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Alfa Romeo 4C review: First drive

The Good

  • Beautiful design

The Bad

  • Ugly standard headlights
5

Alfa Romeo invited Recombu Cars to lap it up at the Isle of Man’s Jurby Airport in the mini Italian supercar that is the 4C. How could we refuse?

Man, machine and a spirited B-road blast ─ that’s the petrolhead’s dream, and it’s a dream Alfa Romeo believes can be fulfilled by the 4C, an uncomplicated two-seater Italian sports car designed to go very fast and make you feel very alive for less than £50,000. How does it perform? We drove hell for leather around the Isle of Man’s Jurby Airport to find out.

Design

Lets not beat around the bush — the Alfa Romeo 4C is one of the most beautiful cars on the road today, possibly ever. But those headlights… dear God those headlights. They were fine when Alfa first revealed the concept model, but having reached production, someone high up in the company has decided the 4C would be better off with eyes inspired by an alien insect creature. Even Italian design, it seems, has off days.

Just in case the headlights are a big turn-off, the forthcoming Alfa Romeo 4C Spider ditches the spidery headlights entirely and Alfa Romeo offers the same headlight design as an option on the 4C Coupé.

In fairness the rest of the design more than makes up for the headlights and the car is a pleasure to behold from all angles, particularly the front with its sharp, v-shaped bonnet creases. And the rear. And in profile. If head-turning is the aim, then Alfa has you covered. 

We get the feeling whoever designed the headlights was responsible for the interior. In the press shots it looks almost inviting. In real life, however, you have to wonder whether Alfa Romeo has shares in Toys R Us for all the plastic. At least the digital TFT display behind the steering wheel is impressive.

Getting into the 4C requires a crane. Once in, the Sports leather seats (£1,200 extra) are comfortable and supportive. The tiny cockpit might have felt claustrophobic but you sit so low down the ceiling might as well be somewhere in outer space.

The low driving position adds to the feeling you are in something a bit mad.

Practicality

If your only possessions are a compact camera and a bottle of water, you’ll find the Alfa Romeo 4C very practical. If, however, you plan on carrying something larger, it’s one of the worst cars around. Don’t even bother trying to put anything in the glove box — there isn’t one.

Boot space is a measly 110 litres, which means you’ll have to either have to stop eating or buy another car to take to the supermarket. The are no door bins either. And it’s very hard to see out of when reversing, although that issue can be solved with rear parking sensors. Only a fool would buy the Alfa Romeo 4C for reasons of practicality.

Performance & Handling

Issues with the interior and headlights are forgiven when the 4C starts to move. The direct injection, turbocharged 1.75-litre four-cylinder engine borrowed from the Giulietta may sound a bit flat, even with the optional sports exhaust, but make no mistake about performance. 240hp and 350Nm of torque may not sound like much, but the 4C weighs just 895kg. On its own the carbon fibre body can be lifted by two people quite easily, which gives you an idea of just how light it is.

It absolutely flies, completing 0 to 62mph in as little as 4.1 seconds with a quoted top speed of 160mph. 

The launch control system, which is operated by keeping your left foot on the brake, right planted on the accelerator and then releasing the brake, has a momentary pause before the wonderful whine of the turbo kicks in, catapulting you to triple figures on the speedo before you even realise. Reverse gear works well, which is nice, as we had to go back to pick up our stomachs.

The brakes are phenomenal, seemingly fade free, and progressive so it’s easy to judge just how much stopping power you’re applying. Mere mortals will learn to respect and fear the 4C in equal measure.

Alfa Romeo’s six-speed twin-clutch does a good job of changing gear, particularly with the Dynamic driving mode selected, but there are snappier boxes out there. You’ll almost certainly find yourself using the flappy paddles if speed is of the essence.

Hold the DNA driving mode selector up for five seconds and Race+ is selected. This deactivates the traction control, keeps the transmission in manual mode and enhances the throttle response. Natural and Dynamic modes work pretty damn effectively, though, and are advisable if you’re using the 4C on normal roads. 

In the corners the Alfa Romeo 4C turns in sharply, grips like chewing gum in hair and provides plenty of feedback through the steering wheel. It’s surprisingly predictable, its traction control system always on hand to get you out of trouble if you run out of talent — assuming you haven’t enabled Race+ mode. Our test car was equipped with AR Racing tyres (£1,000) and the sports suspension kit (£1,000), which no doubt improved its track abilities.

The sports suspension is firm but not as unforgiving as you might imagine. Throw the car hard into a corner and it’ll stay remarkably composed, even if you encounter unforseen bumps or crash over apexes (as this writer was occasionally prone to doing). As firm as it is, we left the test drive with our teeth and spine undamaged. 

The cockpit is quite noisy, make no mistake. This adds to the emotional connection on a track, but we can imagine on a prolonged journey ear defenders might not be a bad investment — if you can find anywhere to keep them in the cramped cabin. 

The 4C isn’t as forgiving as, say, the more civilised Porsche Boxster S. Germany’s finest makes you feel like a champion whatever your level of skill. The 4C, on the other hand, is seemingly most at home on a track, inspiring you to drive harder and harder, rewarding you over time.

Economy & Environment

The lightweight carbon fibre body comes in handy where efficiency. 41.5mpg is doable if you take it steady, while CO2 emissions are a respectable 157g/km. For a car that can outrun a Porsche Carrera S, those figures are astonishing. Nobody will drive the 4C slowly, of course, but it’s nice to know you can eke out decent mpg if you’re particularly low on fuel. 

Equipment & Value

Both of the test cars we drove were nudging £54,000 with a few extras, which makes the 4C a bit pricey compared with rivals such as the Porsche Cayman. The Tri-coat Competizione Red paintjob, for example, is an extra £2,100. A spare wheel is £150, bi-LED headlamps £900 and the necessary rear-parking sensors £420. A few specs later and you will be well clear of £50,000.

The £3,000 Racing Pack, which adds sports suspension, AR racing tyres, 18/19-inch alloy wheels and a sports steering wheel, is a worthwhile extra if you plan on track days. The £3,500 Luxury Pack with bi-LED headlamps, sports leather and micro-fibre seats, not so much.

Standard equipment includes a Bluetooth-enabled sound system, 17/18-inch alloy wheels, air-conditioning and the aforementioned TFT instrument panel.

How well the Alfa Romeo 4C will retain its value remains to be seen. It does have exclusivity in its favour, given the long waiting list and limited production. Much of the car is borrowed from other Alfa Romeos so servicing costs and reliability should be good.

Safety

The 4C was picked as safety car for the 2014 FIA World Touring Car Championship, so it should be pretty safe, right? Just two airbags keep you from ending up a mess on the dashboard. At least the relatively long bonnet should provide a good crumple zone. 

Verdict

A sensible motoring journalist would now try to compare the Alfa Romeo 4C with something in its price range, which would be a Porsche Cayman or a Boxster, but both cars are far heavier and infinitely more practical. A Caterham Seven 620R or Ariel Atom would perhaps be a batter comparison, but neither are much fun in a country that spends most of the year underwater. The Lotus Exige S is in the same ballpark but more common and less sought after.

The Alfa Romeo 4C is, therefore, a unique prospect. Fast enough to frighten, light enough to hit the track, beautiful enough to get you noticed and capable enough to inspire. For all its flaws, of which there are many, we absolutely loved it.

As a daily driver? You are better off crawling to work on your belly. But for spirited drives in the country or at your local circuit, nothing else offers the same exclusivity, performance and thrills for the money. As a sports car, it’s expensive. As a mini supercar, it’s incredibly cheap.

Specification

PriceFrom £45,000

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