by Davis Adams
“Carbon fiber is a very expensive material. It’s strong. It’s lightweight. And, it’s beautiful,” explains Gaulberto Ranieri, head of communications for Chrysler Group, in a thick Italian accent. “Our new car is at least half the price of the next cheapest vehicle with a carbon passenger compartment, and this is just our appetizer for what is to come.” Indeed, it's the re-beginning as Alfa Romeo dips its toes back into the US market, which it departed in 1995. And last week, we traveled to San Francisco to test drive the brand’s all-new 4C sports car.
We’ve had glimpses of the Alfa Romeo 4C since the 2011 Geneva Motor Show, where it floored many in concept form with its stunning design. Fast-forward to today, and Alfa has released the production model with nominal tweaks; it’s as undeniably Italian and gorgeous as it was when we first laid eyes on it Switzerland. And, it should be. After all, Alfa Romeo hasn’t technically launched a vehicle in the US since 1991, with exception to a very brief—and incredibly limited—run with the equally handsome 8C and 8C Spider sports cars. If those vehicles were only tastes of what the brand could offer, then the 4C represents the next course, leading us to the main event over the next few years. Alfa is coming, and it’s coming with a full lineup of dynamic, sporty cars in all shapes and sizes—but for 2015, we begin with the 4C.
Up close, the coupe is even smaller than it appears in photos. If you’ve ever come across a Lotus Elise, you’ve found the 4C’s sweet spot; if you’re thinking Porsche Cayman, you’re too big by over a foot longer from nose to tail. The 4C's beak lines sweep back toward the rear haunches, as do the styling lines in the doors, as if to emphasize that the car’s heart is where it should be—behind the driver’s head. In terms of shedding pounds, the exterior panels aren’t made of metal, but a mold-injected "composite" plastic. Alfa Romeo claims that the dramatic curves couldn’t be accomplished easily (or affordably) with steel panels, and that the plastic actually ages just as gracefully.
Inside, the new 4C is surprisingly spare, which feels asynchronous with its exterior design. It’s here that some of the vehicles true intentions truly shine; it’s a sports car with a priority on weight savings. The cabin is small and tight, and the controls for the air conditioning consist of plastic dials, rather than digital readouts. Even the audio system looks like an aftermarket plug-in, all in the name of shaving precious pounds. However, the flat-bottom wheel feels substantial, even without power steering, and the gauge cluster feels modern, thanks to its all-digital display. Plus everything is bolted together in a carbon-fiber monocoque, which offers the strength of steel and lightness of aluminum, with bits of the carbon weave exposed throughout the interior.
“The 4C is a stylistic and spiritual successor to the legendary 1967 33 Stradale,” says Alfa Romeo and Maserati CEO, Harald Wester. “Like the 33 Stradale, it is a car that is meant for extreme mechanical and functional performance, clothed in unmistakable Alfa Romeo design.” It’s a vehicle meant for high speeds, aggressive corners and creating a visceral connection between driver and road.
The car's rear glass cover allows you to see the engine (not unlike a Ferrari 458, McLaren 650, or Lamborghini Huracán), and since the 4C weighs less than a Mazda Miata, there’s no need for a giant power source. Instead, there's a turbocharged 1742cc four-cylinder, which is offered exclusively with a six-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission. The combination produces 237-horsepower and 258-lb-ft of torque, which pushes the 4C from 0-60 in around 4.5 seconds. (About as fast as Porsche's latest 911.) Better still: the 4C earns an estimated 24-mpg in the city, and as much as 34-mpg on the highway.
A drive up the coast on the Pacific Coastal Highway and around Sonoma Raceway proved that the 4C will likely appeal to a very specific kind of customer; one who desires an unapologetic, visceral, driver-centric sports car—and who can forgive the shortcomings of its interior. This Alfa demands constant attention and a vice grip on the wheel. It shines on twisty mountain roads and on sweeping tracks, and there are only a few vehicles available that offer the same level of intimacy between human and machine.
The 2015 Alfa Romeo 4C starts at just under $55,000, making it the rawest vehicle available south of supercar territory—and, perhaps, the most interesting option in a very small segment. Many may try to compare it to the Porsche Cayman, which is significantly heavier, costlier and more comfortable to live with on a daily basis. The closest real competitor would be the Lotus Evora, which is sold in equally small quantities to equally particular clientele. The available interior and exterior styling options can run the final cost up to nearly $70,000 in the 4C, though we might recommend considering one the $68,400 serialized launch-edition models. Only 500 will be built.
Photos by Davis Adams