There was a time when buying the drop-top version of a sports car was an implicit indication that you Just Didn’t Get It. You put fashion over function, style over stiffness. The Alfa Romeo 4C Spider is one of the few (only?) exceptions. It’s just as rigid as the coupe, weighs only 22 pounds more, and drives exactly the same. Win, win, win. Well, almost.
[Full Disclosure: Alfa and its handlers at FCA wanted me to drive the 4C Spider so badly they put me up at a posh hotel in Monterey and rented out Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca for the day. I would’ve stayed at the track, living off Clif Bars and vending machine Red Bull if it meant I could keep lapping the 4C into the night. I was politely told this wasn’t possible because other people have something called “a life.”]
Seriously. Twenty-two pounds. That’s the only weight penalty you pay for open-top motoring, and it’s basically down to a slightly heavier exhaust (to tune the sound) and a new engine cover. Sure, the U.S.-spec 4C gained some tonnage on the trip over thanks to things like “safety” and “amenities,” but it doesn’t matter because the Spider is still only 2,487 pounds and, more importantly, chassis rigidity is the same.
Rip the roof off the 4C and it doesn’t matter. It’s not a structural member thanks to the super-sexy, 236-pound, hand-laid carbon fiber monocoque. So the only place Alfa’s engineers were concerned about flex was in the windshield, where it nixed the standard frame for a carbon fiber surround. It also looks quite nice, and should tie in well to the optional carbon fiber hard top ($3,500) and matching roll hoop cover ($2,750) which Alfa insists on calling a “halo.” (You can call it “frivolous.”)
Everything else we adore about the 4C is intact. The engine is still the turbocharged 1.7-liter four cylinder putting out the same 237 horsepower and 258 pound-feet of torque. The weight distribution is still 41:59 and the 0-60 MPH time is 4.1 seconds. It wears the same staggered (17-inch front and 18-inch rear) wheels wrapped in Pirelli P Zero ARs (205 front, 235 rear) and the brakes are a direct carryover. These are all good things that we like very much.
And now we can enjoy them all with the sun bouncing off our bald spot and even more of that wonderful, maniacal noise pummeling the cabin.
It’s really difficult to describe the crazed snorting, popping, wailing and whining of that twee little four-pot out back. Harness the energy of an angry, coked-up Peter Dinklage and that’s as close as you’ll get. And when the roof’s off it gets so much better.
The growling up to the rev limiter is completely unfiltered, with the turbo’s high-pitch howl piercing your eardrums, and the drama starting anew after each upshift. The only aural demerit might be when you’re outside the car – say, standing in the pits facing the front straight of Laguna – when the upshift gives way to what’s best described as the protein-heavy flatulence of a large man with meat sweats. It’s not exactly refined, but it is disgustingly delightful.
Blast up Highway 1 and it’s instantly apparent that the price you pay for a short wheelbase and non-electrically assisted steering is the demand for constant attention. The 4C is a puppy. Fun and willing, disturbingly energized and juking in all the directions (squirrel!). Every rut, imperfection, and even the slightest amount of camber in the road goes directly through the aluminum subframe, through the taut suspension, and lands in your palm.
You want communication? The 4C has it in abundance, but it also means that an eight-hour run down the Pacific Coast Highway would require a cocktail, a hot shower, and a plush bed to promptly pass out in afterwards.
The need for constant vigilance is part of the 4C’s charm, and while the suspension doesn’t play nicely on the constantly decaying roads of PCH, it all makes sense when it lands on the primed tarmac of the track.
The general sense of unease on the road melts away at Laguna. The suspension finally has a chance to breath, and it only takes a couple laps to erase the stress of the street.
In Dynamic mode, with the traction control set to provide the slightest hint of slip, the 4C manages to feel even more alive. The steering is revelatory, the power is sharp and linear, and the only let-down is the slight sluggishness of the paddle shifts and the fussiness of the brakes, which go from spongy to progressive without much predictability.
But it gets better with each lap. Confidence grows more than any mid-engine cars I’ve driven, striking the perfect balance of communication through rotation. All the information is filtering through hands and ass, and the experience becomes more revelatory each time I brake later, accelerate sooner, and hold the throttle down longer and longer. It’s truly a shame that few 4Cs will ever turn a tire in anger on the track, because that’s where it feels most at home. And with the roof ripped off, it makes the experience that much more intense, engaging, and visceral.
But there is a price. And it’s a steep one (hence that “almost” up top).
The standard, stripped out 4C comes in at $53,900. The Spider: $63,900. Yes, that’s a full (carry the one) $10k more.
After driving it for the better part of a day, I was almost convinced it’s worth it. The 4C was destined – designed, even – to be the ultimate attainable open-topped Italian. Something that blends style and speed and sex appeal into its absolute four-wheeled form. The Spider just amplifies all that, but you pay for the privilege.
And most people that are just after the Alfa experience would be fine with the coupe, despite the nagging certainty that it’s all just a bit better without a roof.