“We’ve come too far to give up who we are.” Most of the time I was driving the Alfa Romeo 4C, I was listening to Daft Punk’s 2013 release Random Access Memories. For Alfa Romeo’s return to the United States with a glorious new sports car that is better than everyone thought it would be, this seemed an appropriate soundtrack.
(Full disclosure: I begged and pleaded Fiat Chrysler U.S. LLC to let me have a 4C for months, and when one finally became available, they hooked me up for a few days. It was a really good couple of days but now it’s gone and I’m dead inside.)
Daft Punk is one of the most influential electronic acts ever, and when it came time for them to follow up 2005’s Human After All, the rest of the music world was doing stuff they had been doing for years. To create something different they had to stretch further back in time, so they modernized the disco and prog rock sounds of the 1970s for the wholly unexpected, Giorgio Moroder-infused Random Access Memories.
Alfa Romeo has ended up doing something kind of similar with their 4C. It’s about the closest thing to a 1970s Italian exotic you can buy new.
With this new lightweight sports car — one with nearly no creature comforts, a turbo engine that screams in your ear and no power steering — they have created probably the purest, most unapologetic, stripped-out enthusiast sports car you can get in America right now, since you can’t buy a new street legal Lotus Elise and Exige here anymore. It puts other sports cars to shame the way Random Access Memories did to other musical acts when it came out.
The 4C is a junior Ferrari for a fifth of the price. Except not a modern Ferrari — an old-school one, back when they were for guys like Steve McQueen and not guys like Justin Bieber.
In some ways it’s the best sports car of the moment, but only the hardcorest of the hardcore need apply. It’s not for squares or posers or people who need their cars to coddle them.
Normal people will never buy the 4C. Maybe they’ll see one out on the street and its eye-popping looks will turn their heads (who can blame them?), and then they’ll go to their local Fiat-Alfa Romeo dealer to check it out.
If these normals can get past the effort needed to wriggle themselves inside, squeezing their wide American asses into the tiny sport seats designed for cheese-eating, cappuccino-sipping Europeans, hearing “Did I mention it doesn’t have power steering?” from the salesperson will probably send them running to the nearest Porsche dealership.
The 4C is for the people who put the drive above all things, and people like that are few and far between. But if you are that person, and you’re willing to put up with its compromises and quirks, you are in for something very special.
It’s hard to understand this just by reading the obligatory stats, which are as follows: a 1.75-liter turbo’d to hell and back four-cylinder sends 237 horsepower and 258 pound-feet of torque to the rear-wheels via a six-speed, paddle shift, dry dual clutch transmission. It weighs in at 2,495 pounds, about 340 pounds more than its Euro counterpart thanks to U.S. safety regs but still 500 pounds less than a Porsche Cayman.
Even if you did crash the 4C, you’d probably make out okay thanks to the race car-like carbon fiber tub, which is unique to this class. How do you know the tub is carbon fiber? Because you can see it from inside the car, below the doors and under the floor mats, exposed bolts and all. It’s not covered by body panels or vinyl or whatever. That would add weight, and weight is the enemy.
There are so many places where Alfa engineers worked to fight the weight. The exposed pedals. The rear hood that opens with a rod, not struts. The minimal storage space. The lack of a backup camera, radar cruise control or other fancy options. The 4C isn’t about that stuff.
This approach keeps the price down too. The 4C starts at $53,900. My white tester wasn’t a Launch Edition car, but it had some similar equipment to that model, like the racing exhaust, track package suspension, leather package (a must have), sport seats and other options that brought it to $69,945.
Equipped as such, the 4C isn’t nearly as bad as a couple of Yankee goof-offs say it is. The $2,750 leather package keeps it largely free of the Playskool-grade plastics on the dash and doors that other reviewers have slammed it for.
The worst parts are the decidedly cheap A/C switches, the absolute lack of any true rear visibility, and a janky, craptacular stereo called “Parrot Asteroid” which, at one point, stopped working entirely.
Otherwise, it all feels tight and well-built. There’s nary a rattle or a squeak to be found, which is more than I could say for that vastly more expensive Audi R8 V10 Plus I tested recently. And then there’s all those great little details that make it feel unique.
But the 4C will never be a luxury car. Nor does it want to be. The interior, and the way it drives, make the Cayman feel like a 5-Series. Hell, even the current Dodge Viper feels plush by comparison. The 4C is visceral and raw. It shakes your insides, as my wife put it. (In a good way. She loved it.)
The best place to be if you’re judging the 4C on looks is outside of it. It’s a stunning design from any angle. It’s beautiful in a fun, ostentatious way. It also looks miles better than its Euro counterpart since it dumps the spider-monster headlamps.
But there are drawbacks. See the front hood seams? Yeah, you can’t open that. It’s bolted shut because it would ruin the aerodynamics otherwise. There is stuff in there, namely the cooling system. The press fleet guy told me mine had just come back from its first oil change, where it needed to be up on a lift with its skid plate unbolted to access the pan for a job that takes at least an hour. Good luck wrenching on your 4C if it’s what you want!
If it is, expect a lot of attention. (Always from dudes, of course.) Thumbs go up, cell phone cameras come out, and dirty looks fly from the cockpits of other sports cars. Motorcyclists especially seem to love it. Everyone is shocked to hear it doesn’t cost six figures to own.
Most of the younger people who came up and asked me about it didn’t recognize the name or the badge — “I think that’s an Aston Martin” happened a lot — but quite a few older guys, guys my dad’s age, knew exactly what it was. Then they’d tell me about their old GTVs and Spiders and how excited they are Alfa Romeo is back in America, especially with something this impressive.
You may think the choice of a small turbo four was just for the eco-weenies, a choice made to maximize fuel economy by using an economy car engine. No. Not here. Not this engine, not the way they’ve tuned it.
Alfa’s 1.75-liter four-banger is whistling, crackling, snarling, whooshing devil of a four-cylinder engine. The crazy bastard boosts all the way up to 21.75 psi, massive for its size. Is there turbo lag? Hell yeah there’s turbo lag. If you’re mad turbos don’t feel like turbos anymore, drive this thing.
The power and torque numbers seem modest, but remember the 4C doesn’t weigh much. More important is how it delivers power, which is with angry gusto, propelling the car from a stop to 60 mph in the low four second range.
This isn’t like one of those insulated, overpowered German land missile luxury sedans where you can hit 0-60 mph in four seconds all while you sip your gigantic Starbucks to-go cup, groove to your favorite Jimmy Buffett song on the satellite radio and contemplate what kinds of porn you’re going to stare at once you get to the office.
No, in the 4C, you feel every moment of that speed, and you hang on.
This is reinforced by how unbelievably loud the 4C is. That engine is always howling and popping and whistling right in your ears, and the carbon tub creates an echo effect that amplifies everything. Long drives leave your ears ringing like flying in a small airplane.
It’s very quick, but it’s still a small four, so it works best when you keep your revs up. This is accomplished via the dual clutch gearbox, the car’s only available transmission.
This thing doesn’t even try and pretend to be a normal automatic the way DSG and PDK do. You have to really give it gas to get it to move, and automatic-mode shifts are forceful and swift. (There’s also the strange operation, which involves pressing “1” to go forward in first gear and then selecting manual mode with “A/M.” Why not just make it “D” for drive? Oh, Italians.)
Around town, it’s actually fine in automatic mode. Though it’s not be the smoothest gearbox in the world, it does neat stuff like blip the throttle for you on downshifts. It really shines in manual mode, naturally, where shifts are nearly instant up and down. It’s as quick a gearbox as any I’ve sampled. More than that, it fits the car so naturally that I found myself shifting manually in every kind of driving instead of using automatic mode, something I don’t normally do.
Do I wish it had a manual? On principle, I guess so, but I can’t say I missed it here. Plus, the dual clutch/manual steering combo helps make the 4C weird! If it had a manual and/or power steering it wouldn’t be as weird!
I wouldn’t be opposed to the idea of going full Italian and adding a gated manual, though. That would be amazing.
It’s not totally analog, after all. The digital gauge cluster is pretty slick, showing your estimated fuel reserves, real-time boost and even changing tach colors when you need to upshift. Then there’s the Alfa D.N.A. selector, which lets you choose between Natural (normal), Dynamic (sportier, louder) and All-Weather. DNA, get it? I think it’d be more fun if it was reversed and meant Awesome, Normal and Don’t Kill Me It’s Snowing Outside.
Dynamic does the usual sport mode stuff. It makes the car’s throttle sharper and more responsive, cranks up the volume on the exhaust, and ramps up shift times. It’s always fun to drive, but noticeably more so in this setting. Hold the “D” longer for Race Mode, which turns off stability and traction control. Hell, it even has launch control. The 4C isn’t so disco that it can’t put good tech to good use.
What is decidedly old-school is the unassisted steering, perhaps the 4C’s killer app. It’s not even hard to use compared to most decades-older manual-steering cars. Only coming from or going to a stop can it feel hefty, but unless you’re doing some extremely tight marking maneuver, it’s incredibly easy to use. Unassisted steering works well on such a small and light car.
It comes alive at speed, where it responds to your micro-inputs with a directness and precision you pretty much won’t find anywhere else. I can see where some people describe it as squirrelly. It’s a both hands on the wheel, pay attention sort of affair, but when you do — and if you know how to drive it properly — you will be rewarded in kind.
Simply put, the 4C’s steering just embarrasses every other car you can buy right now. Every single one. The whole car does, really, in terms of how unfiltered and focused it is compared to its competition.
As you might expect from the steering, tiny curb weight and MR layout, the handling is fantastic. The 4C has been dinged for its relatively simple MacPherson strut-based rear suspension, but I found it to be supremely agile and controllable in high-speed cornering.
It’s progressive and natural-feeling, never prone to snap oversteer. The 4C is helped by its size and weight. The smallness and lightness of it translates into wonderful agility and a willingness to attack corners, as long as you have the skill for it. Much of what the 4C is capable of depends on its driver.
Once you get used to the manual steering, once you get in the zone and master how it works, it’s easy to drive. It just takes concentration and effort. The 4C’s steering requires that you assert control and make it do what you want at all times. You have to stay one step ahead of it.
In a world of all-wheel drive exotics and computerized everything, here is a car that never holds your hand. It doesn’t have to, it’s Italian. It doesn’t give a shit.
But as spartan as the 4C is, it’s incredibly composed at high speeds, even comfortable. The ride lets you feel everything in the road through your ass, but it never punishes said ass. It’s surprisingly well-damped. I can’t call it comfortable, but I won’t call it abusive, either.
It’s not one thing that makes the 4C so satisfying and enthralling. It’s many things. The power. The obscene noise. The manual steering. The great gearbox. The beautiful design. The completeness of it all, including its shortcomings and quirks. The sheer, remorseless purity of it.
Every drive becomes an adventure in the 4C as you wind out its manual steering, its engine popping and shrieking in your ear as you take it to redline and fire off one paddle-shift after another. Driving it becomes an addicting experience that makes everything else feel soft and watered down, pale imitations of the experience you can have in the Alfa.
Judged solely on driving experience, it is probably the best sports car I’ve ever sampled. No, seriously. It’s that good.
I think it’s a better drive than the Corvette Stingray, Cayman, Audi R8, Lotus Evora, and even that McLaren 650S, if only in the sense that it costs so much less. Sure, $70k isn’t cheap, but it’s a steal for this combination of looks, performance and carbon fiber. The $54k base price is even better.
But is it a better car than those competitors are at this price point? Maybe you want luxury and features and comfort with your sports car. If you do, cool. If all you care about is the drive, get the Alfa.
See, you buy the 4C because you fell in love with it. And I don’t mean love the way you looooove your new iPhone, or how you loooooved watching The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt on Netflix. You have to fall in love with the 4C the way you fall in love with a person, the kind of love where you accept their eccentricities and hang-ups and flaws along with the good stuff because that’s what makes them special. People have been doing this with Alfas for decades, and finally, Americans get the chance to do it again.
Let me close by saying that when I think about Alfa Romeo in general, I think of that line Pharrell sings that I quoted up top. After 20 years in the wilderness, out of the U.S. market and cranking out front-drive hatchbacks, they’re back by switching to an all-rear wheel drive lineup. Alfa Romeos will all be proper Italian performance cars again.
I sincerely doubt their entire lineup will be as weird and uncompromising as the 4C. They need to sell a lot of these forthcoming sedans and SUVs to normals, after all. But if they mean what they say about their performance DNA, we’re all about to get lucky.
Photos credit Kurt Bradley