2014 Alfa Romeo 4C vs 2014 Porsche Cayman

Charlie Magee

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.

And yet.

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.)
Powertrain
Engine: 16-valve DOHC turbo I-4
Displacement: 1.7 liters (106 cu in)
Power: 237 hp @ 6000 rpm
Torque: 258 lb-ft @ 2200–4250 rpm
Transmission: 6-speed automatic
Drive: Rear-wheel
Chassis
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
Measurements
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
0-62 MPH: 4.5 sec
Top Speed: 160 mph

2014 Porsche Cayman

Base Price: $53,550
Powertrain
Engine: 24-valve DOHC flat-6
Displacement: 2.7 liters (165 cu in)
Power: 275 hp @ 7400 rpm
Torque: 213 lb-ft @ 4500–6500 rpm
Transmission: 7-speed automatic
Drive: Rear-wheel
Chassis
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)
Measurements
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
0-62 MPH: 5.4 sec
Top Speed: 164 mph
PhilG
The 4c is such a stunningly beautiful car but that light kit makes me want to take a 24 ounce framing hammer and smash them right out of the holes in the fenders they are mounted in.How on Earth could a car designer let the truly ugliest light kit in the history of all light kits get on one of the most beautifully designed cars of all time is beyond my comprehension.The 8c remains top of it's class because of this glaring defect in the finished 4c's styling.All I can think of when I see the 4c's HORRENDOUS light kits is the rest of the car feebly screaming, " Help me. Help Me."My God , Alfa , What Were You Thinking !?!
GRIFFON
The Cayman is a great car - the Alfa though is from another Galaxy - it is BRILLIANT!
Francois-xavier Bouley
Forza Alfa Romeo !!
Mark Quinzi
$54k?... I'm guessing each Maserati dealer in the states might get 3 cars to sell (since building the carbon tub severely limits production numbers)... good luck finding one without a first year "Corvette like" dealer mark-up! I wonder what they will really cost? Fiat dealers where suppose to get this car for their under-preforming dealerships...  but Alfa is giving to the big boys at Maserati to get that "up-scale" feel in the showrooms. I'll stick with my gen 1 Cayman... I think the gen 2 Cayman lost some of its "magic" small car feel with its longer wheelbase and bigger wheels, but the real issue is the maintenance and durability of 16 years worth of Porsche's development on the Boxster/Cayman vs 1 year of history on the Alfa's build quality :(
OB1Kubota
Not exactly apples to apples, but I do see the need to compare. The Cayman has become a benchmark of sort. Maybe compare to the Lotus next would be interesting. Really well written article Charlie, thanks. Made me feel like I'd taken my first ride in the Alfa. I do get bored with those who seem to have a need to take sides. Limits ones experiences and knowledge. Probably a pee pee thing. Anyway, keep the information coming.
the_roadrunner
Hard to get excited about either of these cars when a C7 Corvette can be purchased for the same money.
tinlizzy50
Why do all of these so-called sports cars come with only these glorified automatic transmissions?? Maybe they're great for Formula 1 drivers, people who can't drive manuals, and dragsters, but for those of us for whom the driving experience is so much more than how fast you can get from zero to 60, these vehicles hold no allure for us at all. Don't just assume that everyone with the wherewithal to buy one of these cars wants or needs an automatic. There should NEVER be a Porsche that isn't offered with a manual--and that goes for other "sports cars," as well.
Paisan7
Porsche all the way. I know what I am getting and it is one of the most reliable sports car today.
Jimmy White
Porsche Cayman...  if you want to go topless save some $ and get a Boxster.  Love my 987!
i b j j
At 68 I've had considerable experience with Porsche and Alfa. What doesn't freeze up and quit working, breaks and falls off...just like French cars. You can almost drive across Europe in an afternoon so longevity doesn't seem to bother European firms. Panache is spelled Porsche, and Attack is spelled with a capital A. But for reliability, smooth ride and daily comfort it's hard to beat Detroit Iron. I've owned a specialist sports car business and I dearly love the hot rods from across the pond, but OHMYGAWD they are all such an expensive  pain to keep running well! TVR, Marcos, DAF,  and a plethora of other marques...I've owned and raced them all. 
BigBlock45
  Ok,  I think I "get" the article: The Alfa is new, exciting in a hooligan, junior Ferrari way. The Cayman is a known quanity -- smooth, sure, qui unflappable, comfortable. The Alfa is a bit rude and in-your-face. You can't take luggage. No long road trips. Not much room inside. Creature comforts aren't. The instrument panel looks like a video game. On the orher hand, the Alfa is pictured as a atraction for the fairer sex --- until they ride in it for awhile. Then there's the idea of out-dragging a 911 up to top speed! Possibly even embarassing a BMW, a Jag or other assorted mechanicals. I'm thinking this Alfa is barely ready for prime time, but, hey... it's only money! And you won't see many of them!  But, please, in any color except 'give me ticket red' !!
Lester Lightbulb
That was a terrible article.  I think Herr Kacher's bias was pretty well communicated at the begining of the article.  I don't know if its your style or what, but it was an annoying read at best.    And of course, he'd go with the Volkswagen...  I mean Porsche.  The Porsche is going to be more refined.  It's got alot more years on the Alfa in this category.  I'd still go with the Alfa.  Its so unique and this is a history making moment for the brand and its exclusivity will be appreciated by the 1000 lucky owners that get their hands on this.And what's up with the interior complaint?  3 buttons on the dash and then you don't even include a picture of the drivers side of the interior so we can see it.  Oh, wait.  You put that useless passenger shot in.  REALLY?Step it up a notch!  I thought you guys at Automobile were professional Journalists?
jagster911@bellsouth.net
Same old, tired Porsche twaddle.  The bumblebee that can fly.  So what?  Lots of money for sewing machine noises.  Get a Singer, if that is what you are after.  If I won a Porsche, I would trade it in on anything that would be reliable.  As to actually buying one, please!  Nope, not even on a lease where I could give it back.
Gaetan Junior Tshis
porsche
jmccool6969
I'll still take the Porsche.
Jared Hoke
Herr Kacher's epiphanies about the 4C's "gossamer" weight caught my eye, as my '67 Austin Healey BJ8 carries the same 2500 lb  (though not the 237 hp). It's interesting (and telling) that the ladder frame "iron" Healey, with its iron straight 6, weighs no more than the monocoque carbon-fiber Alfa. Maybe those old Brits were not so backward after all??? Its another example of why the Next Big Thing in automotive will be weight reduction via new materials. It can't happen soon enough.
trymes
Perhaps, just perhaps, the missing involvement in the Porsche could have been supplied by a manual transmission? Sure, the PDK is faster, more efficient, and more popular, but let's face it: it's boring. Add back in the driver involvement of the stick, and maybe it wouldn't feel so boring in comparison. I have been toying with the idea of getting a 4C, but I must have missed the part where there is no manual transmission available. No stick? No sale!
crosenman
How about the 4c against the lotus exige S, that seems to be the right comparison as both are hard core race cars in street car clothing.
bramsa
Georg Kacher's article is every bit as nimble and exhilarating as the car it covers.
Stephen Ironmonger
Alfa Romeo cause my wife Italian
Maurice Miller
Porsche!
Herve Debieve
pour sa noblesse et sa fiabilité Porsche
ThorElenion Ash
Alfa romeo any day!!!
Harold Thomas
Porsche all day every day!
Rörich Ackermann
Alfa FTW
Andrew Gross
Cayman because I know it will not fall apart on me within the first year.
Nikhil Salunke
not comparable..
Thierry de Wilde
L'Alfa ...hahaha...
Stephen Abbott
The Alfa has beautiful Italian curves. The Porsche has Teutonic street smarts.
Abubakar Kaka Modu Ak
Both of theme ar wonderful.
mustangfan1
the  both  of  them  r  great in they  own  specs  but  i have  2  pick the  ALFA ROMEO 4c  2  b  different
Tuan Siriwattanaprayoon
4C
Isiaka Audu
The REDDDDDDDDDDDDDDDDDDDDDDDDDD!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Joe Schrump
Porsche all day
GG Racing Archive
Alfa!!! Without the slightest hesitation!!! Cayman is good for crocodiles!!!
Roton M Hossain
Lyk Alfa more than porsche
Farzam Meimand
of course Porsche cayman s!
Minhazur Rahman
Alfa Romeo.
Matt Hauer
You have to ask; Porsche! End of story.
MaVe Rick
Cayman S...
Christian Davenport
Alfa - too many Porsche's on the road - no longer unique
Samuel O Lee
Love the Alfa 8C but not really a big fan of the 4C, so I'd have to choose the Cayman. Besides, Alfa Romeo has been talking about returning to North America for approximately ten years now, so I have about as much faith in them arriving on our shores anytime soon as I have in seeing a new Microbus at a VW dealership.
Robert Raines
I like both and have driven neither, but I gotta say Porsche. We know Porsche will be here(US) in ten years, but we don't know if Alfa will be.
gigantote
@tinlizzy50 YES
OB1Kubota
@Lester Lightbulb  and a journalists you are not. 
Paisan7
@jagster911@bellsouth.net  Porsche has been one of the most reliable cars for a long time.
Jared Hoke
@trymes  Amen, brother.
Lester Lightbulb
@bramsa ????  OMG!   Here's a towel to wipe the %&@$ off your nose.
OB1Kubota
@Stephen Ironmonger wise is this one..
OB1Kubota
@Lester Lightbulb @bramsa you prove me correct again!

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