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Alfa Romeo has been AWOL from the U.S. market for almost two decades, an absence that has produced anticipation and angst in equal measure among the Alfisti. With the arrival of the 4C, that long wait may appear to be at an end, and patience, for those who have actually managed to sustain it, is rewarded.
But an asterisk is required here, because America's Alfa drought will be over for only a few. A low-volume, hand-built sports car, the Alfa Romeo 4C represents a thimble of water when a deluge would be more appropriate. There won't be many of these cars, and it will be at least another year before other Alfas, better suited to a broader audience, begin arriving in any quantity.
Still, as a harbinger of Alfas to come, the 4C is a compelling ambassador. Fast, agile, and focused, it's the personification of the sports car ethos, a two-seat tiger that's as happy at an autocross as on the street. Happier, actually. Think small scale Ferrari, and you've got the essence. Plentiful power propelling a raceworthy chassis, packaged in sexy wrappings.
The classic definition of a sports car is a two-seater capable of acquitting itself well on a race track. But to be suitable for ordinary street use, the designers must make compromises aimed at comfort and practicality. The 4C makes fewer compromises than most. As an example, thanks to relatively modest curb weight (2465 pounds), the design team was able to refrain from power assistance for the steering. Suspension tuning conceived to minimize body roll and enhance directional changes will inevitably feel pretty stiff on gnarly pavement, while hard bushings and ultra-stiff structure conspire to transmit road noise into the cabin.
The manual steering effort isn't a real issue, but a creamy ride and quiet interior are simply not part of the package here. On the other hand, for the driver who wants a sports car that thrives on decreasing radius turns, aces autocross events, and is a solid contender for track day trophies, the 4C is as good as it gets. Think maximum partnership between car and driver, the automobile as an extension of the driver's will.
We mentioned hand-built, and that's no exaggeration. Fabricated at the Maserati workshops in Modena, Italy, the chassis is composed of carbon fiber, an expensive and time-consuming procedure that yields a chassis of exceptional rigidity. The engine, which resides behind the cockpit, is a stressed member of the chassis, a design approach called monocoque. Suspension elements are wishbones front, struts rear, and the braking system is robust with big vented discs at all four corners.
The chassis is clad in sheet molding compound (SMC), a synthetic composite, with an injected polymer material used for the fascias and rear spoiler. Windshield and side window glass are thinner by some 10 percent than conventional applications, one of many weight-saving measures.
As an aside, it's interesting to note that the U.S. version of the 4C is 342 pounds heavier than its European counterpart, a disparity that Alfa attributes to various U.S. regulations. Still, 2465 pounds is far from pudgy, and the thrust delivered by its 1750 cc four-cylinder turbo (237 horsepower, 258 pound-feet of torque) is more than sufficient to get the little Alfa off the line and down the street in a serious hurry. Alfa claims 0-to-60 in about 4.5 seconds, and after a day of driving California backroads, plus a session at the Sonoma Raceway road racing circuit, we have no reason to doubt that claim. Alfa also claims a top speed of 160 mph. No reason to doubt that, either.
While acceleration is always gratifying in a sports car, agility is at least as rewarding, if not more so. And in this trait, the 4C delivers a truly exceptional experience. Thanks to structural rigidity that rivals your average railroad trestle, the 4C's agility is on the order of a cheetah closing on an antelope at full speed. Alfa's philosophy identifies the driver as the completing element in the dynamic package, and the 4C's responses are so surgically precise and instantaneous that they seem almost to anticipate the intentions of the piloti.
Styling always speaks for itself, and the 4C's design speaks with a seductive Italian accent that's hard to ignore. Developed under the direction of Fiat Chrysler design chief Lorenzo Ramaciotti, a veteran of many years with Pininfarina, the 4C's wedgy shape and squat, muscular profile caused a sensation when it was unveiled at the Geneva auto show in 2011 as a concept. According to Ramaciotti, the design was inspired by the 1967 Alfa 33 Stradale, a mid-engine coupe created for racing and then civilized for the street. The 4C looks every bit as wicked, and given the progress in propulsion technology over the intervening half-century, is undoubtedly much faster.
All things considered, the 4C stacks up as an outstanding sports car for purists, with the bonus of Alfa Romeo heritage. It's a little too hard-edged to figure as an everyday ride, but will be a track day star. However, as noted, this is a limited production item. FCA (Fiat Chrysler Automobiles) will import only 1000 or so during a year. Better get your order in right now.
The proportions of the Alfa Romeo 4C are tidy, with very little front overhang. The wheelbase (93.7 inches) is short for a mid-engined car, contributing to eager transient response, and the combination of wide track and low roofline (less than four feet) gives the 4C an action-ready appearance. It's a look that's vindicated by the car's dynamics. Wheel sizes are staggered, 17 inches front, 18 inches rear (standard), with the option of 18/19 forged alloys. Tires are Pirelli P-Zeroes, with a high-performance compound.
One downside to that sexy roofline is ingress/egress. The upper part of the door opening is low, and the door sill is wide and relatively high, requiring some contortions on the part of the individual climbing in or out. Appropriately, it's like climbing through a roll cage to get into a race car. Only the limber need apply.
Snug is a word that might have been coined to describe this interior. It fits like a superhero suit, with generous thigh and torso bolsters to keep driver and passenger anchored during hard cornering. They're form-fitting, but comfortable nonetheless. The inner Alfa is all business, but there are some concessions to contemporary motoring: cupholders, for example, a 12-volt power outlet, air conditioning of course, and a four-speaker AM/FM audio system with USB and SD connectivity, iPod, Bluetooth, and music streaming. An upgrade music system is a waste of money because the 4C is far from quiet.
Instruments display in color on a 7-inch thin film transistor (TFT) screen. Navigation isn't on the table. The little display screen in the center dash isn't much bigger than a mailbox slot, but smartphones and other portable navitronics can fill that need. Consistent with its basic mission, the Alfa's instrumentation also includes a lateral g meter, turbo boost gauge, and oil pressure monitor.
Door panels and the flat-bottomed steering wheel are leather-wrapped, but if you want hides for the seats you'll have to sign up for the Leather package, which also includes leather on the instrument panel and a leather storage back. The leather upholstery is offered in red or black. Aside from leather, the interior is highlighted by lots of clear finish carbon fiber and aluminum trim elements. The inner design scheme is well conceived to reflect the spirit of the car.
As noted, the 4C is a purist's sports car, a precision instrument for dissecting an autocross course or paring seconds from road circuit lap times. The controls include four operating modes: All-weather, Natural, Dynamic, and Race, accessed by a switch Alfa calls the DNA selector. The settings are self-explanatory, and affect the car's computer controls, reducing and ultimately eliminating stability and traction control intervention, although the electronic limited slip differential continues to function in all modes.
The brakes, with big rotors all around and four-piston calipers squeezing the fronts, are powerful, easily modulated, and confidence inspiring.
Alfa also offers a Track package that includes race suspension tuning, a bigger wheel/tire combo, and various trim elements. We didn't experience a 4C with this setup, but have no doubt that it would pare seconds off track day lap times. Its impact on everyday drivability, however, may be another story.
The Alfa's basic setup is pretty stiff, and while the shock damping does manage to mitigate sharp bumps, the tuning that gives the 4C its feline responses could become oppressive in a drive of any duration. Interior noise levels are high, those form-fitting seats can become a little confining, there's almost no place to stow small stuff inside, and the luggage hold, located behind the engine bay, is a 3.7-cubic-foot cubby, room enough for your driver suit bag and helmet.
Forward sightlines are good, but those oversize B pillars limit vision in the quarters, and the view through the little rear window would be more appropriate for an armored personnel carrier.
The Alfa Romeo 4C is truly something special, delivering sports car purity and performance of a high order, as well as exceptional Italian eye candy. And there's the added appeal of exclusivity. With first year production limited to about 1000 units, owners won't see duplicates of their cars coming around every corner. Beyond that, it's unlikely that the 4C will be in production for many years, though it's worth noting that Alfa displayed a roadster version as a concept at the 2014 Geneva auto show. Whether that will become a production reality remains to be seen.
Tony Swan filed this report after his test drive of the Alfa Romeo 4C.