2015 Alfa Romeo 4C Spider Review: The Driving Experience, Distilled

wheel-to-wheel copy

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Andrew Ganz/Autos Cheat Sheet

There’s a new anti-establishment candidate touting itself for that vacant spot in your garage. Brimming with character, it is the polar opposite of the increasingly homogeneous, safe-at-any-speed models offered up by every other car dealership in town.

It is the Alfa Romeo 4C, and it ushers in a new era for the brand that Enzo Ferrari made famous decades before il Commendatore opened up shop to build his own cars. Although Alfa Romeo has been around for more than 100 years, its presence in the United States has been tenuous for most of its existence. Best known here for its Spider, made famous by Benjamin Braddock in 1967 and not all that substantially changed when it was discontinued in 1994 (the black one below is a 1986), Alfa Romeo has only briefly appeared in the U.S. in the last two decades (its 8C Competizione super car popped up just as the recession hit).

But now Alfa’s back, helped in part by parent company Fiat’s acquisition of Chrysler (now: Fiat-Chrysler Automobiles), which means that the Italian brand benefits from its American cousin’s large distribution network. As a result, you can buy the Alfa Romeo 4C — in coupe and Spider, as seen here, configurations — at a remarkably large number of dealers.

It’s your own chance to experience the legend of Alfa Romeo, a brand the blokes on Top Gear said you must experience at some point in your life if you want to be a proper car guy. Imperfect as it is, the 4C is a reminder of what’s great about sports cars.

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Andrew Ganz/Autos Cheat Sheet

Exterior

Evoking the past ever so slightly, the 4C is anything but invisible, especially when sprayed in red like our test car. Clearly inspired by the Lotus Elise, its low-slung stance pushes all four wheels out to the corners with minimal overhang. Our test car was further accented by optional glossy carbon fiber finishes on its mirror caps and staggered (18-inch front, 19-inch rear) dark finish alloy wheels. Cues to the past include a triangular front grille and, of course, the brand’s serpent logo, which links the brand to its home near Milan, Italy.

Like any sports car, compromises abound. The 4C’s engine is located just behind the driver and passenger, but there is a small, duffel bag-sized trunk just aft of the powerplant. That said, what looks like a storage area under the front “hood” is deceiving; that area is not accessible for storage.

No doubt the 4C is striking, but it’s also not as original as its now-discontinued 8C big brother.

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Andrew Ganz/Autos Cheat Sheet

Exterior pros and cons

+ Eye-catching design, especially swathed in Rosso Competizione paint.

+ Imaginative detailing.

+ Its wheels could be the center of their own exhibition at an art gallery.

– Looks a lot like the Lotus Elise.

– Design doesn’t reflect past Alfa Romeo Spiders.

– More-than-typical sports car practicality compromises.

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Andrew Ganz/Autos Cheat Sheet

Interior

View the 4C’s interior as a value equation, and it inevitably comes up short. Take its Alpine-branded radio, which looks like it was installed at Best Buy. Or its pedal box, which looks like a seventh grader’s science project. Or its instrument cluster, which feels like it was lifted from a sport bike, not a sports car.

Yet there’s exceptional beauty in its simplicity. This is not a car designed to coddle. Surfaces inside are either exquisitely wrapped in leather, like something you’d see emblazoned with a Gucci label, or they’re resplendent in glossy carbon fiber worthy of a Boeing factory. The 4C’s interior is a study in contrasts, but it is the carbon fiber that really gets our blood pumping. That’s because the 4C’s tub — the area that envelopes its driver and passenger — is composed entirely of carbon fiber. That shiny carbon floor covered up by a pair of carpeted mats isn’t for looks; the material is exceptionally light and stiff. There’s a reason the aerospace industry has turned to this synthetic for the latest modern passenger airframes.

From a practicality standpoint, the 4C comes up especially short. In addition to the aforementioned lack of cargo storage, passengers need a human-sized shoe horn to slide in and out. The carbon body shell necessitates an enormous hump to climb over in order to get in. Limited adjustment for the seats means those of shorter stature will have a hard time seeing over the dashboard while taller drivers might not fit at all.

But comfort is not what the 4C is about.

Interior pros and cons

+ The intoxicating aroma of fine leather. The visual treat of carbon fiber. Everywhere.

+ Designed not for comfort but for driving. You want to seat four in comfort? Buy a Ford Fusion.

+ Many details are exquisite: the contrasting red French stitching, the way the leather is draped over the doors and dashboard, and of course, carbon fiber everywhere.

– The Spider’s soft top is fiddly and leaks cold air at high speeds.

– Absolutely the most frustrating radio installed in a modern car.

– Carbon fiber tub necessitates significant entry/exit compromises.

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Andrew Ganz/Autos Cheat Sheet

Powertrain

On paper, the 4C draws from its heritage with its 1.75-liter engine, a displacement that looks back to a wholly unrelated but similarly-sized unit that powered the brand through much of the 1960s and 1970s. “1750″ in Alfa-speak is a figure spoken with reverence.

But this 1.75-liter is turbocharged, boasting an impressive 237 horsepower and 258 pound-feet of torque, which motivates the lithe, sub-2,500 pound 4C with authority. Delivering that power to the rear wheels is a six-speed dual dry clutch transmission, a unit that operates kind of like a manual gearbox with its own brain. It can be left in an automatic mode for tooling around town, or it can be switched to manual mode and will fire off rapid shifts via a pair of plastic paddles mounted to the thick-rimmed steering wheel.

A small control knob near the transmission buttons shifts the car between three “DNA” modes: D (Dynamic, for performance driving), N (Natural, for day-to-day use), and A (All Weather). It’s hokey, but it works: Dynamic sharpens up throttle response to borderline race car levels. Enhancing that feel was our car’s optional $500 “racing exhaust.”

Notably, the 4C lacks power steering, a move designed to give it the most natural, entirely unassisted feel possible.

Owing to its low weight, the 4C is rated at a miserly 34 MPG on the highway. There’s your justification for adding one to your garage — it’s efficient!

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Andrew Ganz/Autos Cheat Sheet

Powertrain pros and cons

+ 1.75-liter displacement harkens back to Alfa Romeo’s heritage.

+ Fantastic power-to-weight ratio.

+ You won’t miss power steering.

– Powertrain refinement is not this car’s forte.

– Turbo whistle from the four-cylinder can get annoying.

– The racing exhaust may be too loud for some drivers.

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Andrew Ganz/Autos Cheat Sheet

Tech and safety

The 4C’s tech standout is its carbon tub. Otherwise, it’s not exactly filled with high-tech gee-gaws. This is a car about the pure, essence of driving, which is why it lacks power steering, sound deadening, and most other creature comforts.

Select the $1,800 Convenience Group like our tester had, and you’ll gain an alarm, upgraded speakers, cruise control, and most importantly, backup sensors. Rear visibility is not good, so this package is an essential.

The 4C has not been tested by NHTSA for crash-worthiness.

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Andrew Ganz/Autos Cheat Sheet

Tech and safety pros and cons

+ We like the “everything you need, nothing you don’t” approach.

+ Carbon fiber is supercar tech, and while the 4C isn’t exactly cheap, it is a pretty good value for an entry-level supercar.

+ Once we figured out the stereo, the sound quality was pretty good.

– Backup sensors ought to be standard, or at least less expensive.

– Despite the presence of lots of beautiful Italian leather, the 4C is not remotely luxurious.

– Some buyers may be put off by the lack of power steering — but it’s a good way of weeding out those not “in the know.”

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Andrew Ganz/Autos Cheat Sheet

The drive

Putting the 4C’s engine directly behind the passenger cabin isn’t new — the competitive Porsche Boxster and Cayman do the same thing. It’s a move designed to put most of the 4C’s weight between its axles, which improves agility and road-holding. Needless to say, it works brilliantly in this case.

The 4C makes no effort to be polished. Its non-assisted steering is darty and direct in ways not typically seen outside of Formula 1 cars. It accurately transmits everything the car’s 18-inch front wheels wrapped in high-performance tires encounter on the road; there is no filter to the feedback here.

We didn’t have the opportunity to sample the 4C on a race track, which is really where it belongs, but an afternoon spent carving some twisting, beautifully-paved canyon roads on a bright, 50-degree day revealed this car’s true character. It’s a precise machine aided by its willing, if a bit wheezy, four-cylinder motor. Air is forced into the turbocharger with audible alacrity, drowned out only slightly by the loud exhaust. Put the top down and there’s ample wind rush, which actually serves as white noise to cancel out some of the turbo whistle.

Left in automatic mode, the gearbox lopes around town firing off shifts not exactly smoothly but not intolerably, either. Manual mode breathes new life into the system, with the plastic paddles (they really should be a nicer material) rapidly selecting higher or lower cogs when called upon.

As a highway companion, the 4C is miserable. This is a blast from the past, and not in a good way. As a corner carver, the 4C becomes hugely endearing, in a far-from-perfect sort of way. In many ways, the 4C represents what Porsche used to be, not what Alfa Romeo ever was. Rough and ready, it takes a lot of effort to pilot without winding up in a ditch, but it rewards with personality unlike anything else on the road today.

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Andrew Ganz/Autos Cheat Sheet

Wrap up and review

You don’t need an Alfa Romeo 4C. But the motoring world certainly does. This is a car that reminds us what it’s like to be car nerds, the kind of people who obsess over spec sheet minutia at the dinner table. Yet unlike today’s ultra-safe cars that put 700 horsepower to the pavement as smoothly as a sedate family car, the 4C brings with it bravado and excitement like nothing else backed up by a full warranty.

Alfa Romeo is back in the U.S., and a broader lineup of cars is on its way. Anchored by this flagship, the brand’s future here could be the beginning of something wonderful once again.

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