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Alfa Romeo 4C proves to be a pure enthusiast’s car

Famed Italian brand returns with a coupe that’s not for the faint of heart

Published: June 19, 2014 03:00 PM

Alfa Romeo returns to the U.S. market after an almost 20-year absence, lead by the striking 4C coupe—a mid-engine, rear drive, two-seat sports car wrapped in a sensual silhouette. In our initial drive, we found this Italian coupe to be a real treat for driving enthusiasts, but it also brings compromises.

To explain the name: 4 stands for four-cylinder, C for competition.

We were impressed with the 4C’s perfectly balanced handling, power, and thrilling sound. It is a terrific track day toy, but serving as a daily driver is another matter altogether. It manages to be exhilarating and taxing.

The 1.75-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine produces 237 horsepower, and it is mated exclusively to a six-speed dual-clutch automated manual transmission. The secret to this baby Ferrari is light weight. The 4C achieves its performance and agility thanks to feathery carbon-fiber construction. The whole car weights just 2,465 pounds—about the same as a tiny Fiat 500.

The engine wakes up with a distinct Italian bark that sometimes shifts into a burble. Gear selection is through push buttons on the center console. Auto mode makes the car do a bad imitation of an automatic transmission, particularly at low speeds. With the absence of a manual transmission, the next best thing is to choose manual mode and shift gears via the steering wheel paddles. The 4C takes off with gusto. Its 0-60 mph acceleration times are claimed to be in the mid-four seconds, which is only about half a second slower than a Porsche 911 Carrera S. Shifts are lighting quick and come with a satisfying “blat.” You sometimes find yourself shifting just because the experience is so addicting and irresistible.

The 4C showed practically no body roll in our vigorous drive, and it provided immediate turn-in response, making the car behave much like a go-cart. Seriously, this Alfa carves bends like it’s nobody’s business. It dives into corners like only a low slung, mid-engine car can. The super quick steering is unassisted and communicates tons of feedback, good and bad. While it telegraphs cornering loads and pavement texture in real time, it also brings quite a bit of bump steer. The 4C also tends to tramline, following the road contour while the steering tugs in your palms. At parking speeds, the manual steering will give you a serious workout.

A few driving modes are on the menu: All-weather, Neutral, Dynamic, and Race. In Race mode, the stability control is turned off, allowing us to explore the 4C’s abilities. It remains neutral and balanced all the way to its high limits and beyond, with the rear stepping out in a predictable, controlled manner. No doubt, this Italian is enjoyable.

The cabin continues the intimate and minimalist approach with thin but support-providing seats and few amenities. The U.S. version gets standard air conditioning and an audio system. There is a miniscule trunk aft of the engine. Getting in and out of the low cabin requires athleticism to hurdle the high carbon-fiber sill. Rear and rear quarter visibility is very poor. This car is loud and the ride is stiff, though not harsh.

It would be apt to compare the 4C to the departed Lotus Elise, but the Alfa handles more predictably, sounds better, and has a nicer interior. Some compare it to the Porsche Cayman and Lotus Evora; the difference is that we could be happy driving the Cayman or Evora every day. That’s not the case with the Alfa.

The 4C plays on all the senses of a driving enthusiast, with instant responses, fantastic sound, and exhilarating performance. But it’s also a challenging, taxing car that’s not for the faint of heart. Due to its limited appeal and very low volume, this is not a car we will buy and formally test. You already know if the 4C is for you.

Only 500 units will be brought to the United States this year. Prices start at $55,195 but the first batch of “launch edition” cars will command a premium $69,695 when they go on sale through Maserati and Fiat dealers this summer.

Gabe Shenhar

   

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