2015 Alfa Romeo 4C
Dates tested: 10/21/2014-10/24/2014
Miles Driven: 140
Fuel Used: 4.8 gallons
Driving mix: 55% city, 45% highway
Real-world fuel economy: 29.1mpg
EPA-estimated fuel economy: 24/34/28 (city, highway, combined)
Base price: $53,900 (not including $1295 destination charge)
Options on test car: Racing exhaust ($500), special paint ($700), bi-xenon headlamps ($1000)
Price as tested: $57,395
The great: Blistering acceleration, go-kart handling
The good: Surprising fuel economy
The not so good: Cramped cabin, stiff ride, perplexing audio system
After taking home an Alfa Romeo 4C for a night, I’m not going to make a grandiose statement like “You couldn’t pay me to commute in this car” because, obviously, my employer paid me to commute in this car. But that doesn’t mean you could pay me enough to say I enjoyed the experience.
The 4C is Chrysler Group-parent Fiat’s spearhead for reestablishing the Alfa Romeo brand in the USA, where it has been absent since 1995. We’ll see how that goes. It seems that if the 4C has reanimated anything, it’s the spirit of the Lotus Elise. Like the late, lamented Elise, the Alfa 4C is a minuscule 2-seater with a high-output midships 4-cylinder engine, extremely lightweight construction, and a minimum of frills.
As such, the 4C seems far better suited to track day than to Tuesday, 5:30 P.M. There’s nonstop noise hammering away behind your head, visibility is severely restricted, seats aren’t long-term comfortable, ride is hard, cargo capacity is virtually nonexistent, and one of the car’s few creature comforts is absolutely infuriating. We’re talking to you, radio.
The 4C comes with a Parrot-brand AM/FM radio and device interface. This tester spent a fair amount of time following the multiple steps necessary to tune and save station presets, but the even trickier part was figuring out just where this list went into hiding among the various menus! Consulting the Parrot website (as the radio manual suggested) shed no additional light. You’d just like to be able to go right to a clearly marked menu of presets—and quickly, considering you’re doing all this cycling through information while driving—and see your stations come up. I never found mine. The tuner portion of the radio unit is detachable (not a bad thing for security considering that drivers can also load their list of phone contacts into it). Take it out of the car—then forget where you left it.
Consumer Guide®’s test car was the base 4C that starts at $53,900 (or $14,500 less than the better-equipped but similarly engineered Launch Edition). In many ways, the 4C is almost a street-legal race car. The monocoque body structure is constructed of carbon fiber and aluminum, and covered by sheet-molding-compound body panels, all of which help account for a curb weight of just 2465 pounds. Seating position is extremely low—noodling along in morning traffic, I realized I was looking up at the word “Impala” on the trunk of the car ahead of me. (The 4C stands just 46.6 inches from road to roof.) The accelerator and brake pedals are hinged at the floor.
The carbon-fiber construction is clearly visible inside. The base car’s cloth seats are firmly bolstered and manually adjustable fore and aft, and for seat-back angle. This driver would have liked more lumbar support, though. Only a small area of what could be considered “soft-touch” material was evident on the door tops. The rest of the door, dash, and console were composed of grained hard plastic. Another subtle sign of the car’s true purpose is the lack of arm rests on the doors or console—who uses an arm rest when they’re wringing out a car on a track? A meaty leather-wrapped flat-bottom steering wheel on an adjustable column aids driver control. A compact but vibrant thin-film-transistor instrument display keeps the driver apprised of speed, rpm, and a menu of vehicle-status information. Climate controls consist of 3 large dials to set temperature, fan speed, and mode. They sit low on the dash, but are still easy to reach and use. Still, compared to this, the Mazda Miata we drove previously was a Coupe de Ville.
The low roof, wide door sills, and road-skimming seating make for acrobatic entry and exit. The sloped roofline leaves just a slit of rear window and the mesh-covered engine-heat vents to see through. (The optional Convenience Package with rear parking assist—which CG’s car didn’t have—might be a worthwhile “indulgence.”) The roof also completely blots out over-the-shoulder sightlines. There’s a cup holder at the back of the console and a 12-volt power point. The, ahem, trunk under the rear hatch is about big enough to hold a helmet bag and driving gloves.
The rest of the space under the hatch is taken up by the transverse-mounted 1.8-liter engine. Aided by an intercooled turbocharger, the all-aluminum mill produces 237 horsepower at 6000 rpm and 258 pound-feet of torque at 2200-4500 revs—a commendable power-to-weight ratio. Alfa says the 4C is capable of 0-60 mph in 4.5 seconds. There’s no denying that it is lightning quick . . . and thunderously loud. The test car was equipped with an optional racing exhaust, which added to the cacophony of roars, moans, whistles, and hisses emanating from right behind the cockpit. By the time you hit 60, you’re engulfed in this—which kind of makes any complaints about the radio irrelevant, come to think of it.
Only one transmission is offered, a 6-speed double-clutch automatic with paddle shifters. The trans is activated by an odd diamond pattern of push buttons on the console for drive (marked “I”), neutral, reverse, and a choice of fully automatic or selective shifting. Left to its own devices, the trans snaps off crisp changes. Paddle shifts are pleasantly prompt with just a tiny tap of the lever.
If the 4C is a track-day hero, at least your pit crew can take the afternoon off because fuel mileage is quite good. In a round trip of 56.5 miles, this tester averaged 32.68 mpg, with 53 percent of miles under city conditions. That outshines the EPA estimates of 24 mpg city, 34 highway, and 28 combined.
Even without the optional Track Package option, ride from the front-double-wishbone/rear-MacPherson-strut suspension borders on hard. The manual steering is ponderously heavy at very low speeds (which makes backing out of a parking space quite a chore) but lightens up considerably once the car picks up the pace. Under way, steering is extremely responsive. The big Brembo disc brakes stop the 4C predictably from very little pedal travel.
At $57,395 with options and delivery, our test 4C makes for an expensive toy, yes, but not the most expensive one in the playpen. Enthusiasts may find it entertaining at the track, but from where I sit, you’ll want to tow it there.
All the things that make the Alfa Romeo 4C such a thrilling, visceral machine on a tight, twisty two-lane are the same things that make it rather oppressive when burbling through city traffic or droning at a steady 65 mph on the expressway. If your intended use consists primarily of track time and curvy back roads, a 4C is great. If you’re thinking of commuting in one… well, be advised that there are plenty of powerful, similarly engaging sports cars in the 4C’s price range (and well below) that are much less punishing in the daily grind.
Still, the 4C’s raw, uncompromised nature is a significant part of its appeal. The outlandish bodywork, obviously mid-engined architecture, and expanses of clearly visible carbon fiber give this tenacious little two-seater an exotic, purpose-built feel that few cars can match. To the right kind of enthusiast driver, tolerating the 4C’s idiosyncrasies will be sort of a badge of honor.
After a steep drop and a twist in the low-set seats to clear the extra-wide doorsill, I actually fit in the cramped cockpit OK. After snaking my leg underneath the steering wheel, I actually had a tiny sliver of headroom to spare. This pleasantly surprised me, because I was half-expecting that my 6’6” frame wouldn’t fit in the car at all.
The non-boosted steering reminded me of my old ’64 Chevy Impala, which I’m pretty sure is the last car I’ve driven with no power steering before this one. At least in the Impala I had the benefit of a large-pizza-sized steering wheel for leverage. The 4C’s light weight means the steering is fine at speed, but wrestling the car in and out of parking spots gets old very quickly. The upside of this (and the frequent, occasionally tedious steering corrections required by slight dips and rises and other minor road imperfections) is a steering feel that is more connected and communicative than any car I’ve driven recently.
I zipped around on city streets with the windows open before heading to the expressway. When I flipped the center-console switches to close the windows, I had to double-check that the windows did in fact seal, because there was almost no reduction in the overall road noise. At steady-state highway speeds, the noise can be grating, but when zinging through the gears, the 4C makes a truly wonderful racket. This engine knocks the Fiat 500 Abarth off its perch as the snarkiest, most-rabid sounding production 4-banger. It has an almost feral vibe. When you set the car to “Dynamic” mode, the automated manual shifts with a violent, intoxicating “WHUMPHF” before the angry blat of the exhaust takes over again. If this car was a dog, the poor mailman would be shaking his leg frantically to get its adorable little jaws off his ankle.
Nearly every time you read a review of a modern, high-performance exotic, it includes a notation to the effect that, “Unlike some cars of this type, the XYZ is a comfortable thoroughbred that’s perfectly happy slogging along in your daily commute.” Well, the 4C is the mentioned “Some cars of this type.”
Previous Alfas shipped to these shores were certainly sporty, but also somewhat upscale. Not the 4C. Instead, it’s a bare-knuckle brawler with a total disregard for today’s expected social graces.
But that’s a large part of its allure. No other car I’ve driven of late has been so focused on performance, so dedicated to a cause. (Except perhaps the Lotus Elise, which had far less power and isn’t currently available Stateside. Steering is razor sharp, corners are taken with virtually no lean, and power is prodigious and instantly available at the stab of a pedal – regardless of speed. And then there’s the sound: A glorious nasaly snarl punctuated at gear changes by a raspy cough that anyone within three blocks can hear.
But all this does not come without cost – and it has nothing to with dollar signs. To wit:
* The doors have to be fully opened for access, and since the car itself is quite wide, you just have to pray someone doesn’t park next to you in a parking lot.
* Just the act of getting in and out will separate the strong from the weak. Accomplishing either task involves a very low-set seat and a tall, wide door sill, a combination that requires limberness and strength no other car demands.
* Once inside, there’s a decent amount of space, but the wafer-thin seat padding doesn’t include lumbar support, and seat-height adjustment involves removing bolts. Even trying to adjust your position is challenging, as there’s no center console to brace your right hand, and the “armrest” on the door panel is a narrow ledge that slants downward so severely that your left hand always slips off.
* Visibility to the front and sides isn’t bad, but everything behind your shoulders is a mystery. Backing is an exercise in blind faith, as you can’t see squat through the rear window, and our test car didn’t have a rearview camera. Among motorized vehicles, only a tank is worse.
* If there’s any logic to the audio system, it’s beyond my level of comprehension.
* You quickly learn to buckle your seatbelt before starting the engine, as the warning siren that screeches when you don’t is an audible assault you really don’t want to subject yourself to twice.
* There’s no power steering, so turning the wheel at parking speeds will tax anyone small and limber enough to get in.
* Railroad tracks and stutter bumps give the impression the 4C is walking barefoot over hot coals, and is trying to discourage you from ever making it do that again.
* There is no “creep” when the car is in gear as is the case with all other automatics; you have to hit the gas to get going.
* Every launch from a light and up or down gear change seems to be coming as a complete surprise; there’s always a jerk of some degree involved. There is nothing “smooth” about progress in a 4C.
* Nothing “quiet,” either, as there’s copious engine noise at around-town speeds, being lessened on the highway only by a constant howl from the tires.
That may seem like a lot of complaints counterbalancing a rather few compliments, but that is the kind of car the 4C is: Like me, or leave me to those who do.