Gear selection happens either automatically, by the car, or manually, by you using paddle shifters behind the steering wheel. There is no gearshift lever, just four buttons on the console, labeled N, A/M, R and 1. Not the most intuitive setup. You start by selecting 1, then either A or M for automatic or manual. The transmission is a six-speed, dual-dry-clutch auto-shift manual transmission, meaning the underlying hardware is more like a conventional manual than a traditional automatic even though it shifts itself. The benefit is that the shifts are lightning-fast, so while you give up the row-your-own fun of a traditional sports car, you gain serious performance.
And what performance it is. Use the Alfa “DNA” drive mode selector to put the car in Dynamic instead of Normal mode, and you’ll have a baby Ferrari on your hands that responds instantly to throttle, brake and steering inputs. There is no power steering, so there’s nothing interfering between the road, tires, suspension and your hands. This gives the 4C incredibly communicative steering with wonderfully entertaining feedback, but it also means you need to devote 100 percent of your attention to driving at highway speeds. It’s skittish at higher speeds, where small inputs make big changes, and road imperfections throw you around in the lane thanks to the aggressively firm sport suspension. The ride stops just short of being harsh — but only just.
The manual steering also makes low-speed use a serious bear. Your arms will get a workout until you perfect the art of driving at a crawl when trying to turn the wheel, which does make things easier than standing still and trying to crank the wheel.
Acceleration is fierce, accompanied by a wailing, turbocharged whoosh that you seldom hear outside of highly boosted Subaru rally cars. The exhaust opens up when put in Dynamic mode, making for a sound that matches the 4C’s looks — a snorting, rasping growl that turns every head on the street and draws attention in traffic the likes of which I’ve experienced only in much more expensive exotic cars.
I found myself keeping the car in Dynamic mode more often than not, as it also changes the throttle input for much more immediate response. Normal is fine, but it’s tuned for more relaxed driving. Thing is, in a car like this, you’re never really relaxed, so why not go for the gold at every opportunity?
Braking performance is equally strong thanks to Brembo performance brakes, although the floor-hinged brake pedal takes a little getting used to (less so if you’re already used to classic Volkswagen Beetles or Porsche 911s). They’re firm and strong, and they don’t fade under aggressive use. The whole experience is far more visceral than what you’d get in a Porsche Cayman or Chevy Corvette, with very little separating you from the car’s crazy speed and ridiculous abilities. There’s minimal electronic nannying, no sound insulation, no padding, no adjustable suspension, no moonroof, nothing but you and the absolute minimum needed to prevent you from injuring yourself too severely. It’s a throwback to earlier times for sure, but like an old flame or your favorite dish at your favorite restaurant, you’re going to keep coming back for more because it’s just too good not to.
Safety Features? It Has a Few
Like most limited-production vehicles, the Alfa Romeo 4C has not been crash-tested by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety or the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
It does make some allowances for safety systems, like side and knee airbags and mandated traction control, antilock brakes and electronic stability control. Backup sensors are optional, but there’s no backup camera (and there really should be, given the abysmal rear visibility). Cruise control is optional, and as for advanced collision systems like collision avoidance or anything autonomous — well, autonomous driving is not what this car is about in any form. All that stuff is part of the reason today’s sports cars are so portly, and the 4C will have nothing to do with that, thank you very much.
Cargo? See: Safety
Like leaving no allowances for safety features, the same thing goes for cargo room. The only space the 4C has for your stuff is behind the engine bay: Pop the rear hatch and you’ll find a small space that can accommodate a standard-size roll-aboard suitcase. But it’s not insulated from the heat of the motor just inches away, so this is not the car to take to buy a gallon of ice cream unless you want to keep it in the cockpit with you. There’s also very little interior storage room, with just one cupholder and no good place to stash a cellphone. But that’s okay — you shouldn’t be on your phone or drinking anything while driving the 4C, anyway, as that would require having one hand off the wheel, which is not what you want to do in a car this razor’s-edge.
Pricey for a Four-Cylinder, Cheap for a Ferrari
The starting price for a 2017 Alfa Romeo 4C coupe is $57,495 including destination. That price gets you a standard, base coupe with minimal equipment — just power windows and locks, aluminum pedals, air conditioning, Brembo brakes, remote keyless entry and LED running lights. My test car featured items like $1,500 red paint, $1,500 leather seats and $2,000 worth of other leather interior bits, plus cruise control, rear parking sensors and an Alpine sound system with subwoofer.
There’s also an available track package with a carbon-fiber spoiler, leather steering wheel and even more aggressive suspension tuning. The 18-inch wheels add $1,800, and bi-xenon lights are $1,000. All told, my test car rang in at $71,045 — a lot of money for a four-cylinder sports car but a veritable bargain for what turns out to be a three-quarters-scale Ferrari 488.
Competitors make some compelling arguments. The closest in price and layout is the Porsche 718 Cayman coupe, which starts within a few hundred dollars of the Alfa and features a far more comfortable interior. Yet while the Cayman is an outstanding sports car in its own right, it doesn’t have that direct-connection feeling the Alfa does — a totally plugged-in, non-insulated experience you just can’t find anywhere else outside of a used Lotus Elise.
The Chevrolet Corvette is the same way. While it forgoes the mid-engine layout for a front-engine setup (for now, wink wink), it provides its own level of fun and excitement with a far more American V-8 bluster. It, too, has a lot more comfort and modernity built in, but while it’s far more capable as a sports car now than in previous generations, it’s still more of a grand tourer than the track-ready Alfa. Compare the Alfa and a few of its competitors here.
With limited production runs every year, the Alfa Romeo has more exclusivity and rarity than any other sports car in this price bracket. Its limited amenities and decidedly track-oriented abilities limit its appeal, however — if you see someone driving one, you’ll know they sought out this specific vehicle; they didn’t land on it because of a deal or out of convenience. And for shoppers looking for the kind of thrills it provides, the Alfa Romeo 4C will not disappoint.
Cars.com’s Editorial department is your source for automotive news and reviews. In line with Cars.com’s long-standing ethics policy, editors and reviewers don’t accept gifts or free trips from automakers. The Editorial department is independent of Cars.com’s advertising, sales and sponsored content departments.