Test Drive: 2015 Alfa Romeo 4C
By Ethan West, November 16, 2015
The Compact Premium Sporty Car segment, comprised of models from both German and Japanese automakers, does not often see a new entrant. The Porsche Cayman, Porsche Boxster, BMW Z4, Nissan Z, Mercedes-Benz SLK-Class, and Audi TT have long been regarded as more luxurious approaches to a zippy coupe or roadster. With the arrival of the new Alfa Romeo 4C, these esteemed models have a new peer of Italian descent.
Alfa Romeo has re-entered the American car market, ending its 20-year absence, and the marque has brought out the big guns upon its return. Its biggest gun, however, is the brand’s smallest offering in terms of size.
The Alfa Romeo 4C is a 2-seat, mid-engine sports car with a carbon fiber chassis that weighs in at just under 2500 lbs.—more than 10% lighter than the segment’s next slimmest competitors, Boxster and Cayman. The lightweight Italian 2-seater is powered by a turbocharged, 1.7-liter 4-cylinder engine that creates 237 horsepower right over the driver’s shoulder. The 4C’s transmission is a 6-speed, twin-clutch automated manual unit that can be driven in either fully automatic mode or manually shifted solely from the paddle shifters mounted to the steering wheel.
Considering its lack of storage space and relatively bare-bones cabin, the 4C’s most luxurious trait is perhaps its performance. According to the J.D. Power 2015 U.S. Initial Quality StudySM (IQS), 70% of Compact Premium Sporty Car buyers are performance-minded. This begs the question: In a segment consisting of nearly 70% performance buyers, does this new Italian offering have the goods to compete?
In the J.D. Power 2015 Avoider Study,SM purchasers of new 2015 model-year vehicles in the Compact Premium Sporty Car segment cited exterior styling, performance, and quality of workmanship as the top three reasons for purchasing their vehicle. The newly introduced Alfa 4C hits on all of those points.
The car just feels special. There’s no official metric to compare how special a car is compared to its price, but with a starting price of $53,900, the 4C is the least expensive car to have its engine visible under a glass panel. And while evaluating styling is always objective, there is little doubt that the new 4C commands attention. Alfa’s unique triangular grille in combination with swoopy side scoops and a racy rear diffuser are a few notable stylistic features, especially when wrapped in Rosso Competizione paint as found on our tester.
Stepping inside the 4C, it’s apparent that each material used is there for a purpose. The carbon fiber found on the door sills is not there merely as decorative trim, but rather is part of the chassis of the car. The steering wheel has a flat bottom to allow for more room for the driver’s legs in what could be described as a cozy interior. The gauge cluster is simply one LCD display, not unlike the setup found in racecars. The radio is a simple unit with Bluetooth capability, and the heating, ventilation, and air conditioning controls are nothing more than a simple set of three knobs. In lieu of a traditional shifter, the 4C uses buttons to shift into neutral, reverse, and forward drive gears, and paddles to change forward gears when shifting in manual mode. Everything that’s inside is there for a purpose and with purpose.
Nowhere does the Alfa Romeo 4C’s performance mind show through more clearly than in the way it drives. After selecting first gear, the first thing you’ll notice is the heavy steering. Alfa Romeo opted to forego any form of power steering in the 4C in favor of a more pure driving feel for the road and the handling of the car. This means that at low speeds the steering feels uncharacteristically heavy compared with nearly every other modern car. The tradeoff is that once you get moving, the steering is also more pure and connected than nearly every other modern car. In a segment where performance is key, the 4C’s steering is a unique feature.
Power from the 4C’s turbocharged 4-cylinder engine comes on quickly in each gear and hangs on through redline. The low weight of the carbon fiber construction combined with 237 horsepower makes for a thrilling ride, made even more exciting by the lightning-quick shifting action of the 6-speed transmission. Running up through the gears, the exhaust note is nothing short of aggressive and each upshift is greeted with a satisfying pop from the momentary change in power. With the satisfaction of the exhaust pop between shifts, you may find yourself running up and down through the gears a bit more frequently than necessary just to get that aural gratification one more time.
The very same qualities and traits that make the 4C a thrilling ride and give it undoubted purpose represent compromises that some may not be used to. For example, everything in the cabin is there for a purpose. This means that there is a noticeable lack of center console storage. This is supplemented only by a pouch on the rear interior bulkhead that is roughly the size of a men’s wallet. There is also no glove box—replaced by a pouch on the underside of the passenger-side dashboard. The minimalistic storage trend is continued in the compact rear trunk. In other words, if you’re taking the 4C on a road trip, pack lightly, and if you’re taking the 4C grocery shopping, think more local grocery store rather than big-box warehouse store.
Following the trend of tradeoffs, the manual steering that makes the 4C handle so precisely could become somewhat of an arm workout if your driving load is done primarily at low or parking-lot speeds. Not to mention, the lack of power steering combined with wide tires and low curb weight may make highway driving shifty and more choppy than usual.
The Alfa Romeo 4C establishes itself as the uniquely Italian, lightweight, all-business contender among the Compact Premium Sporty Car segment. For a car that is tuned for aggressive performance, there will be some compromises when it comes to comfort and usability. But, according to J.D. Power research, buyers in this segment favor performance over practicality and utilitarianism. And it’s for that reason that performance is the 4C’s greatest luxury.