Day 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.
Day 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.
Day 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.