anomalous.

Has anyone mentioned the headlights yet?
Has anyone mentioned the headlights yet?
The cabin is basic. This car had the optional air conditioning and a hi-fi which looks pretty RadioShack and I didn't bother trying. The dash readout is sci-fi TXT screen that perfectly fits the character and ethos of the car. As a driver I found it clear, informative and very funky.

On the track the 4C's personality is more rounded than I'd expected. Being light, mid-engined and short of wheelbase I expected something very agile and throttle sensitive - and so it is. There's a lovely, darting initial turn in, and some safety understeer if you try to carry too much speed, but you can trim the line very accurately with the throttle and brake impossibly late. On the standard P-Zeros grip is very good.

Playful
The motor doesn't shine like this though. You don't really appreciate the whump of torque in second and third gears and then it seems a bit slow to creep from 5,000rpm to 6,500rpm, but that's just the way with turbo fours. Except, it would seem, the A45 AMG. The gearshift is still impressive though, with no perceptible delay between pulling a paddle and feeling cogs change.

The unexpected part comes when you fling the 4C around, because it should be a right handful, and yet it isn't. You can back it into corners on a trailing throttle and use that torque to maintain some pretty glorious slides. There's no mechanical locking diff, only the Q2 braking thing that Alfa's used for a while. Again, Mr Pierallini says they're looking at doing one, but for me the car doesn't really need it. I loved driving the 4C on track, I suppose I just missed it having an engine that wanted to rev a little harder.

And so to the question everyone is now asking: would you have one over a Cayman? I'm not sure the question is actually valid having driven the 4C. The Cayman is a much more complete car, it does things the Alfa cannot, indeed it does things most other sports cars cannot, but the 4C is bubbling with an energy the Porsche can only dream of replicating. The 4C is dynamically exciting, fast and absorbing. It's a fine interpretation of how Alfa might re-enter the sports car market with a bang, and without directly competing with Porsche.

And I suppose that statement kind of answers my suspicions that the 4C would have been better had it not used an expensive carbon tub and instead used the cash on an exotic motor with more cylinders. That car would just have been a Cayman wannabe, the 4C is something more direct, something new.

It isn't for everyone, but I really, really enjoyed it. And I still can't handle the headlights, even in the optional carbon trim (which allegedly saves 1.5kg).


ALFA ROMEO 4C
Engine:
1,750cc 4-cyl turbo
Transmission: 6-speed dual-clutch auto (Alfa TCT), rear-wheel drive
Power (hp): 240@6,000rpm
Torque (lb ft): 258@2,200rpm
0-62mph: 4.5 sec (auto x.x sec)
Top speed: 161mph
Weight: 895kg (dry)
MPG: 41.5mpg (NEDC combined)
CO2: 157g/km
Price: £45,000 (before options)

Want the full gen on the 4C? We've got the press pack in its entirety here.

Author: Chris Harris
 
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