With a rigid, carbon-fiber tub in the best Ferrari tradition, the Alfa Romeo 4C’s trump card is a waiflike curb weight of roughly 2500 pounds. But there is much more to Alfa’s new mid-engine entry, like neck-snapping Brembo brakes, ultrasticky Pirelli PZero rubber, and unassisted and unfiltered steering. Power is courtesy of a 237-hp, 1742-cc turbocharged four-cylinder engine that tattoos your eardrums with lust and desire. The banzai Italian, limited to 3500 units a year, can even outsprint the much more expensive Porsche 911 Carrera to 62 mph.
Has the oft-cited technology transfer from Ferrari and Maserati to Alfa Romeo yielded a winner at last? Is the 4C the brand’s promised comeback car, the much-needed halo model capable of putting Alfa Romeo back on the map, both in the United States and in the brand’s existing markets? Or is it little more than Italy’s belated answer to the Lotus Elise, a minimalist tool that excels only during memorable early-morning blasts? To find out, we paired the rowdy red rascal with the much more formal Porsche Cayman. The outcome of the two-day trial could not have been more eye-opening.
While the Porsche is a comfortable and convenient sports car for grown-ups, the Alfa is both fascinating and flawed. It addresses the hooligan inside, constantly pushing its own limits and those of the driver. The 4C fuses a lightweight physique and heavyweight performance to create a very special sports car experience.
As a marque, Alfa Romeo is currently on a drip feed. The Fiat-owned brand fields a two-model lineup in its home market: the slow-selling MiTo subcompact, which missed the hearts of most Alfisti by a substantial margin, and the Giulietta, which turned out to be a stylish but otherwise inferior Volkswagen Golf competitor. The 8C Competizione, released six years ago, was an overpriced and short-lived glimmer of hope, but it did plant the seed for the 4C, which was conceived as a more affordable but in many ways even more extreme brand-shaper. The uncompromising mid-engine two-seater is skin-over-bones light and focuses primarily on performance and handling. Exciting to drive and yet surprisingly efficient, it scores a ten out of ten for head-turning style, and yet it won’t deplete your bank account like all those big-name supercars that are essentially built to the same format. Did Alfa achieve the squaring of the circle, or is the 4C a pretty phony that will fall apart in the real world?
We started day one on the Alfa Romeo test track in Balocco — in the Porsche, which is supersweet, superstable, and super-balanced. Even with all the chips switched off, the Cayman is a master of creaminess. The steering is smooth and progressive, the light-footed handling is easily modulated, the drivetrain performs in a flow, the brakes do their job with communicative enthusiasm. There are no rough edges, no abrupt transitions, no nasty surprises. You could (but shouldn’t) accept an incoming phone call while sliding through the esses, type in a destination while maxing out the boxer six on the long straight, contemplate the dinner menu on the approach to pit lane. Does that make it boring, predictable, two-dimensional, and too perfect for its own good?
The person stepping out of the 4C surely will tell a different story. He or she might be a bit shaken, breathing heavily, fingers trembling, drops of sweat popping up on the forehead. But on the track the Alfa driver will have smiled a bit more broadly than the person at the wheel of the Porsche and perhaps have a deeper, more intense glow about them. Could it be that the Italians are onto something truly exceptional? Can the 4C beat the Cayman at its own game?
In terms of sex appeal, the new supermodel assembled by Maserati in Modena clearly eclipses the challenger from Zuffenhausen. The 4C is exceptionally pretty from all angles. Its proportions are emphatically seductive, as every detail catches the eye and holds it for a second before letting it move on. Even the odd, wart-shaped headlights grow on you. The side air intakes are brash and bold, and the rear end with the round taillights and the see-through engine cover looks like a junior Ferrari 458 Italia.
In terms of practicality, however, the 4C is not one iota more advanced than Alfa Romeo’s legendary 33 Stradale that was built between 1967 and 1969. Rear-three-quarter visibility is nonexistent, the cockpit is a droning symphony composed of hard black plastic, and the tiny trunk aft of the engine will fry your luggage like a microwave oven on high. The steering wheel has a squared-off bottom, and the garish all-digital instrumentation looks as silly as that in a Lam-borghini Aventador. The center console houses four push-buttons labeled 1, R, A/M, and N, which are hard to reach and even harder to see. The dual-clutch automatic transmission’s transition from reverse to forward takes long enough to double your heart rate, and it is accompanied by an infuriating chime. Headroom and shoulder clearance are not an issue, but climbing into and out of the car should be practiced in private before you embarrass yourself in public. Once installed, one sits tall with stretched arms and legs akimbo in that typical Italian driving position, which works much better for jockeys than for centers or forwards.
If the 4C is a high-tech bivouac on wheels, then the Cayman is a fully furnished luxury condo. It can be optioned with touchscreen navigation, eighteen-way adaptive sport seats, and a Burmester sound system. The Alfa has none of this, but then it is some 450 pounds lighter in American spec. Its carbon-fiber tub weighs only 143 pounds, and the heavily revised version of the 1742-cc engine from the Giulietta has shed 49 pounds. Even the controversial headlamp units save nine pounds each over a less offensive design. To cut more calories, there are only two airbags (U.S. cars will add side and knee airbags), only two speakers, and only two ways to adjust the basic yet comfortable seats. The compact dimensions also help. At 157 inches, the Alfa is fifteen inches shorter than the Porsche. The wheelbase, however, is only 3.7 inches less than the Porsche, which is slightly narrower and 4.3 inches taller. EPA ratings are not yet available for the 4C, but in the European test cycle it is less thirsty than the Cayman, suggesting that it will beat the PDK-equipped Cayman’s 22/32 mpg EPA figures. But the Alfa’s tiny 10.6-gallon fuel tank creates a frustratingly short cruising range, unlike the Porsche with its 16.9-gallon tank.
Price isn’t going to be the deciding factor here, as the Alfa’s U.S. starting figure of “approximately $54,000” (according to an Alfa spokesman) is right on top of the Boxster’s current base tab of $53,550. What has a real effect is the sprint from 0 to 62 mph, where the 4C’s much more energetic 4.5 seconds not only clearly eclipses the Cayman’s
5.4 seconds but actually matches that of a stick-shift 400-hp 911 Carrera S. On paper, the six-cylinder car narrowly edges its four-cylinder rival in terms of top speed (164 mph versus 160 mph), but on the A26 autostrada both coupes reached an identical indicated 166 mph. The 4C is not only quicker off the mark, it also dominates the torque sweepstakes. While the Cayman’s normally aspirated 2.7-liter flat six develops 213 lb-ft between 4500 and 6500 rpm, the 4C’s turbocharged four-cylinder spreads a notably brawnier 258 lb-ft from 2200 to 4250 rpm.
So how does the Cayman manage to keep up? For a start, its engine will rev to 7600 rpm rather than being redlined at 6500 rpm, and its transmission has seven instead of six gears for longer legs and a more progressive acceleration curve. It is, of course, the weight advantage that makes the Alfa shine against the stopwatch and in traffic, where the doctor orders fewer downshifts. In the Porsche, you find yourself driving in hyperactive Sport Plus mode most of the time in order to keep up with the red rebel.
It’s a great car, this Ferrari-inspired two-seater, but sooner or later there comes a time when you frown at its idiosyncratic character. Whereas the Porsche is so homogenous it almost morphs with itself, the Alfa releases you with rosy cheeks, sore palms, and the subconscious on fire. The tallest hurdle between mistrust and friendship is the manual steering. Above 10 mph, the effort required is spot-on most of the time, but at parking speeds the direction-finder threatens to freeze in your arms. The quick and responsive rack controls a pair of relatively narrow front tires. Our test car was fitted with the optional racing package, which includes 205/40YR-18 Pirelli PZeros on one end and fatter 235/35YR-19 tires on the other. The 4C’s chassis setup also features an unorthodox suspension layout: control arms in front and MacPherson struts in the rear, as well as a pronounced 40/60-percent rear weight bias.
On cold tires, tweaking the cornering balance with the right foot is dead easy. But start pushing, and the slim front footwear heats up quickly, increasing understeer. The DNA mode selector (dynamic, natural, all-weather) calls up different stability control and drivetrain attitudes, including a new race mode that cancels ESP assistance altogether. Even with all electronic aids deactivated, the 4C remains an interactive tool that never leaves you in any doubt about what is going to happen next. Having said that, the Alfa is not as intuitive and confidence-inspiring at the limit as the Porsche. Steering inputs tend to unsettle the front wheels to a greater extent than expected, both on uneven turf and at high speed. Tramlining is an issue on back roads and on the autostrada, where the Alfa’s occasionally snappy front end is best left alone so that it can sort itself out like a vintage Porsche 911. Even though more compliance would undoubtedly yield more control, the R&D team under CEO Harald Wester consciously went down the hard-core road for ultimate grip. On the track, the ride is flat and the composure is faultless, but in the land of deep potholes and yawning manhole covers, the 4C puts up more of a fight than the rock-solid yet nicely compliant Cayman.
Both test cars were fitted with nonadjustable dampers, but the Porsche was shod with wider tires sized 235/35YR-20 in the front and 265/35YR-20 in the back. Despite the Cayman’s 38-hp advantage, the 4C was almost always the quicker car, and it was also more fun to drive, at least while the driver’s physical stamina lasted. Contrary to the fuss-free Cayman, the shirt-sleeved Alfa is always ready to put up a fight. Its angry, electronically controlled Q2 differential cuts sawteeth into any perfectly constant radius, its nineteen-inch rear tires tap dance to an ever so slightly different rhythm than the eighteen-inch front wheels, and its ventilated disc brakes take every opportunity to test your neck muscles. Accompanying this zero-compliance tour de force is a soundtrack so addicting that it might be subject to an entertainment tax. On top of all this there is the incidental music played by the soloists in the 4C orchestra: the rackety-clackety-wham of the busy dual-clutch automatic gearbox, the fine whine of the restless turbocharger, the high-pitched duet of direct injection and wastegate whoosh.
By late afternoon, the line for the keys to the 4C is down to the youngest member of our team. By now, the geriatrics need a break from the heat, the vibrations, and the excitement. Enter the Cayman. Its chairs are designed for human beings, not monkeys; its air-conditioning doesn’t freeze the face while frying the toes; and its supple suspension has not been signed off by a direct descendant of the Marquis de Sade.
And yet. The base Cayman is not sufficiently special, its hereditary cocktail contains too many Volkswagen genes and not enough from the GT3. Its flat six makes all the right noises while lacking the thrust of its meaner siblings. The entry-level 2.7-liter coupe is too expensive for what it is, and it certainly is not worth the premium over the Boxster, which is two cars in one.
And yet. The 4C is so much more of a statement, so exhilarating to drive, so crude and pure and exotic. Only about 1000 units a year will come to the United States, and the waiting list is said to be six months. To whet your appetite, there are six paint colors to choose from, four types of upholstery, the aforementioned racing package, and a tasteful luxury package.
The Alfa can pull 1.1 g’s on the skidpad and 1.25 g’s under braking. That’s knocking on Ferrari territory, just like the gleaming, naked, carbon-fiber weave that shapes the tall sills and the tapered footwells. Conceptually, this is a street-legal racing car, sold at a discount price. Weight-saving technologies this sophisticated typically carry a much higher sticker than $54,000. The 4C may well emerge as one of a select few desirable and affordable new cars with a near-zero midterm depreciation forecast. Having said that, the Cayman is, of course, the more complete all-around car and the safer bet for those who travel long distances and many miles. But as soon as parking space and funds permit the purchase of a second car, an Alfa Romeo 4C should be on every gearhead’s want list. A mere four days after relinquishing the keys, I was already feeling strong withdrawal symptoms and longing for an encore.
2014 Alfa Romeo 4C
- Base Price: $54,000 (est.)
- Engine: 16-valve DOHC turbo I-4
- Displacement: 1.7 liters (106 cu in)
- Power: 237 hp @ 6000 rpm
- Torque: 258 lb-ft @ 2200â4250 rpm
- Transmission: 6-speed automatic
- Drive: Rear-wheel
- Steering: Unassisted
- Front Suspension: Control arms, coil springs
- Rear Suspension: Strut-type, coil springs
- Brakes: Vented discs
- Tires: Pirelli PZero AR Racing
- Tire Sizes F, R: 205/40R-18 86Y, 235/35R-19 91Y
- L x W x H: 157.0 x 78.4 x 46.6 in
- Wheelbase: 93.7 in
- Weight: 2500 lb (est.)
- Weight Dist. F/R: 40/60%
- Cargo Capacity: 3.9 cu ft
- Est. Fuel Mileage: 24/33 mpg
- 4.5 sec
- Top Speed: 160 mph
2014 Porsche Cayman
- Base Price: $53,550
- Engine: 24-valve DOHC flat-6
- Displacement: 2.7 liters (165 cu in)
- Power: 275 hp @ 7400 rpm
- Torque: 213 lb-ft @ 4500â6500 rpm
- Transmission: 7-speed automatic
- Drive: Rear-wheel
- Steering: Electrically assisted
- Front Suspension: Strut-type, coil springs
- Rear Suspension: Strut-type, coil springs
- Brakes: Vented discs
- Tires: Pirelli PZero
- Tire Sizes F, R: 235/35R-20 (88Y), 265/35R-20 (95Y)
- L x W x H: 172.2 x 77.9 x 50.9 in
- Wheelbase: 97.4 in
- Weight: 2954 lb
- Weight Dist. F/R: 48/52%
- Cargo Capacity: 5.3/9.7 cu ft (front/rear)
- Est. Fuel Mileage: 22/32 mpg
- 5.4 sec
- Top Speed: 164 mph