I can’t believe it’s taken me this long to drive an Alfa Romeo 4C. Launched in 2013 first off as a coupe then in 2015 as a Spider, the 4C marked a return to the rear-wheel drive sports car for the Italian brand. I love Alfa Romeo as a brand for as long as I can remember. It all started off with a Matchbox toy of an Alfa SZ when I was a wee boy. Over the years I’ve tried to champion for them, even in their low moments. But more recently Alfa has been back on form with cars such as the surprisingly excellent Giulia Quadrifoglio which I tested earlier this year.
Now it’s time for the 4C. The timing isn’t ideal as it’s now nearing the end of its lifespan, but hey, better late than never. To see if the 4C still has what it takes to stay relevant in 2020 I took the 4C Spider Italia for a test over a few days taking it on various roads. During my time with it I kept the Alpine A110 and Porsche Cayman in mind as the benchmark. I absolutely adore the A110 so I was excited to find out how the 4C compares.
In New Zealand you get a choice of two body styles for the 4C; a coupe which starts from $119,990 and the Spider which starts from $129,990. Both body styles are powered by the same 1.75-litre turbocharged four-cylinder petrol producing 177kW and 350NM of torque. Since the Spider is only 10kg heavier than the coupe at 1060kg, 0-100 km/h times for both body styles are identical at 4.5 seconds. The low weight and small engine means the 4C can return a respectable 8.3L/100km, not too bad for a car like this.
My test car is a special ‘Italia’ edition car unique to the Japanese market as a sort of ‘end of the line’ edition of which only 15 were made and all are sold out. Some unique aspects of the Italia edition include the Misano Blue paint job which you won’t find on any other 4C. Yellow brake callipers and ‘Italia’ decals add a bit of flair to complement the stunning blue colour.
Seven years on and the 4C still looks great. It’s got that distinctive Alfa Romeo styling with the prominent grille up front and styling cues inspired by the limited-run 8C supercar. Unlike other small-scale Italian sports cars which are usually designed by an outside party, the 4C was completely designed in-house by Centro Stile Alfa Romeo. The controversial arachnid-like headlights on the coupe has been a divisive design element but the Spider benefits from more conventional, albeit less distinctive headlights which seem to appeal to more people.
It’s a deceptively wide car with a short and squat footprint. The profile is my favourite angle of the 4C, mainly because you get to see those beautiful telephone dial wheels better. The telephone dial wheels are as iconic of an Alfa Romeo styling feature as the grille so I’m glad they’ve continued doing them. At the rear you get a subtle ducktail spoiler on the boot lid and dual round taillights to add to the exotic looks of the 4C. It’s a baby supercar in every sense of the word.
There’s no denying this car is a head turner everywhere it goes. Whether you’re pootling around town, parked in a rest area, or in a traffic jam on the motorway the 4C is still breaking necks 7 years after its debut. A true testament to the timelessness of Alfa’s design.
In a word, it’s sparse. There’s absolutely no creature comforts inside the 4C. It’s a pure, raw, unadulterated experience. Getting inside the interior is a mission in itself. Because of the 4C’s unique carbon tub construction, the door sills are quite wide. You have to be an Olympic gymnast to leap over the sills and it’s even more awkward with the roof on. Once you’ve finagled yourself inside there’s not much to welcome you for your efforts.
This is barebones motoring. You get a two-spoke steering wheel with no power assistance, aircon vents from Alfas 20 years ago, and an Alpine stereo system that couldn’t read my phone via USB or aux. It turns out the plugs that connected them to the main unit had come loose in the back and I had to get my electronics engineer friend to plug them back in (shoutout to Jonathan).
That’s your lot in the 4C. This Japan-spec car got an aftermarket sat-nav screen too and a reversing camera on the rear view mirror. Otherwise it was just an interior. There wasn’t even a glovebox, just a little pouch for the usb plug and aux cables to hang from. You get two cup holders in different sizes, one is American Big Gulp sized and the other is perfect for a small cup of Italian coffee. The Fiat-Chrysler influence is obvious here. The problem is the cupholders are placed so far back it’s a bit of stretch to get your drinks. I ended up just putting bottles of water in between the seat and the carbon sill. You don’t get much in storage at all, the boot behind the engine is tiny. Opening it is also quite a physical task as it’s heavy and not hydraulically assisted. The boot is enough for the roof and two backpacks. That’s it. If you’re expecting more storage in the front forget it, there isn’t any. The front doesn’t even open.
But wait, there’s more. The Sabelt seats look great and were fixed semi-buckets but weren’t the most supportive and were a tad on the firm side. The 4C also suffered from an awkward driving position thanks to that carbon tub. It was similar to that of the Lancia Stratos and Lamborghini Countach in that your legs are angled towards the middle of the car while your torso is straight. The steering wheel was ever so slightly off-centre too so your arms weren’t in line with your legs. This meant on a long journey my lower back got sore quite often. In that sense it felt very much like an old school supercar.
It’s much easier to be negative than it is to be positive and while it sounds like the 4C has many negatives, all of that is forgiven when you drive it. But even the driving experience isn’t perfect. The stand out is the non-power assisted steering. Oh joy of joys it’s good to drive a car with pure unassisted steering again but the drawback is that it’s a pain to manoeuvre around at low speeds. That means wrestling this car every time you need to park it. The steering gets better the faster you go, around 10 km/h and above it starts to loosen up a bit but those low speed manoeuvres were a mission. Don’t even think about three-point turns.
This isn’t a car you can use as a daily driver. Forget about it. While it’s fine in the city, the awkward driving position, little to no storage, and heavy steering limits its broad appeal. But that’s fine because this is a car to be driven outside the city. My first surprise was how competent the 4C was on the motorway. It wasn’t as rough as I expected it to be. Yes the chassis and ride are firm but it wasn’t to the point of being unbearable on a two-hour drive. You do get some road, wind, and engine noise but nothing too extreme for a car of this sort.
For the most part the 4C was quite sensible on the motorway apart from some of the times it’d suddenly tramline. Oh and the dual-clutch gearbox in auto couldn’t figure out which gear to be in during traffic jams. It’d constantly keep changing gears for no apparent reason. It was the first time I’d experienced this in a dual-clutch and it got to a point where I just had to manual control over the gears because it was that annoying.
Get it off the motorway and the 4C starts to make sense. However, that acceptable but firm ride on the motorway changes on rougher surfaces. The carbon tub is very stiff and that means you feel every bump and vibration inside. The suspension is definitely tuned for handling rather than comfort, it can’t quite brush off sudden jolts as smoothly as its more rounded rivals.
But that’s not the point. This is about no-frills driving. The term ‘handles like a go-kart’ gets used far too often like Parmesan cheese at an Italian restaurant but in the case of the 4C that’s the most accurate way to describe it. The steering is heavy, yes, but is direct and with good feel. It’s not quite as direct or as communicative as that of the A110’s when you’re really pushing it but it’s up there. Where it differs from the Alpine is that it is much more physical and involving drive both physically and mentally. Where the Alpine flows from corner to corner like a ballerina, the 4C takes you by the scruff of the neck on a roller coaster ride around corners.
It is hilariously addictive. If driving is a hobby for you, the 4C is a car that’ll put a smile on your face on the right roads and the right conditions. Suddenly I didn’t care about the loose usb cables or the 20 year-old aircon vents, I just wanted to keep driving the 4C. The front end darts around corners like, yes a go-kart, and the back pivots with ease and predictability. You have three drive modes which are adjusted via the DNA switch influencing the traction, exhaust, transmission, and engine accordingly. A is for All-Weather which is self explanatory, it defaults in Natural, and Dynamic is where things get exciting.
The Akrapovic exhausts open up, though personally I didn’t find the engine note of the 4C to be that inspiring, perks up the engine, and adds a bit of slip to the traction control. I took it to one of my favourite roads in Nikko, Tochigi a couple hours north of Tokyo and it was an absolute blast on that particular mountain road. It’s just the perfect size for Japanese mountain roads, or touges, and its unassisted steering means you feel more involved than you would in its contemporaries. The dual-clutch engine isn’t the most sophisticated either adding more to that old-school experience. It’s not bad, just not as razor sharp as rivals. Neither is the engine but it pulls well. 177kW and 350Nm are about as much as you need in a one-tonne car to have fun with in the real world.
What I loved most about the 4C was the assault on your senses. This is the sort of car you could drive to the gym and back for a workout. It’s the sort of car you can’t just get in and drive masterfully in an instant. It demands your respect and needs you to get to know it first. It’s got a real intangible character about it. It’s not an easy car to drive but it sure is rewarding once you get to know it better. Master the steering, balance the brake and throttle pedals, and learn the transmission and you’ll get yourself a driving experience that’s unlike any other modern car.
|Brand/Model||Engine||Power/Torque, kW/NM||Fuel, L/100km||Acceleration, 0-100 kph||Price – High to Low|
|Porsche 718 Boxster S||2.0-litre four-cylinder turbo petrol||220/380||6.9||4.9||$132,200|
|Alfa Romeo 4C Spider||1.75-litre four-cylinder turbo petrol||177/350||8.3||4.5||$129,990|
|Alpine A110||1.8-litre four-cylinder turbo petrol||186/320||6.1||4.4||$110,000|
|Lotus Elise S||1.8-litre four-cylinder supercharged petrol||162/250||5.2||5.7||$96,900|
The Pros and Cons
|• Gorgeous looks |
• Physical, raw driving experience
• Carbon tub is excellent
• Surprisingly economical • Feel good factor
• Unique driving experience
• Compromised package
• No power steering makes low speed manoeuvres tricky
• In no way is this car a daily driver
• Roof is a bit of a faff
• This Italia edition is expensive
|Vehicle Type||Sports car|
|Tested Price||$150,000+ (est)|
|Engine||1.75-litre four-cylinder turbo petrol engine|
|Transmission||6-speed dual-clutch transmission|
|0 – 100 kph, seconds||4.5|
|Kerb Weight, Kg||1,060|
|Length x Width x Height, mm||3990 x 1870 x 1190 mm|
|Cargo Capacity, litres||110|
|Fuel Tank, litres||40|
|Fuel Efficiency||Advertised Spec – Combined – 8.3L / 100km|
Real World Test – Combined – 8.5L / 100km
Low Usage: 0-6 / Medium Usage 6-12 / High Usage 12+
Small: 6-10m / Medium 10-12m / Large 12m+
|ANCAP Safety Ratings||N/A|