A week with an Alfa Romeo 4C

Posted in DriveL by Richard Porter on Friday, January 30th, 2015

AWWAlfa4C_1Day one: The 4C arrives at my office. Normally press demonstrators are dropped off by a cheery retiree in a fleece who works for a delivery company. But the Alfa is being delivered by the UK PR man. This could be a worry. When such things happen it’s usually because the company wants to hammer home some message about the car, rather than being grown up about it and letting you make up your own mind. But no. The UK PR is here to, in his own words, ‘show you what all six buttons do and ask you not to crash it’. And with that he is gone, leaving me sitting bolt upright in the 4C. This, as it turns out, is the driving position. Even if you ease the seat away from the bulkhead behind, it won’t recline any more. It’s not the most relaxing. But then, on first acquaintance, not much about the 4C is. It’s noisy, the steering almost constantly twitches and bucks, you can’t hear the radio. After clogging it down a sliproad, I discover it’s also surprisingly fast. You put your foot down, there’s a sucking whoosh from the engine and a metric shitload of boost arrives to punch you in the back. This is nice. The 4C is built around a carbon fibre tub, like a McLaren, and has a claimed unladen weight of 895 kilos, which must help it feel so spry. Unless you’re in America. The US-spec 4C has a different, stronger tub and more airbags which add 155 kilos to the total. Which sounds like a right cock-up. Would sir like one with all the safety bits we forgot about when we designed it, or the special ‘not as safe’ Euro spec?

Day two: A cold morning commute. The 4C isn’t the ideal car for this. The driving position still seems too upright. Words cannot express how cockarsed the stereo is. In fact, it’s the most unfathomable piece of nasty cack I’ve ever experienced. The sound quality is terrible, it’s impossible to retune to another frequency, it claims to have Bluetooth streaming but it would be easier to invent a brand new audio standard than attempt to get it to connect to your phone. On the plus side for the urban crawl, the ride is firm but nicely damped. For some reason the 4C has double wishbone suspension at the front but struts at the rear. It’s like they’ve fitted the chassis the wrong way round. The double clutch ‘box sometimes seems slow to change on the paddles at low speed but when you’re stuck in slow moving traffic the auto mode is surprisingly good.

AWWAlfa4C_2Day three: An early start, a drive to Surrey, a chance to get the 4C out of the city. Finally, some wet but open roads and a chance to stand on it. The news is not good. The 4C feels all over the shop. The steering weighting is weird, going light and then heavy seemingly at random. Worse yet, the whole car darts and scampers across every wonky camber. At one point it almost spits me across the road into the path of an Avensis. Chuck in the boosty, aggressive power delivery that threatens to unhinge the back wheels and the whole thing is stressful and stupid and really very nasty. By the time I get where I’m going my mood is foul and my anus puckered. That wasn’t much fun at all.

It’s our first Top Gear studio recording of the new series. Some filming happens and then it’s time to go home. Something odd happens. The roads have dried out a bit. I’m tired but wired after a long day on my feet. The Alfa actually feels better. Instead of trying to wrestle it, just go along with its hyperactive attitude and it swoops along fast B-roads without feeling like its trying to hurt you. Hmm.

Day four: Come back from walking the dog to find my neighbour Louis standing by the 4C trying to convince his two small children that it’s his new car. They’re doing that small child unconvinced face that basically says ‘sod off daddy’. I can see why he’d try. Parked on a normal street, the Alfa has proper star quality. I know it’s got those strange headlights that make it look like it’s got an eye infection, but the overall shape is low and cool and exciting. When I tell Louis it costs 45 grand he’s surprised. ‘Oh yea,’ he says. ‘I thought it would be twice that’. Later I ask my wife what she thinks it costs. My wife is uncannily good at guessing car prices. But she also reckons it’s £90,000. So there we go, the 4C looks at least twice as expensive as it is. I’ve got work to do at home so I don’t get to drive the Alfa at all today. But I do enjoy looking at it sitting outside.

AWWAlfa4C_3Day five: It’s a beautiful crisp, clear, sunny morning. I should be working but sod that. It’s time to skip school and take the 4C for a proper drive, out of town, onto the motorway, then scamper about the fringes of the Chilterns for a bit. And on the last part of this mild skyve suddenly the 4C isn’t the horrendous ball of nerves and swerving I first thought. Once you get used to it, you learn to trust it, and then you can get more and more out of it. You remember to hammer the revs, keep it on boost, get the engine into the zone where it screams rather than drones and the turbo makes the most incredible skittering, chattering, sucking sounds, like a Max Power Calibra being bummed by McRae’s Impreza. You’ve also got relax your arms, let the steering wheel waggle about in its mad way but know that for the most part it’s going to go where you point it while the rest of the chassis skims across cacky surfaces. Most excitingly, through one damp and fairly tight left hand corner I squeeze the throttle and feel the distinct sensation of the back wheels spinning up and the car going into a bit of a slide. Except it happens at a pace where there’s time to think, oh look, we seem to be in a power slide. And there’s still more time to decide what to do about this. The only correct course of action seems to be to slip into self-parody: Keep the power on, give it a dab of you-know-what, and away. There’s Alfa’s usual DNA mode selector in this car, and in D for dynamic the stability control allows such shenanigans. Once you realise this, you want to do it more. It’s gentle, it’s friendly, it’s frigging hilarious. With familiarity, the whole car is. It’s rare amongst modern cars in that it doesn’t present its abilities to you on a plate. You need to learn things about it and react accordingly. I bet they won’t sell a single one of these cars based on a half hour test drive with the dealer. Under such circumstances it feels horrid. But with time, it’s got depth and skill. And it does little damp road power slides.

Day six: Desperately looking for another excuse to go for a  drive in the 4C. Sadly, there isn’t one. Instead I have to watch people admiring it outside and, presumably, thinking it costs 90 grand.  I don’t know if they’d believe that if they sat in it. It’s a bit of a mixed bag in there. On the one hand, there are some flashy and expensive touches like the TFT instruments and the leather door pulls. On the other hand, the dash isn’t great. The heater dials feel cheap, the inlayed silver bit doesn’t seem to fit properly, it’s hard to ignore that the passenger airbag cover has a slightly different texture to its surroundings in way that would make Volkswagen howl with derisive laughter. There’s more expensive attention to detail in a Fiat 500’s interior than in this. Funnily enough, this ceases to matter once you get your eye in with driving it.

Goodbye: The Alfa must go away again. This makes me sad. A few days ago I thought it was hovering around the fringes of total shit. Then I got to know it. Now I don’t want to let it go. It’s not perfect, of course. It’s noisy, it’s tiring, it feels like it could smack you in the mouth if you disrespected it. But it also has great ability and great depth, both of which you have to work hard and work with to really enjoy. It looks terrific, it has real personality, and when you learn how to drive it, it makes you smile. It’s like a tiny ‘70s supercar that you can buy new. It took a few days, but by God I loved it.

The car talked about here is an Alfa Romeo 4C. It has a four cylinder, 1.7-litre turbocharged engine which produces 236 horsepower. It can go from 0-62 in 4.5 seconds and on to 160mph. Without options it costs £45,000.

19 Responses to “A week with an Alfa Romeo 4C”

  1. Landyboy says:

    Brilliant review, it’s a proper Alfa and I want one.

  2. Lindsay says:

    So far they seem to have quoted the same 0-whatever times for all the different regional variants too, despite the >15% weight difference. At least as far as I can tell.

    Maybe they’ve pulled a sneaky on the engine tune, or maybe they’re just lying out of their arses. The third option I suppose is to invoke Hanlon’s Razor and assume that they don’t know what they’re doing.

  3. Carroll says:

    Thank the gods of FIAT Auto – for all the iffy stuff they seem most keen to sell these days, at least they can make space for a real Alfa.

  4. Did Alfa use a Taimar Turbo to benchtest this agianst?

    What a refreshing change; it sounds like a car with genuine character. The Germans have brainwashed us that all ‘character’ must be removed in favour of excellence.

  5. Crankie Shaft says:

    I see one of these on my weekly early Sunday morning blast to the golf club. Don’t think the bloke knows what he’s doing with it because it always looks very untidily driven, but by god it looks fantastic and sounds properly dirty.

    Majestic.

  6. Kjell says:

    It looks great, it’s great to drive, it sounds nice. Built quality looks iffy. I wan’t one.

    That’s a review of every proper Alfa Romeo I’ve ever read, I think. And it’s why I drove a 156 Sportwagon for 8 years.

  7. Tony Cotton says:

    Would this be the car that I saw covered up in the wind tunnel at Dallara a couple of years ago? How much of the chassis work did they do?

  8. Sniff Petrol says:

    As I understand it, Dallara did the early work on the carbon tub and built the first prototypes. But they made a bit of a cock of things and Alfa took the project back in-house, rather like MG Rover did with the ZT V8 when they didn’t like what Prodrive was doing with it.

  9. Jennifer Warts says:

    “… It’s noisy, it’s tiring, it feels like it could smack you in the mouth if you disrespected it…”

    It truly is Italian.

    Apart from the comedy tail-lights and the alloys, it looks like a Lotus. With the same build quality issues.

  10. Paul Morgan says:

    I fear it says a lot about me when I fully and intrinsically understand the exact sound described by Richard as being “like a Max Power Calibra being bummed by McRae’s Impreza”.

    Having been quite familiar with various Alfas over the years, I can also relate to his assertion that “it takes a week to like it”.

    Amazing how they’ve managed to make a proper old-school Alfa, with all the old-school Alfa foibles, but in 2015.

  11. Hugh Janus says:

    I like everything about this car, i want one and you are very lucky to have had one for a week without it breaking – cool.
    Its got to be half the price of an 8C right?

    I’m starting to save

  12. Heathbunny says:

    Finally a UK review about this car that is honest and makes sense. And no incessant whining about British roads.
    Odd almost.
    On the build quality worries : there aren’t any on mine. Which is probably not a representable sample size, I know. Also the engine has not caught fire (hello Porsche).

  13. johnfganwilliams says:

    Love the concept, Sniff, of MG Rover not liking the work of Prodrive! Couldn’t afford to pay Richards” invoices more like. I speak as a creditor not expecting to be paid any time this century.

  14. I was fortunate enough to see one of these at my local Alfa/Kia/Fiat dealer (nope, me neither) and I was disappointed to find its not a proper Alfa.

    The driving position wasn’t modeled on an ape, the dashboard controls were all clear, simple and concise, the panel gaps were too tight and it started first time and didn’t set itself on fire. Also, whats with the carbon fibre? that doesn’t rust now does it?

    Poor show Alfa, what next? A practical diesel powered car that works for 12 months in a year?

  15. Extrovert Insomniac says:

    Dear Y’ALL, I’ve read and viewed mucho about this, and it may have top-drawer looks, but it’s also bolloxed-hollow by a ton of glaring lunacy.

    1 That price is bat$hite mental, compared to a GT86 with some tuning done and £15k spare
    2 A carbon tub means if you bend it, It’s Dead, Jim.
    3 That anorexic kerb weight SHOULD translate to something special. It’s a whole second quicker to 60 than a 20 year old MR2 Turbo, yours for £5k.
    4 And that MR2 brakes from 60-0 in 11ft less, or as I like to call it, NOT 11ft up the 4$$ of the car in front. Carbon brakes and oversize wheel/tyres are doing WHAT, Exactly, to give this simply unacceptable figure?
    5 On that MR2, the front boot opens to gives a small but useful volume for luggage. The boot opens to swallow TWO full sets of golf-sticks, or two guitars, 100Wt amp and two bags.
    On the 4C, the front doesn’t open, and the available space is fit only for toothbrush-sharing nudists.
    6 The MR2 ergonomics are superbly adjustable for true comfort. I can drive 3hrs without needing my Physio.
    7 Why oh Why didn’t they fit a 3litre V6, instead of a stupid On/Off boost schizoid 4-pot?
    8 Alfa is wah too broad to hustle through narrow country lanes.
    9 It’s been on sale a while now, up against the ubiquitous Boxster, and it’s STILL a very rare sight. One a month for me, if that. Not exactly hot-cakes, for at least the reasons above.

    SURELY they MUST make a 6C? No wider, but longer, proper boot, better brakes, V6, optional blower, comfy seats, job done. But they’d rather struggle along dying a martyrs’ death in the name of Ineffectual Purism.
    And all this from a long-time Alfisti (75 owning).

    Front boot does NOT open, unlike yhe sma

  16. Major Eyeswater says:

    I’ve owned a 4C for quite a while now, boy what a car! It;s raw, it’s loud, and it puts a huge smile on your face. Fortunately, I don’t play golf or play gigs needing two guitars and an amp and I wouldnt buy a clapped out MR2 anyway if I did. As for driving my 4C down narrow country lanes, I do it all the time as the car is no wider than my Brera. A GT86? C’mon be serious.

  17. RKBerta says:

    After owning a 1970 ALFA Spider for 44 years I decided to get a 4C Launch Edition. Have had it for 5 months and frankly it is an amazing car. Takes a while to learn its abilities but it is damn fast As far as build quality…mine came flawless and have had no issues at all…and it gets better as time goes on. Mine is the US car which doesn’t have to deal with the Euro roads which evidently have issues with the Pirreli tires. Mine tracks fine. I have driven it for longer distances and don’t find it uncomfortable at all unless driving over concrete roads with lots of expansion joints where my optional sports suspension gives more jolts. I also have the race exhaust which provides an incredible “symphony” of sound. As to the stock radio….just download the latest firmware upgrade and it will impove it dramatically. But if you complain about the radio sound…you miss the whole point of this car. The engine is brilliant, the trans is brilliant with flawless rev matching shifts up and down that are far better that I could consistently do with my old style manual trans cars while doing the “heel and toe” dance. I am surprised that the review didn’t mention the once biggy…lack of trunk space. Well I tell people I don’t have a trunk but a huge glove box 😉 Hoping to keep this car as long as my old spider…that means I will be looking for a new car when I am about 112 year old.

  18. Termie Nate says:

    Solamente admirabile.

    Biooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooootch.

  19. James says:

    >20 years later they make a car based on, but not as good as, the Elise. Congrats Alfa.

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