Alfa Romeo 4C review
We review the Alfa Romeo 4C, designed to deliver supercar thrills for half the price
When the 4C coupe was revealed in concept car guise at the Geneva show in 2011, Alfa Romeo enthusiasts fell into raptures of delight.
Such is the power of the Alfa badge, that they’re still largely enraptured by the production version of the car today, in spite of some telling criticism the 4C has suffered at the hands of the road-testing community – ourselves included.
The hard truth is that for all its glamour, style and potent performance, the Alfa Romeo 4C suffers from what feels like a lack of powertrain and chassis refinement. This makes it less fun to drive than, for example, the meticulously engineered Porsche Cayman.
The 4C is considerably less practical as an every day car too, but fortunately for Alfa, there’s a little bit of the ‘tifosi’ Alfa fan in all of us.
With a mainstream line-up restricted to the MiTo and Giulietta hatchbacks, until the Giulia saloon arrives, Alfa Romeo is a shadow of its former self, but the 4C is something for fans of the flamboyant Italian brand to get excited about. Built in limited numbers, this mid-engined, scaled-down supercar packs a 237bhp 1.75-litre turbocharged four-cylinder engine and a twin-clutch automatic gearbox, but weighs less than 900kg thanks to a carbon-fibre monocoque chassis. Better still, it looks great, as the design has been carried over directly from Alfa’s stunning 2011 Geneva Motor Show concept.
Alfa Romeo has a long history of sporting models, dating all the way back to the A.L.F.A. 24hp that competed in the 1911 Targa Florio race. With decades of Grand Prix, F1, Touring Car races and rallies under its belt since then, the firm seemed to lose is mojo in recent years. Enthusiasts pined for the excitement and glamour of cars like the 1966 Alfa Spider sportscar – a car so loved, that amazingly it survived in production right through until the early 1990s. The 4C is part of the Fiat group’s plan to bring that old Alfa magic back.
The 4C coupe went into production in 2013, but first arrived in the UK in 2014 while the roadster version followed a year later. We’re only reviewing the 4C coupe here, as we’ve tested the evocatively named 4C Spider separately. Both versions are built at the Maserati plant in Modena, Italy, but there are small but significant differences in the ride and handling as Alfa has tried to address some of the early criticisms levelled at the 4C coupe with upgrades to the Spider.
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The fundamentals are the same though, with both models built around a carbon-fibre body tub with front and rear subframes in aluminium. They also feature composite moulded body sections made from glass-fibre reinforced plastic for low weight, strength and cost-efficient production.
Engines, performance and drive
From the moment you clamber across the thick sill and slide into the 4C, you’re aware this car is all about the driving experience. You sit low and forward in the chassis, the pedals are perfectly placed and there’s a wide range of steering wheel adjustment. The racing car-style monocoque chassis weighs just 65kg and the whole car tips the scales at only 895kg without fuel and passengers on board. Even the thickness of the glass has been reduced by 15 per cent to shave off precious kg.
For £3,000 you can buy a Racing Pack, which adds sports suspension (including revised damping and springs, plus thicker anti-roll bars), as well as a sports exhaust and 18-inch front and 19-inch rear alloy wheels. However, we'd stick with the standard chassis and smaller wheels, which make the driving experience a touch more civilised.
However you spec the car, the end result is a hard and raw driving experience. At idle, the exhaust sounds very purposeful, like a sixties racing Alfa, but on the move, there’s so much engine and road noise that long journeys are punishing – you can forget the radio. The unrelentingly firm ride quality becomes quite tiring, too.
The 4C’s unassisted steering is also a mixed bag. While it’s heavy at parking speeds, the weighting is fine on the move, and the rack is fast enough for rapid and accurate turn-in. But it doesn’t deliver the undiluted feel you’d expect. In fact, there’s little sense of what the front end is doing. What you do get is some unpleasant kickback as the wheel fights and wriggles in your hands. On bumpy and cambered roads the overactive steering and stiff suspension make the Alfa dart around, keeping you on the alert.
The 4C is a proper sports car – there’s no body roll, plenty of grip, serious performance and lots of character. But in the trim tested, it’s too hard-edged for realistic everyday use and never offers the fingertip feel, adjustability and composure you find in a Porsche.
There’s only one powerplant available in the 4C, but as a result of the car’s low weight that 237bhp 1.75-litre aluminium turbocharged engine has enough oomph to push the Alfa from 0-62mph in 4.5 seconds. That’s extremely rapid off the line and the Alfa has 350Nm at 2,200rpm so in-gear pace is plentiful as well.
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The power delivery is quite spiky though, sending a sudden surge of power to the rear wheels when the turbos spool up, which makes the 4C tricky to drive smoothly.
At least traction is good, and the TCT dual-clutch gearbox shifts quickly via the steering wheel-mounted paddles, plus there’s a delicious rasp from the exhaust on every upshift. With a firm pedal, the brakes are more than up to the task, but there’s little feel and the ABS cuts in too eagerly.
MPG, CO2 and running costs
Emissions of 157g/km are superb for a 160mph sports car, and make the Alfa a cost-effective choice for company-car drivers. It’s the result of low overall weight and a small four-cylinder engine, and it means that a higher-band earner will pay just £4,119 a year in company car tax – £644 less than for a manual Porsche Cayman.
Road tax will be a very reasonable £175. Alfa hasn’t yet announced servicing costs, but while only eleven specialist retailers will be able to sell you a 4C, all 46 of the brand’s UK dealers are able to service the model.
Accident repairs could be a different story, as the carbon tub and aluminium space frames will be potentially very expensive to fix after a major incident.
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As far as day-to-day running costs are concerned, the official claim for the 4C’s combined cycle fuel efficiency is 41.5mpg, with economy of up to 56.5mpg on a run out of town. You’d be hard-pressed to drive the red-blooded Alfa with a light foot though, so matching those figures in the real world seems highly unlikely. Still, ignoring test-track driving, we averaged a fairly decent 30.8mpg fuel economy, so your petrol bills shouldn’t be too high, either. With a reasonable 40 litre tank it also means you’ll be able to knock off 250 miles between fill-ups quite comfortably.
Thanks to its relatively exotic construction, high purchase price and sporting performance, the Alfa 4C falls into the top Group 50 insurance bracket.
Given the entire 2014 UK allocation of 200 4Cs is sold out very quickly and it looks like demand for the 4C will outstrip supply for the foreseeable future, so residual values should be decently strong.
Our experts predict a used price after three years/30,000 miles of just under 50 per cent. A Porsche Cayman is likely to be stronger still though, retaining a little more than half its value over the same period and mileage.
Interior, design and technology
Alfa Romeo’s back catalogue is full of pretty cars, and the 4C has the instant desirability to rival the best of them. Composite bodywork is wrapped tightly around a carbon-fibre chassis, and the proportions are straight from the supercar textbook. Yet at less than four metres long, the 4C is smaller than you’d expect, and it sits low and compact on the road. The taut rear end takes its inspiration from the late sixties 33 Stradale, while the angular nose recalls the recent 8C supercar.
It’s not all good news, though. For instance, the lines at the front end are spoiled by the awkwardly placed number plate, while the concept car’s faired-in headlamps have been replaced by multi-bulb units that have a messy, distinctly aftermarket look. This has been remedied on the newer Spider model which features more elegant lighting.
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Inside, the simple dash is angled towards the driver, but cheap plastics and borrowed Fiat switchgear mean the car lacks the upmarket premium feel that you'll find in a Porsche Cayman. Still, the attractive bare carbon weave reminds you that you’re driving something special, while conventional dials are replaced by a TFT screen that perfectly displays revs, speed, gear position and trip information.
Elsewhere, leather door pulls, aluminium pedals and a flat-bottom wheel create a sense of occasion to match the flamboyant exterior. Leather seats, cruise control and floor mats are optional, but air-conditioning is a no-cost option.
The 4C comes in a range of six standard colours. They are Black, Basalt Grey, White, Madoperla (pearlised) White and two shades of red – Rosso Alfa and Rosso Competizione.
Interior trim options include black fabric with red stitching, red or black leather, or a fabric/leather mix.
Sat-nav, stereo and infotainment
The Alfa product planners want you to know the 4C was made for pure driving passion, so it doesn’t come with a radio as standard. There’s provision to fit one though, and a stereo with web apps, voice recognition and hands-free phone connection can be selected free of charge from the options list.
Practicality, comfort and boot space
With a tiny boot, poor rear visibility, noisy cabin and stiff ride, the 4C won’t be bought for practicality. The standard exhaust and suspension with the 17 and 18-inch alloy wheel combination might improve comfort a bit, but there’s still no escaping the limited luggage space – you don’t even get a glovebox.
At 3,990mm long the Alfa 4C looks diminutive in profile and will slot into the smallest parking spaces. The Porsche Cayman is 4,380mm long. The Alfa gives away that advantage when it comes to width - at 1,868mm it’s broader than the 1,801mm Cayman, although both are well-proportioned for the average British B road.
Leg room, head room & passenger space
Even getting into the Alfa 4C is a challenge, as the door opening is small and the sill wide, like a Lotus Elise. Once inside the space is tight too, particularly for taller drivers who are likely to find their knees splayed uncomfortably. Headroom is an issue for taller drivers who’ll need to hunker down to see under the windscreen top rail, and the low-set seats are uncomfortably upright with little lumbar support. Backache might be the price you pay for them looking so stylish!
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Opting for the Spider eliminates some of the access issues, as with the roof off you can step into the car much more easily.
Whereas Porsche Cayman owners and their partner can happily set off for a weekend away with all their luggage stowed in the 275-litre rear and 150-litre front compartments, Alfa 4C owners will be standing on the pavement scratching their heads.
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With just 110 litres on offer the car’s boot has room for little more than a couple of small bags. As the compartment is so near the engine you’ll need to watch out if you don’t want your shopping heated up, too.
But at least you’re not driving the 4C Spider, or you’d have to remember to leave some space for the rolled-up removable roof.
Reliability and Safety
On the plus side, the 4C’s 1.7-litre engine and TCT twin-clutch gearbox are developments of existing technology so they should be relatively trouble-free. It’s also a plus-point that the Alfa’s basic, almost track-focused spec means there’s little in the way of complicated electronic systems to go wrong.
If you do run into trouble, the Alfa Romeo dealership network was ranked 16th out of 31 by Auto Express readers in the 2015 Driver Power Survey – a solid ‘mid-table’ finish.
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The remarkably low kerbweight places less stress on things like brakes and tyres, and the racing car-style carbon-fibre body tub is a big plus for crash safety – although any damage to it will be difficult and costly to repair. In spite of the swoopy exotic looks, the moulded plastic body-panels should be tough and resilient too.
Talking of crash safety, the Alfa 4C is sold in such low volumes that it hasn’t been independently tested by EuroNCAP – but the same caveat applies to the Porsche Cayman and most cars in the sector.
The Alfa’s safety features are relatively simple but include stability control, driver and passenger airbags and a tyre-monitoring system, and that carbon body tub should provide a high level of structural rigidity in the unfortunate event of an impact.
If it was just down to oil and filter changes, the 4C’s servicing regime would be pretty cheap. The fly in the ointment is a requirement to inspect/check the torque settings of all the bolts holding the subframes and body to the car’s carbon tub. Alfa says it needs to be done at 12, 36 and 60 months – or 12,000, 36,000 or 60,000 miles - and the process will add several hundred pounds to the service bill.