Alfa Romeo delivers on its promises with the 4C. With drive going to the right pair of wheels, a carbon tub and a mid-rear-mounted engine bunkered low, this ought to be a modern classic.
WHAT IS IT?
Alfa Romeo’s modern-day sports car is rawer and more uncompromising than you thought was possible from a mainstream manufacturer. In philosophy, if not price, the Alfa Romeo 4C appears to sit halfway between a Lotus Exige and a Porsche Cayman but there's a complexity to its character that's like nothing else.
WHY WE'RE TESTING IT
The 4C has taken a long time to make its way Down Under. While the Europeans have had their hands on it since 2013, production volume and compliance hurdles have seen the Aussie launch pushed back. We've driven it on European roads but this is the first time we’ve had a genuine thrash on home turf.
THE WHEELS VERDICT
The Alfa Romeo 4C is a seductive and exotic ownership proposition and while it's still a little unresolved at the very limits of its dynamic envelope, it offers a sense of theatre that more than justifies the asking price. There's the kernel of an all-time great sports car here if Alfa is committed to further development.
PLUS: Styling, pace, charisma, brakes, slick dual-clutch transmission
MINUS: Flat underlying acoustics, ragged at the limit, ergonomics
THE WHEELS REVIEW
FOR such an ostensibly simple car, the Alfa Romeo 4C packs in a lot of surprises. The key one is how unlike a Lotus Exige it is. The form factor might be similar, but from there the execution is wildly different.
Where an Exige feels like an ill-sorted bucket of self-tappers when driven at anything less than eight-tenths, the Alfa is utterly beguiling at everyday speeds. The unassisted steering bobs and jinks in your hands like an old 911, your hands guiding the wheel rather than chasing every kick, and the hyperactive gearing means you rarely have to take your hands from the tiny Alcantara rim. The engine helps, delivering a surge of turbocharged torque from just 2000rpm, assisted by theatrical turbo fizzes and crackles on overrun. Leave the TCT dual-clutch transmission to do its own thing and it slurs between shifts smoother than a Rat Pack martini order.
Ask the 4C to do more than this and it starts to drop out of its comfort zone. The steering, which seems so entertaining under more moderate loads, starts to get a bit spooky. Bump-steer and kickback leave you with worrying moments of lightness through the rim as you tip into a corner, the same lightness that usually signals the moment a car tips into oversteer. Alfa has cleverly fitted comparatively narrow 205-section front tyres to the 4C which introduces a degree of reassuring push from the front end just as the rear is about to lapse into oversteer. That’s fine for a road car, but it is at exactly this moment that the depth of dynamic talent in an Exige or Cayman becomes apparent. How relevant this degree of adjustability is to a road car is something that's open to discussion, but as a yardstick of chassis talent and engineering commitment, it leaves the 4C shy of the best.
Beyond the theatrical bangs and whooshes , the 4C’s 177kW 1.7-litre turbocharged four isn't particularly tuneful, with an unpleasant resonance between 2500 and 3000rpm. It’s otherwise impressive, though, with real lugging power that translates into the ability to utterly demolish even the most ambitious-looking overtaking manoeuvre.
You'll need to reset your datum to take into account the throttle lag, getting into the throttle a fraction earlier than normal. Switching the DNA controller to Dynamic opens the threshold of the stability-control system, and trail braking into a corner is about the most effective way to introduce a degree of oversteer. But the rear end is so grippy that power oversteer on dry bitumen requires an abjectly Neanderthal approach. The 40:60 weight distribution is actually a couple of points more rear-biased than a current Porsche 911 Carrera but the 4C's lightweight engine means that it changes direction without the requirement to consciously manage shifting masses.
The floor-hinged brake pedal feels tiny underfoot, but there's excellent retardation on offer if you commit to giving the Brembos a good kicking. On flakier surfaces, however, the ABS intervenes surprisingly late.
Nevertheless, the fundamentals of the 4C are brilliant. The rock-solid carbon-fibre tub and that gutsy direct-injection turbo engine are a fusion combo that shouldn't work but do. The steering and suspension are certainly noteworthy. Don't get too hung up on reports that the Aussie cars have grown a bit lardy. That's been sparked by comparisons between dry and tare weights. An apples-for-apples comparison shows a 50kg weight increase due to additional crash structures, side impact protection, leather upholstery and air conditioning, which hardly seems worth getting overly critical about.
All of the caveats about the 4C can be easily massaged with subsequent development. Alfa claim to have a $5bn development pot to dip into for the next four years. Throw a little of that the 4C's way and it could be a five-star car. As it stands, it's still a consummate entertainer, but has a nagging tinge of missed opportunity about it. For the money, there's little to touch it in terms of excitement and charisma but if you're undecided, you might want to sit and wait. It'll get better.
Model: Alfa Romeo 4C Launch Edition
Engine: 1742cc 4cyl, dohc, 16v, turbo
Max power: 177kW @ 6000rpm
Max torque: 350Nm @ 2200rpm
Transmission: 6-speed dual-clutch
0-100km/h: 4.5sec (claimed)
On sale: Now