Remember the 8C? Neither does Alfa Romeo. That cynical, overpriced attempt at an American comeback was never mentioned while Alfa trumpeted its return to the U.S. And for good reason. The 4C puts that $300,000 hack job to shame in every department we care about, and does it at one-fifth the cost.
(Disclosure: Alfa Romeo/Fiat/Chrysler wanted me to drive the 4C so badly they put me up at a hotel in SF with a maniacal bartender making gin-and-tonics that would stun an elephant. I had two. And a half.)
But we've waited far too long for the 4C to land stateside, which made that 342-pound bombshell that much more painful. But let's put that to rest now. En route from Italy, the 4C took on a linebacker's worth of weight in safety and standard equipment. But it doesn't matter. Here's why.
If you want normal people to buy a sexy little coupe that starts at $53,900, they expect things. Like air conditioning and a radio. Yes, we're not "normal people," but this isn't a dedicated track car and Alfa has a business case to make while adhering to crash test standards (it got a low-volume exemption in Europe to avoid modifications).
So we have an easy choice: Get an affordable, lightweight, carbon fiber-tubbed, mid-engine Italian sports car or… not. Seems like a no-brainer.
And let's not forget, we're talking about a car that weighs 2,495 pounds when specced with options you don't have to choose. That's 50 pounds less than a soft-top Miata. Or to sharpen that point even further, the 4C undercuts the Cayman by nearly 500 pounds and weighs 550 pounds less than the Lotus Evora.
So if there was ever a time to put down the torches, pitchforks, and spiked maces, and then bask in the fact that we've finally been given an Italian exotic that's on the high side of attainable, it's now.
If you want to bitch about something, here's a list.
Lotus revels in its barebones interior; the Alfa just feels chintzy. The plastics and materials feel like they're off the same Chinese factory line that makes Barbie's First Ferrari for Walmart.
The luggage space behind the engine is big enough to fit a carry-on size roller bag and maybe a jacket. I fit an overstuffed backpack, a camera bag, and a helmet with some work. There's no glovebox or armrests or cubbies or mesh pockets. Even the cupholders are miserable. You can't access what's under the hood, but you can do brake and fluid changes without ripping it off.
The Launch Edition comes in at $68,400 plus a $1,295 destination charge. That's a pricey markup, even when its part of a limited run of 500. But for that scratch you get the Track Pack with larger front and rear wheels (18/19 versus the standard 17/18) wrapped in Pirelli P Zero AR tires, along with a stiffer suspension (yes), a race exhaust ($500 must-have), carbon fiber accents (meh), and a special front fascia with odd little ducts (pass).
There's barely any sound isolation, which is great when you're caning it on the backroads, but turns into an ear-punishing drone at a steady 80 mph. So – surprise! – this is not a cross-country cruiser.
All done? Good. Let's get to why this is the greatest driver's car I've manhandled in years.
That turbocharged, 1,742cc four-pot huffing and snorting behind my head is the smallest thermo-nuclear device created by Giuseppe and his band of merry boffins. It puts out 237 horsepower at 6,000 rpm and deliver 258 pounds of torque at just over 2,000 revs. Zero-to-60 comes in at 4.3 seconds, but it's at its absolute best when dropping the throttle at 4,000 rpm. The dry, dual-clutch transmission routing that power to the real wheels is a dog at low speed – particularly when putting around in second and third – but comes to life as soon as the road opens up. The shifts are quick and brutal and instantaneous. Would I prefer a manual? Yes. Would it make the 4C a better car? No.
Shade's been thrown at the humble origins of the rear end, which is basically the Alfa Giulietta/Dodge Dart's front setup flipped to the rear. Tear it away and it's obvious Alfa took the important bits and then built the rest of the 4C around it. Along for the ride are run-of-the-mill struts in the rear, but there's a control-arm suspension up front. Considering the Cayman uses struts at all four corners, points to Alfa.
And it adds up. What I was expecting to be a jostling, unhinged ride on the street turned out to be the complete opposite. Bumps were soaked up with ease and things that would've upset an MX-5 mid-corner were shaken off like they didn't exist. And then there's the steering.
Try to count the number of unassisted steering racks currently on sale in the U.S. I did, and I still have fingers left. With a ratio of 15.7:1, the flat-bottomed wheel in the 4C is a modern revelation in a world overrun by variable ratios and electronic steering. Yes, it sucks when backing up (exacerbated by the useless rearview mirror), but I've never had more fun working my pecks. On center, there's a few degrees of steering anesthesia, which instantly gives way to the most brilliant, communicative steering this side of an Elise – maybe even better.
Putting all this kit together at the Sonoma Raceway coalesced into one of those seminal driving moments us gear heads are blessed with maybe once every few years.
With Alfa's "DNA" drive selector set to Race (a long press on the column-mounted switch), the ESC and ASR are deactivated and the only electronic intervention left is the torque-vectoring diff.
Blasting through the first set of corners, the 41:59 front-to-rear weight distribution delivers all the grip, all the time. When I dab the brakes going into Turn 2, everything settles down with surprising assurance. The same goes from 3 through 8, before I blast past 100 mph over the crest and into hairpin of Turn 9.
The Brembos have been solid all day, but they feel overwhelmed as I threshold brake before the 90-degree right. I trail brake, and the back end steps out. Wide. Flashbacks of spinning my friend's turbo'd Elise come to mind. I ease off the brake and get back on the throttle. Crisis averted. Ego stroked. I slide through 9 and into its left-hand sibling. And then do it again. And again. And again.
The 4C is more than I was expecting. Controlled, balanced, focused, with just the slightest hint of sphincter-puckering excitement that's been legislated into oblivion. It has both character and charisma. And it's absolutely worth the weight.