Although hardly a sensible car, if you accept the Alfa Romeo 4C as a bargain-priced exotic, its limitations become a lot easier to overlook.
Still, it takes an awful lot of overlooking. Even after opening the long door far enough to provide access (hopefully you – and the person next to you – have left enough space) and folding yourself into the interior (a feat with a degree of difficulty only a contortionist could ignore), you’ll find little in the way of seat adjustment, even less in the way of seat comfort, a rather limited amount of room, virtually zero storage space, and rear visibility that makes backing up an exercise in blind faith. And this is before you’ve had to deal with the radio controls.
Actually, this tester’s radio was far easier to use than those in some earlier 4Cs we’ve driven. New for 2017 is a standard Alpine-brand unit, and our test car was fitted with an optional premium Alpine system that included a subwoofer. As the radio fit into the same small dash slot previously occupied by the indecipherable mess that used to be standard, this is quite an advancement. That’s not to say it was easy to use, but at least you had a reasonably fair chance of figuring out which of the teeny little buttons would execute the desired action when pressed – though trying to do so while driving on anything but a glass-smooth surface added its own degree of difficulty. Unfortunately, another space the Alpine occupied (or at least, one of its speakers did) was the tiny cubby in the rear wall of the cabin that otherwise accounts for 90 percent of the interior storage room, leaving only two small cupholders (conveniently placed behind your elbow on the console) and a small net suspended under the passenger side of the dashboard that could – maybe – hold a pair of gloves (and I mean dainty driving gloves, not thermal winter ones) to stash your stuff.
Our test car was also fitted with optional red leather seats that came as part of the $2000 Leather-Trimmed Interior package, which added quite a bit in the way of needed pizzazz if not a whole lot in the way of needed comfort. At least the cushions seemed to have more padding than their stock counterparts (two wafer’s worth rather than just one), though their bolsters were tall and close together, lumbar support remained lacking, and you still couldn’t adjust them for height, leaving average-size folks appearing to be looking out the windows doing a Kilroy impression. Granted, seat comfort can be very subjective, and I did take the 4C on a 250-mile road trip, so this may be less of an issue for others.
But once situated, you buckle your seat belt, press the red starter button, and … the fun begins.
After the little turbocharged, 1.4-liter four-banger fires with an eager snarl, it settles into a slightly gravely idle. You reach down to the console and press the “1” button (at least if you’ve already had the requisite primer), and the transmission lurches into gear. Then you lift your foot from the brake pedal, and … nothing.
Unlike virtually all other automatics – including automated manuals like the 4C’s – there is no dialed-in “creep”; you have to apply some throttle to get it going. But then, with just a bit more lurching, you’re off … unless, that is, you also intended to turn.
You wouldn’t think a lightweight, mid-engine car would need power steering (clearly Alfa engineers didn’t), but boy … until the car is at a walking pace, turning the steering wheel is an exercise in … well … exercise. Popeye could manage, but Olive Oyl is going straight. So parking can be a bit of an ordeal, aggravated by the fact that the 4C has a rather wide, 40.5-foot turning circle.
But now you’re rolling. The steering that was heavy before now feels “connected,” and the roughish idle is replaced by a smooth, crescendoing soundtrack interrupted at gear changes by a bit of an exhaust “pop.” You deftly jink around potholes and slack-jawed fellow drivers to make your way toward that bastion of misbehavior, that artistry in asphalt, our government’s glorious gift to urban car guys: Yep … the beloved on-ramp.
Oh, the chorus that quartet of pressurized pistons sings as the tach needle swings toward redline. So sweet is the song and so willing the voices that the process bears repeating, which it dutifully does with every pop and lurch that accompanies a gear change.
That downhill curve coming up at … uh … “slightly in excess of the speed limit”? No problemo. What the 4C lacks in ride composure (which is a lot) is made up for in cornering capability (also a lot), making you suddenly appreciate the aforementioned and previously maligned seat bolsters.
All of this marked the beginning of the likewise aforementioned road trip, which brought to light some other limitations.
- This thing is loud. Whatever wind noise there might be at highway speeds is inconsequential; you could be driving into a hurricane and the tire and engine noise would still overcome it. You can converse with a passenger, but you won’t be using your “indoor voice.”
- You have to pack light. What looks like a trunk in front is only a separate hood panel (supposedly, only a dealer service shop can open it), and the cubby that is the trunk in back is both small (Alfa says a gym-bag-like 3.7 cu. ft.) and “heat challenged,” as the engine is right in front of it. That means the happened-upon thrift-store lawnmower bargain (hey, it was a Snapper … for $19!) isn’t coming home, and the Chocolate Cherry Chunk ice cream you bought for dessert (or in my case, dinner) isn’t arriving in a frozen state.
- Drink up before you get in. Although there are two cupholders in the 4C, one is so small and shallow I can’t imagine anything larger than a Dixie cup fitting, and both are right about or behind where your right elbow would rest, which makes it really awkward to grab your beverage of choice.
- The nose on the car is really low. Although I took the street exit of a parking lot very slowly and at an angle (so that the nose and the front tire hit the low and ensuing high spots at the same time), I still managed to scuff the 4C’s pointy little chin. And this exit didn’t have any more of a “dip” than you’d encounter leaving your average gas station.
- You can’t see squat behind you. The aforementioned parking-lot scenario was necessitated by the fact that I didn’t want to back the 4C into a corner on-street parking space, so instead I pulled into the lot so I could turn around and hit it going straight. If any car needs a rearview camera, it’s this one … but it’s not on offer. However, you can get rear obstacle detection as part of the optional $1400 Convenience Group.
- You’ll want to keep your hands on the wheel – at least partly because there’s no place else to put them. There’s neither a center armrest nor are there any on the doors (so you can’t rest your elbows anywhere), and there’s no shift lever. But heck; you really need to have them on the wheel anyway, because steering takes a fair amount of effort even while underway, and you sure aren’t going to one-finger it through an emergency maneuver.
All this may sound like complaining, but it really isn’t. It’s really just … forewarning. Exotic cars – almost by their nature – exhibit a copious number of compromises, which is probably why you rarely see them on the road.
While driving earlier 4Cs, any number of folks asked me if it was a Ferrari, which is not the worst case of mistaken identity an Alfa owner could suffer. The kicker here is that one can get into a 4C for as little as $57,495, a fraction of what the least-expensive Ferrari costs. So when put into that light – one that has you in a jaw-dropping Italian exotic that didn’t demand you write a six-figure check, yet still makes people think you did – the Alfa Romeo 4C really comes off as quite the bargain. Granted, it might not be the steed of choice for a cross-country road trip (unless, perhaps, the country you want to cross is Lichtenstein), but it is exactly the right choice when the road ahead twists and turns into the sunset … or even just enters a highway.