San Francisco, CALIFORNIA—For too many Americans, the news that Alfa Romeo is returning can spark only one reaction: What the hell is an Alfa Romeo? Perhaps a uniquely gifted pickup artist from Italy who preys on glam-struck Americans who vacation on the Amalfi coast? But that’s what happens when an Italian automotive lothario packs his bags and skips town. After 19 years away, don’t expect a parade when you show up on the doorstep.
Instead, Alfa Romeo will find that in its absence the opportunistic Germans have moved onto its turf. Can this Romeo still find some eager Americans who are willing to embrace its Italian-style moves? With the 2015 Alfa Romeo 4C, we’re about to find out here in San Francisco, which was once an epicenter of Alfa enthusiasm in the U.S.
Priced right, if you’re the right kind of person
This almost indescribably lovely sports car combines old-school personality with new-school technology. It debuts this summer as a fully equipped, performance-oriented Launch Edition priced at $69,695 (500 cars only), while successive examples of the 2015 Alfa Romeo 4C available in the fall will be priced at $55,195. Either way, this is a lot of money for a bare-bones, rear-wheel-drive sports car that only a half-deaf he-man would care to drive daily. Then again, maybe it’s a bargain as a carbon-fiber endorphin blaster that could pass as a Dino-esque Ferrari.
Scandalizing the sports car establishment, the Fiat Chrysler executives in charge of Alfa Romeo insist that the 4C will be joined by seven other models in the U.S. by 2018, all sold from a burgeoning network of Alfa Romeo showrooms that already counts 84 members. Alfa projects 400,000 sales globally by 2018 (compared with barely 70,000 last year), and Americans are expected to snap up 150, 000 of them. (We’ll see about that.)
From a big family in northern Italy
That Northern Italian family resemblance is no shock, considering the shared father: Lorenzo Ramaciotti, the former Pininfarina, Ferrari and Maserati artiste who now leads Fiat Chrysler design. Inspired largely by the 1967 Alfa Romeo 33 Stradale, Ramaciotti has draped the Alfa Romeo 4C’s alluring composite body over a hand-laid carbon-fiber monocoque. He finished it off by combining Alfa Romeo’s signature shield-style grille with a V-shape hood to give the 4C an unmistakable presence in rear-view mirrors.
Painstakingly formed and assembled by the Adler Group in Italy, the monocoque heads to Maserati’s factory in Modena, where twin aluminum carriers are bolted on to support the powertrain and suspension. The power comes from a 237-hp, turbo-huffing, direct-injected, four-cylinder engine, which has a displacement of 1742cc (an engine capacity of 1750cc has some history at Alfa). Stick drivers have been told to stick it, since the only transmission will be a six-speed dual-clutch automatic.
But with blissfully short, redline-smacking gearing, nearly 22 psi of boost and 258 pound-feet of torque, the 4C still leaps into action. The 4C hits 60 mph in roughly 4.5 seconds, tops 110 mph in fourth gear and noses over 160 mph, as an avant garde soundscape of turbo whoosh and mechanical clatter pounds through the carbon-fiber firewall behind you. This Alfa engine is no Ferrari V-8 in terms of melodiousness, but the unmediated four-cylinder racket still manages to charm – at least for the first 100 miles. A $500 Racing Exhaust system eliminates a muffler entirely.
We embark from the Clift Hotel
A hamstring-taxing entry over wide door sills into the cockpit amplifies the Alfa 4C’s compact footprint, as it’s 15.4 inches shorter than a Porsche Cayman. This is a similarly performance-focused car, as the naked carbon-fiber trim for the lightweight, composite-frame seats of the 4C Launch Edition remind us.
A postcard-size, 7-inch TFT screen in front of the driver houses a digital tachometer and digital speedo. Toggling the “DNA Selector” calls up Dynamic, Natural, and All-Weather settings for throttle, transmission, and stability control, with an available Race mode to bypass oversight by the stability control. The dashboard is angled selfishly toward the driver.
There’s a cheesy, 1980s-style audio unit that the passenger can operate. If your passenger doesn’t like it, let him take the bus. This is not a passenger-friendly car, really. A sharp corner of the budget-style HVAC control box threatens shins on the shotgun side. Plus there are no armrests, just leather door pulls, which leaves the passenger’s right arm dangling as if searching for loose change on the floor. At least the U.S.-spec passenger seat slides fore and aft thanks to federal regulations.
Alfa says the opaque black plastic that comes as standard equipment is called “Asphalt,” and while it might have some performance-style aspirations, it resembles something indeed troweled into place by a penitentiary work crew. For any semblance of the Ferrari illusion inside this car’s cabin, do spring for the $2750 leather package that wraps stitched hides on doors and dash.
Now we’re starting to get it
The 2015 Alfa Romeo 4C for the U.S. weighs 2465 pounds at the curb, which is roughly 300 more pounds than the Euro version. This is still not too much (barely 10 pounds per hp), although the all-natural manual steering requires rasslin’ of the flat-bottom steering wheel at parking lot speeds. Fortunately, the steering becomes gloriously lively and tactile once underway, although we’d like it to be a little quicker.
Yes, the dual-clutch transmission is a version of the one that reacts so sloppily in the Dodge Dart, and there’s still an occasional hiccup in engagement during city driving. Yet Alfa’s tuning magic turns this transmission into a surprisingly boon companion, whether for ripping gear changes or simply cruising smoothly through traffic on the Golden Gate Bridge.
We skirt the northern reaches of San Francisco Bay to a ridge of steep hills at the gateway to the valley where you’ll find the vineyards of Sonoma, and we find ourselves at Sears Point, where the vertiginous 2.5-mile Sonoma Raceway is the setting for our track test. Here, the 2015 Alfa 4C is surprisingly docile and easy to sling through turns with no repercussions.
Understeer comes as standard equipment, although the Alfa will accept rotational commands in the corners via throttle or brakes. And yet despite its feathery mid-engine layout, 60-percent rear weight bias, and vivid sensations from the controls, this tiny dancer from Alfa Romeo isn’t ideally suited to the sprawling ballroom of Sonoma Raceway’s challenging layout. For one, turbo lag leaves both 4C and its driver breathlessly hunting for the right gear while exiting slower corners.
It’s the open road for this Alfa Romeo
Yet once the 2015 Alfa Romeo 4C is sprung loose toward San Francisco, it makes any public road seem overmatched. If the Alfa doesn’t feel as barely legal as a Lotus Elise or Lotus Exige, it’s now the closest you can get to that sensation of being an outlaw on the open road, born to buzz civilians and spark hysterical phone calls to the cops. It’s like a lit firecracker in the devilish hands of a teenager.
The 4C’s Brembo brakes feature four-piston calipers up front, and there’s enough braking power and sticky rubber for 1.25 g’s of decelerative force. Meanwhile, Alfa claims the standard 205/45ZR-17 front, 235/40ZR-18 rear Pirelli PZero AR tires will deliver a Lotus-like 1.1 g’s of lateral stick. (Personally, we like the optional 205/40ZR-18 front, 235/35ZR-19 rear Pirelli PZero ARs, if only for the gorgeous wheels with which they come equipped.)
Flying headlong on oceanside two-laners, the 4C scrubs off speed with exhilarating force and brushes curves aside like so many gnats. The powerful 325-hp Porsche Cayman S might be able to stay on the Alfa’s pretty tail fairly effortlessly, but the Alfa is far more physical and responsive, as you’d expect in a smaller car that weighs 500 pounds less.
Is this the new Lotus that you’ve been waiting for?
Pigeonholed by price, the 2015 Alfa Romeo 4C will draw inevitable comparisons to the high-end Audi TT RS, the Porsche Cayman, and even the Chevrolet Corvette Stingray, yet the 4C is nothing like any of those cars. It’s easy to roll your eyes when some carmaker tells you that its car is unique and has no direct rivals, and yet it’s worth considering that the departure of the Lotus Elise and Lotus Exige from the American market leaves the Alfa 4C in a special spot.
Harald Wester, the chief executive of Alfa Romeo, tells us that the planned annual sales of roughly 1100 4Cs in America “will not make Alfa Romeo rich.” Yet this appetizer for the American market is crucial, he says, “because this is the purest incarnation of what Alfa was in the past.”
We have no arguments with the purity or performance of the 2015 Alfa Romeo 4C. But as for the prospects of this prodigal brand, only the Alfa Romeos to come can answer the question.
2015 Alfa Romeo 4C
- Base Price: $55,195
- On sale: Summer 2014
- Engine: 1.7-liter, turbocharged DOHC I4
- Power: 237 hp @ 6000 rpm
- Torque: 258 lb-ft @ 2200 – 4250 rpm
- Transmission 6-speed dual-clutch automatic
- Drive: Rear-wheel
- Steering: Manual rack-and-pinion
- Front suspension: Upper and lower wishbones, coil springs, anti-roll bar
- Rear suspension: MacPherson strut, coil springs
- Brakes: Ventilated discs, ABS
- Tires: 205/45ZR-17 front, 235/40ZR-18 rear Pirelli PZero AR
- L x W x H: 157.5 x 73.5 x 46.6 in
- Wheelbase: 93.7 in
- Track F/R: 64.5/63.1 in
- Weight: 2465 lb
- Cargo volume: 3.7 cu ft
- 0-60 mph: 4.5 sec
- Top speed: 160 mph
- EPA mpg: 24/34/28 City/Highway/Combined