A paradox of modern and historical sports-car technology — and driving characteristics — the beautiful 2015 Alfa Romeo 4C is thoroughly, unrelentingly, a machine. For that you may love it or hate it.
On one hand you have a carbon-fiber structure, composite body panels, a high-pressure-turbocharged four-banger and a dual-clutch automated manual transmission. On the other hand you have manual steering, a hard ride, endless noise and a stance slung so low you’ll beg for a hoist to get in and out.
As a mid-engine two-seater, the 4C is closest in philosophy, performance and price to the Porsche Cayman, and also compares to the more expensive Lotus Evora (see them compared). Now in the second phase of production, the 4C has a base price of $55,195 (including destination), a decrease from the initial allotment of Launch Edition models that started at $69,695 (see key differences here).
Exterior & Styling
Nothing else on the road looks like the Alfa Romeo 4C. Since Cars.com’s inception, only three models have gotten as much attention when new — the 2000 Audi TT, 2008 Dodge Challenger and 2014 BMW i8. As with the 4C, I had all these models ahead of dealerships, which always dials up the mania. In time, the older cars didn’t garner a second glance. The 4C will become more familiar, too, but I suspect its exotic styling will remain novel in ways trendsetters and resurrected classics don’t. Despite its relatively low price, the 4C will probably sell in volumes low enough that its exotic styling will continue to draw eyes as much as Lamborghinis and Ferraris do (even if people prefer not to let the driver catch them looking).
The 4C accomplishes another rare feat: distinctiveness that comes not only from its newness. The car’s nose is truly unique in the U.S. market and unmistakable (to the initiated) as an Alfa. (The resemblance of the original Subaru B9 Tribeca to the Italian brand is an anomaly that people won’t conjure, unless prompted … oops.)
I’ll not carry on here about its styling except to say it looks even better in person and in mindfully composed photographs than it does in your average snapshot.
How It Drives
With a mere 1.75 liters of displacement, the four-cylinder engine’s 237 horsepower at 6,000 rpm and 258 pounds-feet of torque at 2,200-4,250 rpm is remarkable. Credit the turbocharger’s maximum of 21.75 pounds per square inch of boost, which somehow doesn’t blow the engine to smithereens operating on the required 91-octane gas.
The engine has all the modern goodies, including direct injection and variable valve timing on both camshafts, but that can’t eliminate every last trace of turbo lag. You don’t reach 21 psi of boost instantly; nothing does. Though it has less peakiness than a traditional small turbo-four, the power still builds gradually enough to give that oddly pleasing anticipation as the power builds. And if you jab the gas heading into a turn, the boost can bring on a midcorner rush of torque that breaks the drive wheels loose.
With a weight distribution of 41/59 percent front/rear — roughly the opposite of a front-drive car — the 4C could be expected to wag its tail easily, but I found it goes into and out of a turn gracefully and forgivingly. Less forgiving is the manual steering. I went into my weekend with the 4C a cocky one-time Fiat Spider owner, but I soon found the 4C’s small steering wheel made for quite the upper-body workout at low speeds — and especially at a standstill. It’s best to set up your next move wisely before changing from Reverse to 1st gear, or the opposite, so you can set the car in motion again before cranking on the wheel. The small car’s preposterous 40.5-foot turning circle guarantees you’ll be making some of these back-and-forth maneuvers.
The manual steering is intended both to cut weight and to deliver the directness only unassisted steering can deliver. Without a doubt, the steering precision and feedback are tops, most appreciated at higher speeds and on smooth pavement. In normal driving, the wheel’s weight wears on you, and the feedback that impresses during spirited, higher-speed driving comes across more as a jitteriness that requires frequent correction.
I reacted similarly to the brake pedal, which commands a set of highly effective Brembo four-piston front and two-piston rear calipers but has peculiar pedal feel in normal driving. The pedal is hinged to the floor at the bottom, old style, and it has practically no travel from the moment you feel any resistance. It feels like stepping on a dead pedal. It wasn’t until I was driving under more frenetic conditions that I came to appreciate the characteristic. The sensation of holding my foot against the pedal and varying stopping force merely with pressure rather than dramatic motion actually paid off as the g-forces threw me side to side and the stiff suspension bounced me about like a kid in a homemade go-kart.
Without a doubt, the 4C’s ride quality limits its appeal. Our car didn’t have the optional racing suspension, which I can’t even imagine, because the stock setup already recalls exotics from the days when the only way to get great handling was to endure spinal jackhammering. I don’t think the ride is bad enough to deter a performance driving enthusiast, but it was enough to end several of my passengers’ love affairs with the car.
The manual steering and firm ride are sure to turn off any casual driver attracted by the styling and automatic transmission. A dual-clutch six-speed, it does a decent job of executing fast upshifts, but we found it a little slower to react when called upon to downshift. Even in manual mode it would often stair-step down in response to a quick triple-click of the left-hand paddle. Various modes changed the drivetrain’s behavior, except in this regard.
The DNA toggle-switch controller stands for Dynamic, Natural (normal) and All-Weather modes. Yes, All-Weather muffles accelerator response and optimizes shifting for low-traction situations, which is good for an emergency, but there are literally hundreds of models I’d choose over this one for winter driving.
Natural and Dynamic progressively sharpen accelerator response and hold gears to higher rpm levels before shifting. Dynamic also relaxes the electronic stability system. Holding the switch in the D position for a few seconds activates the hidden Race mode, which defaults to manual shifting and defeats stability and traction control, and also enables the launch-control feature.
With all the weight-cutting provisions, including some that drivers would deem sacrifices, the 4C must be miraculously light, right? At a curb weight of 2,465 pounds, it’s not as light as I’d expected. It’s a good 423 pounds lighter than a base Cayman, but the common Mazda MX-5 Miata, which is as long as the 4C but narrower, achieves 2,480 pounds — and does so with power steering and without carbon fiber. Alfa says the European version is closer to 2,000 pounds, but the car required additional equipment to meet U.S. regulations and tastes, such as additional crash reinforcements and side-impact airbags, and such amenities as an adjustable passenger seat and a stereo.
Even so, the 4C hits 60 mph in about 4.5 seconds. While some may consider its gearbox inferior for having six speeds rather than more, it sure makes shifting manually more satisfying and less likely to result in a paddle-induced repetitive stress injury. It also delivers an EPA-estimated 24/34/28 mpg city/highway/combined — more than respectable for a car that can do what the 4C does.
At 6 feet tall, I was just OK inside the 4C, but some people simply won’t fit. Even those who do will find its low height and super-wide side sills (proudly displaying their carbon-fiber weave) a challenge to vault. In this, the 4C is once again like a classic sports car. Once inside I found legroom and headroom adequate. Visibility to the front is surprisingly good, but to the back it’s appalling. To illustrate how narrow is the view out the rear window: We attached a little GoPro video camera to the glass with a suction-cup mount, and that wiped out whatever visibility there had been. Rear sonar parking sensors are optional in the $1,800 Convenience Package, but a backup camera is not. This car is a prime candidate for a real-time rearview camera.
I’ve heard gripes about the 4C’s interior quality, but our test car seemed nice enough to me, bearing in mind it featured leather seats and the optional Leather Package, which together add $3,750. The Leather Package wraps the dashboard and door panels in leather, and you can choose black or red leather seats. (Technically the seats are a separate option, but each requires the other, so it’s essentially one $3,750 package.)
Though I prefer head restraints to be height-adjustable (increasingly common in sport seats where they were once nearly unheard of), the 4C’s fixed head restraints fit me well. I also appreciated the prominent bolsters, not only because the car begs to be thrown around, but because the super-wide sills and door somehow manage to be too far away to provide adequate leg bracing.
A good instrument panel can really class up an interior, and the 4C’s does. Along with sharp graphics that change to reflect the driving mode, the all-electronic display also presents a g-force meter when in Race mode.
One can’t discuss the interior without mentioning the sound, or some would say noise. For such a small-displacement four-banger, it sounds very good — and you’d better like it, because you hear it all the time, at least in cars with the optional $500 racing exhaust. This option eliminates the muffler entirely; it seems unlikely, but the muffling effect of the turbocharger is enough to keep it legal. The standard exhaust is sure to make a difference, but I can’t imagine escaping the sound of the engine itself — right behind the cabin — and especially the turbo, which whistles away at the slightest provocation. The intercooler occupies the intake on the left haunch just behind the driver’s door handle.
Here, again, the sound will separate the committed shopper from the casual one.
Ergonomics & Electronics
The 4C has a proper, well-placed handbrake, but four push buttons operate the transmission: the recognized Neutral (N) and Reverse (R), plus “1,” which means Drive. The fourth button, “A/M,” switches back and forth between automatic and manual paddle-shifting modes. We didn’t prefer it over a shift lever, but it’s compact. The DNA toggle is easy to reach and responds pretty quickly.
The ventilation controls are simple, universal knobs. The premium sound system, part of the Convenience Package, is baffling. Like the car itself, it marries the modernity of Bluetooth audio and phone capability with … a removable faceplate?! Once I got it turned on, the sound quality made me grateful I knew how to turn it off.
If you seek a navigation system or advanced active-safety features like blind spot warning or collision warning, you’ll have to look elsewhere.
Cargo & Storage
This isn’t the car class for people who want cargo space, but the 4C proves how different direct competitors can be. Its trunk is an isolated compartment behind the engine under the same liftgate that provides engine access. It measures a wee 3.7 cubic feet, which is about as small as you’ll find anywhere — about the size of a gym bag. Between its front trunk and rear hatch space, the Cayman has an impressive 15 cubic feet, the Evora has 5.7 feet and the Miata offers 5.3 cubic feet, whether the convertible top is up or down.
The 4C’s cabin storage is comparably unimpressive. There are two cupholders, but the glove compartment is actually a pocket barely roomy enough for some mail, there are no door pockets and the center console provides only a netted pocket large enough to secure a smartphone — but just barely.
Carbon fiber is valued in the racing community for its strength and energy absorption properties in lieu of its light weight, but we much prefer to focus on results rather than construction or equipment. Unfortunately, low-volume sports cars like the 4C are rarely crash-tested.
As required in the U.S., the 4C has front air bags, antilock brakes and an electronic stability system with traction control. It also includes a driver’s knee airbag and door-mounted side-impact torso bags. Rear sonar is optional but a backup camera and advanced active-safety features aren’t offered.
Value in Its Class
Value is always difficult to determine, and it only gets tougher when the model in question is a performance car, a luxury brand, an exotic or a low-volume product. The 4C is at least two of these, maybe all four, depending on how you view Alfa. For its styling alone, the 4C could easily command $55,195. Likewise for its performance. Throw in limited volume, and you have what seems a reasonable price — for anyone who isn’t turned off by the ride quality, manual steering, limited cargo space and, at least in some versions, the noise.
Along with the options already mentioned, our car included 18/19-inch wheels (front/rear, replacing 17/18 inch) for $1,800, red brake calipers for $300, $1,500 Rosso Competizione red paint and $1,000 bi-xenon headlights. All told: $65,845, which still seems a decent deal in a class where features found standard on lesser cars commonly come as extra-cost options. Thankfully, many of the options are a la carte. (I’d forgo the larger wheels hoping for slightly better ride quality.) Would I like features such as keyless access rather than just remote locking and unlocking? Yes. Is that a big part of the value equation in a car like this one? I think not.
All the models mentioned above make a good second car (or third, or fourth …). Once you look at it that way, the differences between the 4C and Cayman might prove irrelevant, as might the 4C’s rougher edges. The steering, the sound and the ride quality never let me forget the Alfa Romeo 4C is a machine — something few cars do anymore — and for that I ended up loving it.
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