Review and road test of the Alfa Romeo 4C (2013 - 2020)
CLASSIC FROM THE FAB FOUR
By Jonathan Crouch
A rear-wheel drive, mid-engined sportscar based around a lightweight carbon fibre chassis? That'll be a McLaren or a Lamborghini, right? Not in this case. Alfa Romeo has long been a brand of unfulfilled promise. With the 4C, it got itself right back on track.
2dr sports coupe / convertible (1.75-litre)
Back in 2013, it had been thirty years since we'd seen a real Alfa Romeo sports car for real people. But then came the 4C. This was the car tasked with spearheading this brand's global revival - not in terms of sales but significance. From being a manufacturer with a model range smaller than Ferrari, Alfa aimed to transform itself throughout the 21st century's second decade with new sports saloons and SUVs for global buyers, whose interest in this Milanese marque needed to be reawakened. It was the 4C's job to go ahead of these fresh models and do just that, re-launching its maker in the States and offering the world an Alfa with the soul of a supercar.
At a stroke, this car returned us to the days of the company's classic models. For 4C inspiration, the stylists talked of the Scaglione-designed Alfa 33 Stradale of 1967. For the engineers, the direct 4C descendent was Pininfarina's Alfa Spider of 1966 - rear-driven of course, like this 4C. Before this car, there hadn't been a rear-driven mainstream Alfa since the 75 saloon of 1985, the last independently-designed model made by the brand before it was acquired by Fiat. For enthusiasts like us, the memories were more modern, with plenty of design cues bringing to mind the car that borrowed the naming convention of Alfa's 6C and 8C sportscars of the Thirties and Forties - the numerals designating the number of cylinders their engines used. We're talking of the short-lived 8C Competizione supercar, launched in 2007 and assembled for this brand by Maserati, the very people who lovingly took on the task of assembling this, its populist successor.
That fact is significant. The decision early on to base this car on an exclusive carbonfibre chassis of a kind shared only by an exclusive Mclaren 650S supercar would normally mean equally exclusively small production numbers. Yet Alfa was firm in requiring Maserati to hand-build this car for sale in thousands, not in hundreds and at a price that aimed to bring F1 technology to the modern man. This aimed, in short, to be a legendary sports car almost anyone could aspire to. The kind of thing Alfa used to build. An open-topped Spider version joined the standard coupe model in 2015. And the 4C ended production in 2020.
What You Get
Your first impressions of the 4C are of a bigger, more physically imposing car than the pictures suggest. True, it's only fractionally longer than a Lotus Elise but it's virtually as wide as a luxury Mercedes SL, which gives it a pugnacious, foursquare look. There's certainly none of the daintiness that characterised, say, an early Alfa Spider. No, this thing looks like it means business.
Stylist Alessandro Maccolino talks of his inspiration for this shape being drawn from the achingly beautiful Alfa 33 Stradale coupe of 1967, but when it comes to Italian mid-engined cars with an aggressive over-square footprint, enthusiasts are more likely to think of the iconic Lancia Stratos of the Seventies, echoes of which travel down through the years into this 4C model's side window shape, the arc at the base of its windscreen and the minimal overhangs. There's plenty else to catch the eye too, with elements of contemporary Ferrari design in the surfacing of the panels and spectacular alloy wheels that reference Alfa's beautiful 8C Competizione coupe.
There's a truly functional beauty to this car as well, say in the way the rear spoiler flows from the bodywork without interruption, or the way the rear end envelops the jewel-like tail lights. We haven't yet mentioned the headlamps because we can't be bothered with all the fuss that's been made about them. Actually, we happen to think that the optional Bi-LED units you'll find fitted to most models look quite smart, but if you really don't like the look, there's talk in Alfa forums of being able to retro-fit coupe models with the sleeker one-piece units used on the open-topped Spider version. For us, a greater blight on the sweeping shape is that, like so many contemporary Alfas, the front end of this one is marred by having to fit a clumsy great British number plate.
It's only when you have a look at engineering cutaways of this car that you realise how tautly the outer skin is wrapped around the bits that matter. It's made from hi-tech SMC (that's Sheet Moulding Compound) a hi-tech low density material that's lighter than aluminium and completely appropriate for what is a competition-style automotive design - quite literally in fact, for the carbon underpinnings the 4C sits upon were created with the help of single-seater racing manufacturers Dallara. You can't avoid them, for as soon as you open the driver's door, there's a high sill to step across fashioned from polished carbonfibre weave. It's the same sort of thing you'd be faced with in a Lotus, except that there, the tub would be fashioned from less sophisticated aluminium rather than a material previously limited to lottery-winning supercars. The slow process of creating this model's exotic chassis was one of the things that so restricted the 4C's production - to just 3,500 cars a year for worldwide sale. Well, that and the fact that instead of rolling from Alfa's mechanised production line, it was hand-built in Modena for the brand by Maserati, where it was fashioned alongside Quattroportes, Granturismo and Grancabrio models at the company's famous city centre plant in the Viale Ciro Menotti.
Levering yourself into the cockpit doesn't leave you resorting to quite the sort of gymnastics required of an Exige driver but it's still enough to imbue a race-ready feel. Get your foot in first, slide down into the beautifully supportive bucket seat then heave your other leg in and you're greeted with a competition-style cabin dedicated to the pursuit of performance. You even need a seat fitting to properly drive it, with the exact seat height set up for you when you collect the car. Unfortunately, that means it can't be adjusted again unless you reach for your spanners - and the passenger seat can't be adjusted at all. Like everything else in this car, it's all a part of weight-saving design, further evidence of which is found with the simple leather pull handles on the doors, the light but durable plastics and glass reduced in thickness by 15%. Really dedicated original buyers could even pare back another few pounds by deleting the air conditioning and stereo systems.
Don't go expecting the fashionable tactility you'd get from a Porsche - or from just about every other sports car you could buy for this price, apart from a Lotus. The dash materials are a bit scratchy, there's borrowed Fiat switchgear, the paddle shifters feel thin and plasticky and it doesn't help that the curiously-shaped steering wheel is far from an aesthetic triumph. Alfa's argument of course, is that dealing with all of these issues would have added back in all that saved weight but we think you can keep something light and still make it look great. Apple can do it with a MacBook Air. Pinarello can do it with a push bike. Alfa should be able to do it with an interior. They're Italians. They ought to be able to make things look good.
What we do like is the in-dash TFT screen which carries a big electronic tacho surrounded by a digital read-out of your speed, gear, temperature, fuel and that most crucial piece of driving information, the date: don't ask. Switch the car into the 'Race' setting you'll find on the transmission tunnel DNA driving mode selector and you'll notice the whole display change shape and colour as you adjust to the sharper throttle, the quicker gear changes and the fact that, rather bravely if you're on a public road, you've opted to do without the safety net of stability control. So you'll need to be at your best behind the wheel, fortunately aided by a nigh-on perfect seating position, with little in the way of pedal offset. Even that awful steering wheel redeems itself a little here by offering up a decent amount of adjustability.
The rear view though, is dreadful and the best investment you can make after having decided on a 4C is either some foam padding at the back of your garage or a set of parking sensors. Even that won't completely help with every aspect of parallel parking thanks to invisible wings, wheel rims and wheel arches that all but disappear from view the moment that reverse is selected. While we're sounding practical, we'll point out that there's no glovebox, though you do get a couple of cup holders under your elbow, along with two slots beneath the dashboard where you can slot a bag of Haribos or your inevitable speeding tickets.
As for storage of larger items, well you might expect a mid-engined Alfa, like a comparable mid-engined Porsche, to give you trunk space both at the front and the rear. In which case, you'll be disappointed. There's no front boot, or 'frunk' as these things are apparently now known, with the area you'd normally think of as the bonnet instead being fastened firmly shut. Instead, carriage capacity is limited to 110-litres, about the same as you'd get in a Lotus but a quarter of the size of the total space provided by a Porsche Cayman. Enough perhaps for a squashy bag or two on a weekend away but the heat soak from the engine and exhaust will be so great on the scenic route back from Sainsburys that your eggs will probably be soft boiled by the time you get them home. There's not even a hydraulic strut to hold the boot lid open, this another victim of the weight-saving regime. You've got to love that level of fanaticism.
What to Look For
One thing we've noticed is that mechanically the 4C is pretty much devoid of any big issues. By mechanical, we mean that we haven't heard of any blown head gaskets, blown engines or major mechanical failures, although there were a few early owners who had some issues with computer updates and oil pumps. Otherwise, issues seem to be pretty minimal, which is quite impressive as most 4C owners tend to drive their cars pretty hard. We haven't heard of any worn out clutch replacements either.One owner in our survey had a little water leak into the cabin at the foot well after going through a touchless car wash, so avoid high pressure car washes! Some owners needed a realignment of their suspension after delivery. You'll need to think about bolt tightening. First bolt tightening is done at 12,000 miles /12 months, then every other year with corresponding mileage (i.e. 36K/36months, 60K/60/months etc. Go to 4c-forums.com for further advice. Obviously, check for the usual alloy wheels scuffs. And of course insist on a full service history.
(approx based on a 2014 4C excl. VAT) Parts are a bit more expensive than you'd expect to pay for many similarly-sized sports coupes. An oil filter costs around £22, an air filter is in the £12-£16 bracket and a headlight bulb is around £40. Front brake pads are around £85 for a set; a rear pad set is around £47. An air conditioning condenser is around £108.
On the Road
So what's it like? Pretty special is the answer. You realise that from the moment you drop inside and ease yourself into the beautifully woven carbon fibre tub, the very thing that makes this car the lightweight racer it is. Filled with fluids, the 4C tips the scales at just 925kg, fully 250kgs - or the weight of two 20 stone prop forwards - lighter than the supposedly featherweight Lotus Exige. Use this to counter any disappointment that the engine behind is borrowed from an Alfa shopping hatch and offers only four cylinders and 240bhp. Comparably priced rivals deliver more than 300bhp - but then that's needed to offset the extra weight of their six cylinder engines.
But a 'six' will always deliver more in the way of the aural fireworks that are so important for a car of this kind - won't it? Not necessarily. Key the ignition - fortunately, there's no silly starter button - and in the first of many 4C surprises, the 1,750cc turbo fires with an explosive eruption of noise. It's a very special powerplant, with a horsepower-per-litre showing that trounces some of the greatest race engines ever built. And, for a unit of such small capacity, this one has some big lungs. Your neighbours are going to hate you.
One thing you won't have to worry yourself with is a clutch pedal: this car comes in twin-clutch sequential six-speed auto form only. Ferrari will tell you that sports car buyers hardly ever buy stick-shift models any more, so there simply wasn't any point in Alfa developing a manual transmission, no matter how much motoring journalists might have wanted it. As a result, this gearbox has a self-shifting A/M mode - but where's the fun in that? So instead, you punch the '1' button that'll engage first gear and tell the car that you'll take care of the cog-swapping duties yourself using the wheel-mounted paddle shifters. The experience awaits.
Straight away, you're fired off the line with an urgency that's the exclusive preserve of a lightweight, powerful thoroughbred sports car. If you've raced a single seater, you'll recognise the feeling immediately, the light throttle and lack of inertia scrolling the horizon towards you on fast forward as you find yourself pinned back, enveloped in sound and frantically grabbing for second with the needle flying round to the 6,500rpm redline as if spring-loaded. Launch control is standard but in the dry, it's hardly needed, 62mph from rest flashing by in a mere 4.5s, provided you've used the DNA driving mode switch on the transmission tunnel to select either the 'Dynamic' or 'Race' settings. With these, the throttle response sharpens and the cog changes become 130 millisecond rifle-shot quick for your favourite twisting back route home. Rejoin the traffic and you can switch back to the softer 'All Weather' and 'Natural' modes that'll better suit your morning commute.
Most four-cylinder turbocharged engines sound as charismatic as a Magimix but this one has quite the repertoire, with a sharp exhaust bark when you gun the throttle and some dramatic wastegate chatter when you come off the gas. There's 350Nm of torque, though it runs out at about the 5,500rpm mark. Still, by then, you'll be travelling very fast indeed. On that subject, your answer to 'What'll it do, Mister' is 160mph, which is certainly as fast as you'll probably want to go in this car once you've felt the way that the steering follows every ridge and undulation of the road surface. It's completely unassisted you see - yes, just like a Lotus or any proper old-school sports car - which means that at really high speed, you might initially find the rich detailed feedback a little disconcerting, the front end writhing in your hands and the nose bobbing about like an old Porsche 911. Stick with it though. Work with the wheel and the 4C will track true - not that it's a very nice wheel, thick and oddly-shaped. And of course, without modern electrical assistance, extremely heavy to use during parking manoeuvres that'll be a nightmare if you haven't stumped up for the extra-cost rear parking sensors.
As for ride quality, well actually it's pretty good. At first glance, an ultra stiff carbon chassis, low profile tyres and suspension that doesn't seem to have a whole lot of travel would seem to be a recipe for getting some loyalty bonuses from your chiropractor, but the 4C is surprisingly supple. This in fact is one of the main things that makes this car so much more of an easier day-to-day drive than a Lotus would be. You won't necessarily have to always leave it in the garage for high days and holidays.
Buy this car though and you won't want to do that anyway. The light rigid chassis, the wide track and a low centre of gravity aided by a McLaren-style electronic Q2 limited slip diff can only add up to truly astonishing roadholding and cornering traction. If you've an ounce of petrol flowing through your veins, you'll love it. Back in 2013, we'd begun to wonder whether cars like this would ever be made any more. Alfa still thinks they should be. You can further improve things too, if you get a car whose original owner opted for the desirable 'Racing Pack' that adds the rear anti-roll bar surprisingly left off the standard spec. There's a thicker front anti-roll bar too, plus sports suspension, stickier racing tyres and a more melodious exhaust.
What else? Well, we've always thought that one of the true marks of a properly developed performance car is not how fast it goes but how quickly it stops. The Italian race drivers who daily pounded development versions of this car round Alfa's classic Balocco test track (and got within 15% of the time of a 887bhp Porsche 918 Spyder supercar on the Nurburgring Nordschliefe) clearly thought so too. So the Brembo brakes are reassuringly over-specified for the amount of weight they have to handle, hauling the car to a standstill from 62mph in just 35 metres. For reference, the Highway Code reckons you need more than 55 metres for that manoeuvre.
So that's a whole stackload of positives. What about the negatives? Well there aren't really that many. Just about the biggest caveat I'd identify is the fact that the 4C doesn't really have a relaxed side to its nature; it's always on - and always very loud, even at times you may not want it to be, say at cruising speeds when you're trying unsuccessfully to hear the feeble stereo. The TCT auto gearbox also lacks the usual creep function you'd expect on a self-shifter, so irritatingly, you have to constant prod at the accelerator pedal in stop-start traffic. All of which might prove wearing if you were thinking of this Alfa as a daily driver alternative to something like a Porsche Cayman, but if you're buying one of these as a fun car, you probably won't care about any of that. We must admit we like the fact that Alfa never compromised here. They went all-in and as a result, the 4C experience is one you're not going to forget in a hurry.
Whether you're talking cars or creatures, evolution isn't a smooth process but it's punctuated by landmarks that redefine the process. If we apply that to sportscars, these step changes are models that have re-set market standards, designs like Lotus' Elise, Nissan's GTR and Porsche's 911. To this exclusive club, we can add another member, this Alfa Romeo 4C. Why? Because it changes the way that affordable sportscars can be built, with carbonfibre underpinnings previously restricted to exotic McLarens, Ferraris and Lamborghinis, yet here available for less than you'd pay for an entry-level Porsche Cayman of similar vintage that's had a few options thrown at it.
And it's a true driver's car, more extreme in its execution than most of us expected. It's as if Alfa gave vent to years of frustration at being fobbed off with front-wheel drive Fiat platforms and decided to imbue this machine with everything they had. The very fact that here, we finally got a mid-engined rear-wheel drive Alfa Romeo is enough to get the pulses racing. And it looks fantastic. This car is nowhere near perfect of course: Alfas never were. Parts of the interior don't quite match the required price tag and some of the finer points of its dynamics aren't as polished as you'd get in a Lotus product.
The exciting, immersive driving experience can also be wearing at length - but that's the way it should be in a car like this. It should be an event every time you fire it up. You ought to be unable to walk away without turning your head to look for a final time and small kids should want to be photographed with it. This isn't a Lotus Exige or a Porsche Cayman. It's something altogether more exotic. It's the Alfa we'd hoped and prayed for for thirty years. It doesn't disappoint.
Alfa Romeo 4C (2013 - 2020) review by Jonathan Crouch