Everyone knows that Alfa urgently needs to sell more cars and has been having tough times sorting the mid-sized Giulia on which its much-ballyhooed return to the US market squarely depends. The 4C isn’t ever going to sell more than 3500 units in total per year, so why does it matter? Best way to find out is to start the engine and get driving.
By the time you’re installed behind the wheel, you’ll know that this is a Lotus Exige-sized coupé with a heavily revised 1750 turbo engine – now with a 22kg lighter alloy block – located transversely behind you and driving through a six-speed paddle-shift gearbox (no stick shift is contemplated).
The whole thing rides on an independently suspended carbonfibre chassis that weighs just 65kg and is handmade by artisans in Naples, Italy. Ready to go, a 4C weights 960kg at the kerb and costs £45,000, splitting the difference between the basic Cayman and Boxster Porsches.
People insist on comparing the car with a Porsche, but a quick scan around the cabin soon shows big differences. This is a sparse interior, with the bare essentials required for comfort. There’s a race car feel. The minimal leather pull handles on the doors remind you powerfully of other Italian lightweights.
You can even ask Alfa to leave out the audio system and air-con if your 4C is intended for track-day use, but don’t expect a refund. Fire the engine and blip it and the rasp confirms that this is no drive-to-work all-rounder. You can drive to work, of course, but your 4C will always be happier away from the grind of life.
Let in the clutch and as the car rolls, you instantly feel the lightness. It gets going briskly almost before you’ve thought of it, one good reason why 0-62mph acceleration takes just 4.5sec. Another is the zesty performance of an engine that, although small, produces 237bhp at 6000rpm and 258lb ft of torque between 2100rpm and 4000rpm. Flat out, a 4C will reach 155mph. In fuel-sipping mode, it’ll yield 41.5mpg on the combined cycle.
Naturally, the 4C really handles. Its low centre of gravity, working with near-ideal weight distribution and low mass, means that it grips like a leech without the need for cumbersome gumball tyres and it remains neutral in corners long after side forces have taken occupants beyond the threshold of discomfort. When it ‘goes’, you get understeer, but this could hardly be called breakaway. Ease the throttle and the 4C grips and steers just as before.
The Alfa’s finest characteristic is its ability to ensure that you enjoy every mile. The ride never intrudes, the seats are great, the cockpit is snug, the engine rasp is lovely, the steering sends you unmissable messages from the road, the brakes are sure and all is right with the world. Which brings us to the car’s mission.
As Alfa struggles, the 4C aims to remind us how well it builds driver’s cars. At this, it’s a towering success.
Log on to Autocar.co.uk again tomorrow where we'll be continuing our rundown of the best cars of 2013.