Is the 4C Worthy of the Alfa Romeo Badge?
Photography by Serge Albarian
In what is arguably the greatest performance of his career, Tom Hanks played Walter Fielding Jr. in The Money Pit (1986). The film opens with Walter and his his wife, Anna (Shelley Long), purchasing a mansion in upstate New York for a price that is too good to be true. As they hire numerous contractors to renovate the decrepit mansion, the running gag line that develops is “two weeks”–the response to the question “when will it be done?”. Anyone who has ever hired a contractor to do even the simplest job will get this joke.
For the last fifteen years, I have found myself empathizing with Walter and Anna, not because I am trying to salvage a tumbledown estate, but because I’m an Alfista. You see, since about 2000, Fiat has been promising that Alfa Romeo would soon be back in the United States. When? Two years.
Alfa Romeo finally came back in 2008–sort of–with the very sexy, yet very limited, 8C Competizione but failed to follow it up with a more affordable model to be built in large quantities. That is, until now. But was the wait worth it?
One could answer that question by evaluating the new Alfa Romeo 4C’s merits and price-performance as a sports car. But that would be useless to an Alfista like me. I simply want to know one thing: does it feel like an Alfa Romeo?
To understand what this question even means, let’s back up for a second. During Alfa Romeo’s storied 105-year history, the company teetered on the brink of bankruptcy on multiple occasions and consequently changed ownership several times. The last time it changed hands was in 1986 when Fiat, using a heap of Italian taxpayers’ money, purchased Alfa Romeo. For many of us Alfisti, this was the beginning of the end. A badge-engineering mentality quickly started to direct the development of new Alfa Romeo models; designs started to become compromised and watered down; the cheaper front-wheel-drive configuration replaced rear-wheel-drive; and soon the sporty, magical, and even sensual Alfa Romeo essence was gone. Sure, they continued to have a few design hits such as the Brera or the gorgeous 159, but underneath the beautiful skin there was little to differentiate the modern Alfas from other front-wheel-drive boxes with wheels. Gone was the magic of the Alfas from the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s that rewarded your senses, connected you with the road, and simply made you feel alive. With apologies to my European Alfisti friends, then, we really didn’t miss much here in the US when Fiat pulled Alfa Romeo out of our market in 1995.
Now, back to the 4C.
Lucky for me, my good friend Brandon recently took delivery of his 4C Launch Edition and agreed to let me drive it so that I could judge first-hand its Alfa Romeo-ness. This test drive, however, did not come without a price: in exchange, Brandon demanded that he be allowed to drive my 8C. And so it was that we found ourselves swapping keys in Malibu one recent Sunday morning.
When first approaching the 4C, there are two things that should command the respect of any sports car aficionado. The first is its design: let’s just say that I needed some time to get used to it, but having spent some time with it I can now unequivocally say that I do love its looks. Whether you find it beautiful or not, however, you have to agree that Alfa Romeo did a great job of breaking the mold and not creating another generic lozenge. The body is provocative: when you see it, you cannot look away. A glance at it might make you excited, or anxious, or aroused. One thing is for sure, though, you will feel something, and that is a rare accomplishment for a modern car under $250,000.
By today’s standards, the 4c is extraordinarily lightweight, owing to Alfa Romeo’s extensive use of carbon fiber and composites. The entire central tub of the chassis is made of carbon fiber–thereby not only reducing weight but also improving chassis rigidity–and all body panels are sheet molded compound. To find such extensive use of carbon anywhere else, you would have to move into supercar territory, though the mass-produced BMW i3 does come close. For this, Alfa Romeo deserves a lot of respect: the courage required to invest in so much carbon for a car that costs a mere $70,000 should not be taken for granted. It is this commitment to the driver that is so sorely lacking from other modern sports car manufacturers.
Jumping out of the 8C and into the 4C, I was surprised at how incredibly low the 4C is. You’ll need strong core muscles to get in and out. It’s also rather small on the inside. The black leather bucket seats with beautiful red stitching were a bit too narrow for even my average-sized body, and I felt like I was sitting on top of the side bolsters. Turning on the car is not as eventful as turning on the 8C, but it does have a satisfying, anxious-sounding exhaust note. As I started to drive out of the parking lot, the lightness of the car becomes immediately apparent. Even without power steering and at low speeds navigating the parking lot was effortless.
We headed up Malibu Canyon Road with Brandon following me in my 8C. Our plan was to take this road to Mulholland and then to Stunt Road as the ultimate proving ground. Stunt Road is a freshly paved canyon road heading uphill from Mulholland with a plethora of twisties, one after the other. The nice mix of hairpin turns and sweepers would make for the perfect proving ground, testing the 4C on its own intended purposes. Alas, once we arrived on Stunt Road, we encountered thick fog and were forced to slow down to what felt like a crawl. The fog continued to the peak of the hill and, disappointed, we made our way down the back side of the mountain. Back on the Pacific Coast Highway, the fog had disappeared and we headed back to Sunset Boulevard in hopes of getting some good driving done there on our way back into the city.
Sure enough, with almost no traffic this early, Brandon and I started to have a bit of fun on Sunset. Driving at, shall we say, a very spirited clip on this twisty street, the 4C feels planted and sure-footed, with excellent turn-in and steering that communicates the road very well. The stiff chassis only became an issue when I encountered potholes and other street blemishes that make Los Angeles feel like a third-world city. But overall, the 4C is composed and controllable even on these surfaces.
As much as I would prefer a manual transmission in this Alfa, I have to admit that the dual-clutch semi-automatic is very smooth and precise both at low speeds as well as when pushing it hard. Oddly, you cannot put the car in neutral by pulling on both paddles simultaneously which is the standard protocol on most other semi-automatic transmissions. The two small plastic paddle shifters themselves feel cheap, and there’s no comfortable way to grip the steering wheel without having your fingers on the paddles at all times, which isn’t a bad thing during aggressive driving, but it can become tiresome when cruising.
We were halfway back towards Beverly Hills and still enjoying the curves of Sunset when we came upon a new Porsche 991 Carrera S. I became envious of the Porsche driver for one reason only: I wish I had been in his seat so that I could have witnessed the glorious sight of the 4C and 8C quickly appearing in the rearview mirror. The Porsche driver clearly woke up and decided to have a some fun with us, and as there was pretty much no one else on the road we decided the same. After a few turns of menacing the 991, I think he decided that we were a little crazier than he was and he disengaged. Either that or the sounds of the 4C and 8C exhausts intermingling was threatening enough.
The exhaust note of the turbo-charged 4C sounds refreshingly honest. It doesn’t sound fake as a result of over-tuning in an effort to create an artificially mean note, as is the case with Infiniti G-series cars or the Fiat Abarth. The 4C sounds just mean enough, and you’ll be motivated to push the car just to hear the exhaust. The 1750cc turbo engine revs very freely and I hit the rev-limiter on a couple of occasions, surprised by how fast it got up there (sorry, Brandon!).
Most importantly though, is the amount of power that is squeezed out of this small engine. Combined with the light weight, the 240 horses make this a very fast car. The power, sadly, does come at a price: excessive turbo lag. Having driven a MINI Cooper John Cooper Works for three years, I was no stranger to a tiny turbocharged engine putting out lots of power. Whereas the MINI did have noticeable turbo lag, it was minimal and did not detract much from the driving experience. In the 4C, on the other hand, depending on when you open up the throttle, the lag can be annoying at best and, at worst can catch you off-guard and unprepared. If the 4C disappointed me in any area, this was it.
So does the 4C live up to the Alfa Romeo name? You can’t use science to describe a feeling or an experience, let me take am moment here to identify the constituent elements of the Alfa Romeo essence:
Beauty: It must be gorgeous. Period.
Engine: The glorious twin-cams of the 1950s through 1980s say it all, combining power from a modest mill and an unmistakably mean sound.
Designed for the Driver: More than anything, an Alfa is designed to be driven, rewarding the driver with a zen-like experience.
Usable: Though BMW eventually perfected it, Alfa Romeo invented the sport sedan. A good Alfa should be sporty and usable as a daily driver or grand tourer.
Distinctly Italian: An Alfa made in Poland, Detroit, or Mexico is just not an Alfa. Thankfully, the 4C comes from Modena.
Attainable: Though priced at a slight premium, Alfas are within reach of many enthusiasts.
The 4C certainly has its flaws. Though the quality and fit-and-finish of the interior is mostly excellent, the climate control knobs and various other switches feel cheap. Instead of an elegant and classic, double-binnacle dash housing analog speedometer and tachometer, there is a PlayStation-like digital dash. There are only two pedals. The trunk, like the aforementioned seats, is tiny and prevents you from taking the 4C on any trip longer than two days. Oh, and did I mention the turbo lag?
But what true Alfa isn’t perfectly imperfect? Despite its flaws, driving the 4C is an exhilarating and rewarding experience, simply begging you to get it on the nearest track. The car is refreshingly different from the masses, including the luxury sports cars from Germany. The 4C checks off almost all of my super-scientific criteria of Alfa Romeo-ness, falling short only in the Engine and Usability categories.
It would have been easy for Marchionne to bring Alfa Romeo back to the US with the current Mito or Giulietta, but he clearly understands American Alfisti, and he wisely held back the return until the company built an Alfa Romeo from the ground up that would get us excited to have Alfa back. The 4C marks the true resurrection of the Alfa Romeo spirit, and if it’s an indication of things to come, then we should all be very excited indeed.