By on July 4, 2014

Red

In an age when $25K buys a substantial chunk of performance, cars like the MX-5 and the FR-S/BRZ seem like anachronisms. They don’t make a ton of power. They’re not particularly practical or fuel efficient. They’re not all that flashy—cute, maybe, but not flashy. Once upon a time, such cars existed to maintain balance in a world of meandering muscle, but in the evolved and capable body of modern performance automobiles, they’re merely the vestigial remnants of a once long tail of affordable sports cars.

One could reasonably argue that the outlook is even more bleak if you jump ahead a few tax brackets. Take a gander at what 60 grand will buy you these days—Z51 Corvettes, M3s, C63s, hopped-up TTs and enough letters and numbers behind pony car monikers to sustain an episode of Sesame Street—and we’ll find that even the flyweights here are pushing 3,400lbs. If you want featherweight performance, you compromise on a Porsche Cayman (which in its most aggressive guise will spec out well north of this price range) or cross your fingers on a lightly-used Lotus Elise.

Now you have another choice. Enter the Alfa Romeo 4C. 227hp. 2,465lbs. Carbon tub. Manual steering. And damn is it ever gorgeous.

Silver
I’ve seen the Alfa compared to 1970s and ’80s era Italian supercars. That’s not quite right. I suppose it’s accurate inasmuch as you don’t expect a Ferrari that is a decade away from AARP eligibility to be particularly luxurious by modern standards, but the Alfa is spartan because Fiat has to sell it for roughly one-sixth the price of a reasonably-equipped 458, not simply because it’s en vogue.

If you get the chance to sit in a 4C, reach down behind the floating center stack and get a firm grip on it, then give it a little jostle. And then take a few minutes to put it all back the way it was when you found it, and don’t mention my name when the salesman asks just why the hell you’re dismantling the dash board of his seventy-thousand-dollar Launch Edition.

AR015_206FC

To be fair, the interior is not a bad place to be. The seats offer minimal adjustment, but they’re beautifully sculpted and very supportive. The gauges place all relevant information front and center, and the transmission controls, while unintuitive at first blush, are incredibly straightforward after a minute or two of fiddling. The same is true of the rest of the important controls, but those are really the only controls you’ll find at all. Unlike the hieroglyphically-overencumbered center console of a Porsche or Audi, the 4C boasts maybe twenty things that click, spin or toggle in the area between the vents and the hand brake (yeah, that’s a manual hand brake). And trust me, you’ll think that number’s high at first glance.

Indeed, the 4C is not a luxury car. It’s rowdy and raucous and fun as hell to drive. It’s a mid-engined performance coupe that pops and farts and squeals and generally makes the old Cayman R feel like a car for stuffy old German clerks. One doesn’t put the dual-clutch gearbox in “Drive;” rather, one pushes the button marked “1” on the center console and waits for something to happen. Nothing does. The 4C won’t idle forward on a flat surface.

So you give it some gas, and the engine blats at you from behind your head, and suddenly you don’t give one single damn whether the HVAC controls will still be holding on for dear life by the time you’re done, because all you’ll want to do is chuck the 4C’s nose at every corner you can find until you’ve found them all and then go back and do it again. I’ve never before driven a car so lively and pointable and just plain magical.

Leave the nannies on and the 4C will make you look and feel like Senna incarnate. Turn them off and it will rotate gracefully and predictably as the unassisted steering transmits every iota of feedback in response to your every miniscule input. Like the FR-S/BRZ, the 4C exchanges ultimate grip for attainable limits. Unlike the FR-S/BRZ, the 4C is a complete laugh when you begin to explore those limits. It is the embodiment of the slow-car-fast formula taken to the reasonable limit of affordable tire and suspension technology with just enough of a nod to practicality and convenience. Pirelli calls the P Zero AR a “three-season” tire, and indeed the tread appears more than rain-ready. Short of a snowfall, the Alfa should serve you well in most conditions.

So, back to our little pricing dilemma. Can the 4C hang in the muscle-friendly, upper-middle-income American market? Believe it or not, I think it can. It’s no slouch, after all, running a low-4-second 0-60 and a high-12-second 1/4-mile isn’t enough to hang with GT500s and ZL1s in the open, but those numbers are plenty respectable. This, in my opinion, where my own sports car analogy falters a bit. When you put those figures into the context of the class, the Alfa is plenty quick enough to keep pace—something that is difficult to say about the MX-5 and FR-S.

The ultimate test for the 4C won’t be found among the inevitable slew of track comparisons that will be conducted in the coming months. Rather, the 4C needs to be accepted by customers. It needs to be seen and and wanted and lusted after. Lotus can sell a car to Bruce, the Internet track day hero who bores expensive escorts with stories about passing 911s in his favorite braking zone. Alfa Romeo needs to once again resonate with luxury buyers—buyers like Ronaldo, the playboy who serial-dates 10s for their personalities. Without that segment of buyer, the 4C is just another expensive, borderline-uninsurable used car to be lusted after by the up-and-coming Bruces of the world.

Wheel

(The author was one of many members of the automotive press invited to attend Fiat-Chrysler’s “What’s New” drive event. The company provided lodging, meals and transportation to and from the venue.)

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47 Comments on “Capsule Review: Alfa Romeo 4C...”


  • avatar

    Gorgeous car, but that front grill looks too Pontiac to me.

  • avatar
    mcs

    >> Gorgeous car, but that front grill looks too Pontiac to me.

    From looking at your avatar, I’d think that would be something you’d be used to by now :^)

    http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/b/b7/1985_Pontiac_Grand_Am.jpg

    • 0 avatar
      Arthur Dailey

      Rather an North American centric point of view?

      Wasn’t Alfa was using roughly that shape of grill when Pontiac was still using hawk nose grills.

      Sort of like claiming that Ferrari stole the prancing horse logo from Mustangs.

      Also in most of the rest of the world, isn’t a ‘sports car’ defined by its handling/cornering abilities rather than its quarter mile time?

    • 0 avatar

      I love that the car in that picture is missing a large piece of trim and sitting over oil stains. As if there was ever any other kind of Grand Am.

  • avatar
    stuki

    Looks overwrought, overdone, overstyled and over ornate to me. It should sell in good numbers, at least initially. You should get the usual buy-what-wins-magazine-reviews-for-trackcars crowd, but also the new-new thing crowd, the too-cool-for-german crowd, the italian-because-im-stylish-crowd and the buy-anything-that-looks-more-exotic-and-expensive-than-it-is-crowd. In addition to those for whom this is just a the ideal daily driver, assuming its as good as the reviewer hints.

    Italo cars with roboboxes dont really tick my boxes, but i havent driven one for the better part of a decade. Also, in my world, gt cars are for grand Touring, which definitionally involves trips away from the 3 markets with an Alfa dealer. Hence, despite my fascination with Miatas, Id take that 707 hp transcontinental redneck sled from a few days ago over this for equal money. And limit my pinkslip races to straight lines…..

    • 0 avatar
      Vulpine

      I’m not a fan of the “pinkslip races” simply because they’re too dangerous not only for the racers but for any innocent bystanders.

      On the other hand, when I buy a car for fun, I want it to be FUN. That 707hp SRT sounds great, but I can guarantee that we’ll see many of the same issues we saw with the old Super Bee and Daytona Chargers–cars lucky to survive their first 7 days on the road. This 4C, especially when the regular models start hitting our shores, are going to be a little bit more affordable than $60K and are real Roadsters, not Speedsters; built for handling and not raw acceleration. Had I enough free cash, I’d be interested in it myself–though it’s probably as hard to crawl in and out of as the Lotus Elise.

    • 0 avatar
      probert

      Or maybe it will attract people who want a small, light, powerful mid engined sports car.

      At a quarter ton less than a boxster – and at least an attempt at sensual styling (which I think succeeds nicely) – it’s great someone is taking a flyer at making a midrange genuine sportscar – as opposed to a bloated 2 seat coffee cup holder.

  • avatar
    mike89

    Small correction: it has 237 hp, not 227.

  • avatar
    Maymar

    Honestly, I think the idea of sports cars are as relevant as they ever were – look at how many traditional sports cars spent significant portions of their life as total anachronisms? Countless MGs, the Triumph Spitfire, even Alfa’s own Spider, all spent decades in production, and spec-wise, weren’t all that exotic when they were new. Morgan’s built a reputation out of that – look at how much attention the new 3-wheeler gets, and that posts a skidpad number that’s shamed by a rental Chevy Spark.

    I mean, if you buy into the whole Mazda Miata Jinba Ittai thing, that’s something that’s sorely lacking when the default performance car bar is set by a $22k Mustang that’s about the size of a mid-sized sedan (seriously – 3500lbs and 188in long is no sports car, however good a car it is).

    I mean, I’m disappointed the 4C is flappy paddle gearbox-only, but I’m admittedly so far removed from being able to afford one of these as to render my opinion hopelessly irrelevant, and I understand they have packaging reasons for it (and fuel economy/emissions reasons probably contribute as well). That said, a gearbox designed for rapid shift times seems more Bruce than Ronaldo (although Bruce probably takes my side as well, while Ronaldo doesn’t care).

  • avatar
    heavy handle

    Why worry so much about what segment it’s in, and how it bench-races other two doors?

    I can understand segment-envy for family cars, where it actually matters if the Accord or Camry is a better package, but this is a toy. All the rationalization in the world won’t change the fact that people buy these emotionally. No guy (and they probably are all guys) who has lusted after a fast Mustang his whole life will cross-shop this Alfa to get 1 more MPG. On the flip side, no one who loves this car is seriously comparing it to a Z-28. That kind of thought process only happens in car reviews.

    • 0 avatar
      FreedMike

      No, this won’t be cross-shopped with Z28s, but I guarantee you the guys who buy these will comparing them to Corvettes…and I don’t see the Alfa winning many of those comparisons.

      • 0 avatar
        Chan

        The Alfa will be more entertaining than a Corvette on a tight track in the same way that an MX-5 will be more entertaining than a Mustang.

        These cars don’t win on numbers.

  • avatar
    Brian E

    The only thing I need to know about this is whether there’s any chance I could fit my 6’4″ frame in the driver’s seat. Otherwise it’s just another S2000 or Miata to me – a curiosity to be appreciated from outside.

    I actually had a dealer offer to cut the dash on a new S2000 to make room for my knees. Sometimes I regret not taking them up on the offer. From the review, it sounds like I might be able to do that to the 4C myself just by grabbing and pulling on it.

  • avatar
    carguy

    As nice as it looks, the 4C will be $70K for the launch edition and then about $55K and it will have much the same problem as the the Jaguar F-type.

    While the Cayman/Boxter car are heaver they still very much compete in the “mid-engined fun weekend car” market.

    So will you put down 70 large for a Fiat with unknown reliability, unknown resale value and sparse dealer network? Or will you get the Boxter/Cayman where you get a choice of gearbox, engine, drop top option, a well established dealer network, known resale value and a more prestigious badge?

    Good luck with that.

    • 0 avatar
      Vulpine

      I’m willing to wait for the less expensive model.

    • 0 avatar

      And the Porsche is reliable? You realize they aren’t the cheapest cars to maintain. Yes a used one is pretty affordable, but they are not affordable cars to maintain.

      Note: I owned a 2006 Cayman.

      • 0 avatar
        carguy

        “I owned a 2006 Cayman”

        Yes, I still own my ’06 Cayman S, and while the maintenance is not cheap, it has been reliable and has very good resale value.

        With the Alpha Romeo 4C being a new car with new carbon fiber technology from a non-luxury car maker with a history of reliability problems and an as yet unknown commitment to the US market – that leaves a lot of risk for potential buyers with $60K+ in their pockets.

    • 0 avatar
      el scotto

      Odds are that if you can drop 55-70k on a car that is a toy; you are employed and live in an major metropolitan area that has a Fiat dealer. If you afford to buy this as a toy, you don’t really care about resale value, it won’t be your primary driver, and the dealer (and the service manager) should be bowing and scraping when your well-shod carcass enters the premises. This car is not marketed for those who anticipate the weekly Wal-Mart flyer.

    • 0 avatar

      I would go for the Alpha just because here in CT I see caymans 911’s and boxsters every day on my commute you need something a little different to not feel like a lemming around here.

    • 0 avatar
      FreedMike

      Carguy nails the problem – it’s not that the Alfa looks like a Pontiac (oy vey) – it’s going up against some seriously entrenched competition.

      And, yes, Alfa’s suffered from reliability issues (or at least they did 20 years ago), but they’ve been doing this kind of car for quite some time in Europe, and if they didn’t have things sorted out, they’d have gone down the tubes a long time agon.

      In any case, I’m predicting LOTS of lost sales Corvettes and Boxsters, if for no other reason than packaging – rich guys who can afford these tend to be a bit thick around the middle, and this one isn’t built for that kind of buyer, apparently. For similar money, a Corvette offers vastly nicer interior accomodations, more toys, and a God pounding V8; a Boxster offers Porsche snob appeal and a similarly unfiltered driving experience.

      I’m predicting this is a lot queen…sad to say, because this looks to be a brilliant car. But then again, so was the Lotus Elise, and not many of those sold either.

      Now, what if the first Alfa back had been a Miata competitor? A modern-day Spider Veloce would have sold damn well.

  • avatar
    redav

    Holy blind spots, Batman!

    I guess it wouldn’t be an Italian exotic if you could see anything behind you.

  • avatar
    Speedster356

    I think that everybody is missing the point here.
    OK, so it is an Alfa, which means it is not really exotic, nor premium.
    Also, the drivetrain is not exciting or ultra powerful…
    But it is a carbon fiber chassis. If you compare it to all the other offerings, it is a bargain.

    • 0 avatar
      FreedMike

      Agreed. This looks like 2014’s version of the Lotus Elise – unfiltered, light, tossable…and cramped and expensive. The Lotus didn’t sell. I don’t think this car will either, but I hope I’m wrong.

  • avatar
    3Deuce27

    Byron_ Excellent review and social commentary. Had me chuckling more then once.

    Nearly fifty years ago, my first sports car was an Alfa, so looking forward to the return of the marque. And back then, as you stated there were many choices for ‘affordable’ sporties.

  • avatar

    I thought it was an old Lotus Elise

  • avatar
    65corvair

    With electric power steering being the norm, great to have manual steering. It’s isn’t too heavy when the engine isn’t in the front. It’s what I love about my Corvair. Now it the Corvair had rack and pinion and 150 more hp. It’s the steering that make a car fun to drive when you are driving in town using 15 hp!

  • avatar
    SCE to AUX

    If your tire guy lays the tire/rim on its face, say goodbye to that expensive wheel.

  • avatar
    redseca2

    But it is true. A face just like his great grandfather:

    http://fantasyjunction.com/cars/1522-Alfa%20Romeo%20-Giulietta%20Spider-1300%20cc%204-Cylinder

  • avatar
    DrGastro997

    It’s a great looking toy with numbers to boast. Owning one must be a nightmare. Perhaps Alfa has worked out some of those issues but I still can’t find data that will give you confidence enough to own one in peace. My 911 Turbo and non turbo isn’t necessarily “reliable” and getting parts is no easy game. I can imagine what it could be like with an Alfa.

  • avatar

    Beautiful car. It takes a lot of courage for Alfa to put this can in the market. It’s got the raw sports car elements that are missing these days. The lack of a manual transmission is mind boggling though. Manual steering but no manual transmission. Not sure who their target market is but I would think that this car would have a high take rate if a manual was offered.

    • 0 avatar
      shaker

      With the manual steering (even in a flyweight car) and a fast ratio, you’ll need both hands on the wheel in the twisties, thus the paddles.

      Unless you have Popeye arms.

  • avatar
    FJ60LandCruiser

    That’s a lot of money for a 21st century Pontiac Fiero.

  • avatar
    05lgt

    It’s pure sex. The 3/4 view puzzled me for a few seconds until I remembered the poster with the car, wine bottle, violin and woman’s hip. It’s from the 70’s and I must be mangling the memory because I can’t find it on the internet, but that edge from that angle is very classic. It sounds like a car meant to be driven for the elemental joy of it by someone who knows they’re not Senna. Comparing drag strip times to other expensive cars is missing it completely. It’s the past that never was. Track day hero’s will help with the image, but the (hoped for?) buyer is likely into a car that is faster, more responsive, better looking, and more willing than even his imaginings of whatever he walked away from in his youth to become the man who can afford this car.

  • avatar
    ArBee

    To find the poster, just google “Decisions, Decisions poster”.

  • avatar
    CoreyDL

    These will be viewed as “rare,” and “limited production,” and thus be immediately garaged. They will end up as largely pretty but irrelevant as the 8C.

    The review however, is not at all limited in its gushing.

  • avatar
    NattyBumpo

    I had a ’95 Saturn with manual steering and a manual transmission. No problem. Manual steering is a lot more cool than my electro-steer GTI. I would buy the 4C but for lack of a manual I think I’ll pass. I need three pedals. I guess I’m old.

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