First drive: the Alfa Romeo 4C

20 September, 2013 | by Jason Barlow

Generally, you know how you feel about a car after about, oh, five minutes. Call it the fizzy nethers or simple gut instinct. But after 24 hours, 500 miles, and several of the world’s best mountain passes at the wheel of the Alfa Romeo 4C, we still can’t make the definitive call.

Why? Because Alfa’s new baby is a car that manages to be both hugely seductive and irritatingly inconsistent, often on the same stretch of road.

Let’s start with the positives, of which there are many. This really is a stunning bit of design. Yes, those head lights – apparently reworked at the behest of Fiat group CEO Sergio Marchionne, saving a rumoured R40m – undermine the 4C’s junior supercar look, but the launch edition’s carbon surround off-sets any visual disappointment. There are no bad angles on this thing, and several bracingly good ones – head on it looks lower and meaner than the pictures suggest, while the rear three-quarters showcase a typically Italian interplay of curves and sinuously sculpted elements. A chap called Alessandro Maccolini designed the 4C, a name worth keeping an eye on.

LIKE AN ITALIAN EXIGE

Alfa is to be heartily congratulated for daring to downsize; small and light, the 4C posits a way forward for fast cars that adds intellectual muscle to the Lotus Elise’s well-established philosophy. Central to this is the technology at the heart of the 4C, specifically its pre-preg carbon fibre monocoque.

‘We plan to make up to 3500 cars per year,’ Alfa Romeo’s boss Louis-Carl Vignon told topgear.com a few months ago during a visit to the production line in Modena, ‘which will make us the biggest manufacturer of a carbon chassis-ed car.’ The 4C’s carbon tech is a major USP, and a great pub boast to back up the Alfa’s 21st century Ferrari Dino looks and Alfa 33 Stradale references. It’s effectively a small McLaren 12C…

In actual fact, the tub only accounts for 10 per cent of the car’s structure – it’s mainly a steel and aluminium mix – but on the move the 4C feels amazingly rigid. With a dry weight of just 895kg (that’s a slightly misleading figure, taken without any fluids on-board, but impressive nonetheless), the 4C’s power-to-weight ratio of 200kW-per-tonne emphasises Alfa’s claim that this is a ‘politically correct super sports car’, a notion that’s backed up by CO2 emissions of just 159g/km and a combined fuel economy average of 6.9l/100km. (Compare that to the base Porsche Cayman, the car the 4C must inevitably do battle with, which chucks out 192g/km and averages 8.3l/100km)

It’s also properly fast. It’ll do 275kphph all out, and 0-100kph in 4.5 seconds. Its unassisted steering is terrific, its Brembo brakes are fabulous, and it has a colossal amount of grip. Turn-in on those relatively skinny 205-section tyres (235 on the rear) is also sensational. Snap the throttle shut abruptly on a high-speed corner and the 4C’s mid-engined configuration means that it’ll oversteer readily, but you need loads of space to try that sort of malarkey. On the endless up- and downhill hairpins of the Aosta valley, where we spent most of our time, it’s mostly well balanced and engagingly neutral, with some understeer to warn the unwary, and generally rides well, too. Drive it like you have sides of ham for hands and clods of mud on your feet and you might get into bother, but the 4C prefers and rewards a more intelligent approach.

TOO LITTLE TOO LATE?

Now for the negatives. Sadly, the 4C’s powertrain falls short of its chassis. Not disastrously so, but enough to drive you a bit nuts. On paper, we love the idea of a 1.75-litre, turbocharged four-cylinder, and it fits perfectly with the 4C’s PC remit. Its 178kW power output and 350Nm of torques also sound more than ample, especially in such a lightweight package. The engine has direct injection, clever scavenge tech, and variable valve timing on intake and exhaust. The gearbox is a dual-clutch flappy paddle set up which, Alfa claims, has faster shift times in specific increments than even the Ferrari 458 Italia can manage.

The reality is different. Granted, we spent a lot of time at high altitude, but the engine still feels strangely uptight, and simply doesn’t generate the sort of grunt the figures suggest. At sea level, the 4C is fine when you keep it in the zone – between 2000-5000rpm – but it’s not what you’d call effortless. The turbo runs 1.5bar of boost and dominates the 4C to such an extent that, depending on your point of view, it becomes detrimental to the overall driving experience. Throttle response is also frustratingly soggy; the 4C looks like a car that’ll respond to pedal blips with superbike-style intensity, but instead feels like there’s a heavy flywheel. The revs decay lazily, too. Blame the anaesthetising effect of the turbo, the EU6 compliance, and the need to peg back emissions.

The launch edition features the optional sports exhaust as standard, and while it sounds fabulous from the outside, like an old Alfa racing car, inside it’s rather strident and a touch droney, especially at steady motorway speeds. And when it’s not doing that, the dump valve is chumpfing and chirruping like an excessively tuned mid-’90s hot hatch. On occasions it even manages to summon a sound worryingly reminiscent of the Morris Minor’s flatulent over-run parp. It’s not a classically sonorous Alfa, that’s for sure.

The ’box is even more distracting. Quite simply, you have to drive round it to wring the best out of the car rather than working with it. Italian engineers have a habit of justifying an overly jerky paddle-shift on emotional grounds, but the 4C’s gearchanges initially made me angry before inducing melancholy at the bungling of another golden opportunity. You could argue that the Cayman is a bit soulless in comparison, but then you drift into simplistic stereotyping. The truth is, it’s a car powered by a glorious flat-six engine, harnessed to a mighty dual-clutch PDK transmission, both of which work seamlessly to allow the driver to revel in an equally remarkable chassis. The Alfa erects too many barriers.

The Porsche is also unimpeachable when it comes to the detail stuff. For example, you’ll look in vain for exposed screw heads or any loose wiring in the Cayman’s cabin, but won’t have any trouble finding unacceptable quality glitches in the Alfa Romeo. The 4C’s driving position is fine, and its configurable TFT instrument screen is clever. The passenger seat is fixed, eliminating the need for a seat runner and thus saving weight, but it’s also less comfortable as a result. The interior plastics are, at best, a mixed bag, even if the material covering the dash and seats is the result of highly efficient manufacturing processes. There’s still evidence of cost-cutting inside, yet this is hardly a cheap car.

We sooooo want to love the Alfa Romeo 4C. And up to a point we do. It will be bought and enjoyed by people who get huge pleasure from simply looking at it, which is fine by us. Nor is it all mouth and no trousers, because it backs up its beauty with some great technology. It also goes like hell, and handles beautifully. It has a philosophical beauty, too, which we approve of. But that same thinking means the 4C has to endure some compromises, mainly in the powertrain department.

We’d happily trade some of the weight saving and CO2 numbers for a normally aspirated V6 – Alfa’s good at those – and an old school manual gearbox. Alfa Romeo could call it the 6C, and we reckon that really would get the nether regions fizzing. What do you think?

     

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