Cavaglia, Italy -- Alfa Romeo's on-again, off-again plan to return to the U.S. market might be the longest running drama in the automobile business, but next spring the story will finally will reach its climactic payoff with the arrival of the company's mid-engine, two-seat sports car, the 2014 Alfa Romeo 4C.
This is the company's first sports car in ages, if you don't count the here-and-gone Alfa Romeo 8C Competizione supercar of 2007. And after driving the 2014 Alfa Romeo 4C (at last) on the road near Turin and then on Alfa Romeo's famous test track, Circuito di Balocco, we can say that this car's performance largely delivers on its promise, but it's not without a few caveats that will have to be chalked up to "character."
Low and Lovely
The concept behind the 2014 Alfa Romeo 4C has been "affordable supercar," and it certainly looks the part. Designed in-house at Alfa, the 4C exterior was shaped by the talented Allessandro Maccolini. This is hardly a work of retro-style design, but it does echo the 1967-69 Alfa Romeo 33 Stradale. Meanwhile, references to the brand's current models are few beyond the shield-shaped grille, round taillights, and wheel design.
The 4C's shapely body is draped over a wheelbase that measures only 93.7 inches, and the car casts a shadow more than a foot shorter overall than a Porsche Cayman. With a width of a sizable 78.7 inches and a height of a scant 46.5inches, the Alfa Romeo 4C has dramatic proportions that deliver the street presence of a true exotic. Follow it on the road or see it in your mirrors and the Alfa Romeo 4C looks as otherworldly as any super sports car -- just less huge.
Light weight has been a key objective in the design of the Alfa Romeo 4C, and the car's compact dimensions help minimize the bottom line. Another key element is the mix of materials. Just like a high-end exotic, the 4C starts with a carbon-fiber tub, which weighs only 143 pounds. To it are affixed aluminum structures that support the front and rear suspension plus the roof. Most body panels are sheet molding compound (SMC), and the glass is extra thin.
The 4C's ultra-light weight might be its greatest engineering achievement, although the specific figure is dubious. Alfa quotes a "dry weight" of 895 kg (1973 pounds), but this number fails to include such essentials as engine oil and gasoline. Know also that the U.S. version will be heavier by about 110 pounds, owing to additional standard equipment such as climate control, side and knee air bags, and a manually adjustable (rather than fixed) passenger seat. Let's call it 2200 pounds at the curb in the U.S.
The exotic materials are also in evidence within the cabin, where much of the carbon-fiber tub is exposed and the driver's dead pedal and passenger's footrest are unadorned aluminum. One slips inside over the wide doorsill in an exercise reminiscent of a Lotus Exige. The cockpit definitely has the feel of a mid-engine car, with a far-forward seating position, a wraparound windshield, and an ultra-short hood framed by swollen fenders.
The seat structures are carbon fiber, with upholstery in cloth, leather, or a combination thereof. Large lateral bolsters hold you in place but the seats are less confining and more comfortable than they look. Between the seats lies a low, narrow console that locates a cupholder behind your elbow and then a fat-handled parking brake beside you (no electronic parking brake here). Next you'll find the switches for the windows and the outside mirrors, and then Alfa's DNA (driving mode) control knob accompanied by buttons to make the transmission electronically select reverse, automatic or manual gear selection, neutral, and first. There's no armrest in the center and none on the sculpted door panels, either.
A small leather pouch between the seatbacks comprises pretty much all the stowage; best to stash your chattels in the rear trunk (there's no front trunk), which is about the size of a typical roll-aboard bag. The center stack houses a trio of simple knobs for HVAC, a series of toggle switches, and a multifunction radio -- the latter being too small to integrate a navigation system. Matte-black plastic covers much of the interior, but it manages to look purposeful rather than cheap.
Through the small, fat-rimmed, flat-bottomed steering wheel, the driver sees an electronic TFT screen that displays the instrument cluster. The digital speedometer and gear indicator are ringed by a tach readout that turns yellow as you approach the redline at 6500 rpm. Outside the ring are bar-graph indicators for temperature and fuel level. The display looks busy, but one quickly learns to find the relevant information. The wheel is adjustable for reach and rake, and the seat slides fore and aft with a manual backrest recline. Though we measure six-feet ourselves, we had no trouble getting comfortable in this compact space, and there was a couple inches of headroom to spare.
You fire up the 4C with an old-school twist of the ignition key (no gimmicky starter button), and the transverse-mounted, turbocharged engine behind the tiny rectangle of glass over your shoulder comes to life. This 1.7-liter four-cylinder unit is modified from the one found in the Alfa Romeo Giulietta Quadrifoglio Verde. Where the Giulietta engine has an iron block, the 4C version switches to aluminum, saving 49 pounds; the 4C engine also gets new fuel injectors, redesigned cylinder-head ports, and an electronic thermostat. Output of the Alfa 4C's engine climbs to 240 hp at 6000 rpm and 258 lb-ft of torque at 2100 - 4000 rpm.
We'll grant you that 240 hp and 258 lb-ft of torque are hardly supercar numbers. But in a car that weighs a bit more than 2000 pounds, 240 horesepower proves to be plenty. According to testing at Balocco, the Alfa Romeo 4C will get to 100 km/hr (62 mph) in 4.5 seconds on the way to a top speed of 160 mph. Just as important, the 4C's acceleration feels strong as that of a Porsche Cayman S, which posts similar numbers.
The good times, however, are heavily dependent on the speed at which the turbocharger is spinning. The boost comes on smoothly, although you're always aware of the turbocharger's whoosh and hiss, not to mention a fruity exhaust note not unlike that of the Fiat 500 Abarth. There are other noises as well, like the clicking of the direct injection. A zingy, high-revving naturally aspirated engine might have been more fun and more in keeping with Alfa Romeo's heritage, but it wouldn't deliver the performance of this turbo unit.
Much like the engine, the verdict on the dual-clutch automated transmission is respect, not enthusiasm. Would a traditional stick shift have been cool? Sure, it would. Will Alfa 4C offer one? No, it won't. The brand's overseers argue that a majority of customers prefer shift paddles and no clutch pedal, and the fact that most supercars are similarly equipped settles the argument.
So, how well does the transmission work? The surprising answer is, very well indeed. That's surprising because this six-speed unit with dry-clutch engagement has won few friends in the Dodge Dart, which itself is based on the Alfa Romeo Giulietta. New software works magic here, and we found shifts to be super quick during our laps on the track at Balocco.
Once on the road, we left the mode selector in Dynamic and the box could be left to its own devices to choose the right gear, even while driving hard through switchbacks. Just as important, we didn't notice any jerkiness in acceleration away from a stop during low-speed driving. The transmission also incorporates launch control; just hold the brake, floor the throttle, hit the left shift paddle, release the brake, and take off really fast.
Electric or Hydraulic? That's Not the Question
If traditionalists lost a round with the gearbox, they won one with the steering. Forget electric versus hydraulic power steering -- the 4C has no power steering. This is the kind of thing you can do when your car weighs not much more than 2000 pounds and 60 percent of that weight rests on the rear wheels.
Even with no assist, the 4C steering is not overly heavy in parking maneuvers. It is, however, plenty busy at straight ahead; there's no filter as it reacts to every change in the road surface. But we love how the effort level loads up naturally; there's no sudden change in effort or quickness, like you get in so many busybody power-assist systems. Also, the steering ratio is quick enough that it's only in hairpin corners (or parking) that you need to move your hands on the wheel.
Pick Your Mode for Driving
The DNA driving-mode selector features not only the usual Dynamic, Normal, and all-weather modes, but also Race mode (activated by holding the switch in Dynamic for five seconds). Race mode switches off stability control (except under hard braking) and also cancels traction control. Dynamic mode calls up more aggressive throttle mapping, quickens shift times, and alters stability control to permit greater drift angles. Even on the track, the system in Dynamic mode offered almost no interference, since the chassis delivers such good balance and grip in the corners.
There are two calibrations for the Alfa 4C's suspension setup, which features control arms in front and simple struts in the rear. The standard setup is supplemented by one that has stiffer damping and stiffer anti-roll bars, and it's designed to get the most from its Pirelli P-Zero tires, 18s in front and 19s in the rear. A sportier exhaust comes along for the ride, too. (The test cars available to us were all equipped in this way.) Quick steering action combines with quick handling response to make the Alfa Romeo 4C a whole lot of fun to whip through corners. Despite the rear weight bias, the 4C shades more toward understeer than oversteer. You have to be really trying to unstick the rear end to get the car loose.
Probably you noticed that the racing pack does not include upgraded brakes. The standard stoppers -- with Brembo front calipers -- don't exactly fill out the wheels the way the pizza-sized rotors of heavyweight performance machines do, but they don't need to. Alfa claims an impressive stopping distance of just 118 feet from 100 km/hr (62 mph), and they were just stellar on the track, repeatedly slowing the car down from much higher speeds more quickly than we anticipated. And they did so with no signs of fade. We also loved the modulation delivered by the floor-hinged pedal, which gets to work right at the top of its travel.
How and How Much
Tasked with reestablishing Alfa Romeo in North America to an audience of customers who remember little or nothing of the Alfa Romeo 164 sedan or the long-lived Spider, and for whom the 8C Competizione was a passing blip, the 4C has the presence and the personality make a statement about Alfa Romeo. And it does so far more effectively than the domestic-market Mito or the Giulietta ever could.
When the 2014 Alfa Romeo 4C arrives in the U.S. in the second quarter of next year, we're told it will carry a starting price of approximately $54,000. Even at an out-the-door figure of $60,000 with options, the Alfa 4C will still be the most exotic sports car you can buy at that price. Although it is close in concept to the recently departed Lotus Exige and will inevitably draw comparisons with the more polished and more expensive Porsche Cayman, the Alfa Romeo 4C is a unique offering in its class. No other sports car combines this raw immediacy, surprising affordability, and Italian sex appeal.
There will be retail challenges for Alfa Romeo's return to America, as Alfa will initially set up shop with Maserati dealers at least for the first year. Nevertheless, we think Alfa will have no trouble selling the projected 1000 units of the 4C in the States. Worldwide production of the Alfa Romeo 4C will be held to 3500 per year, with production of the carbon-fiber tub the limiting factor. If Alfa Romeo is going to make a place for itself in the overcrowded U.S. marketplace, it must offer products that are unique and compelling. The 2014 Alfa 4C is an excellent start.
2014 Alfa Romeo 4C
|Base Price:||$54,000 (est.)|
|On Sale:||Spring 2014|
|Engine:||1.7-liter DOHC turbocharged I-4|
|Horsepower:||240 @ 6000 rpm|
|Torque:||258 lb-ft @ 2200–4250 rpm|
|Curb Weight:||2200 lb (est.)|