Our most eclectic category contained the Alfa Romeo 4C, Ariel Atom 3.5R and Renault Mégane RS 275 Trophy – and produced the widest range of results
Andrew Frankel Autocar
15 October 2014

Misfits, oddballs, square pegs… call ’em what you will, our most eclectic category produced the widest range of results, one car coming bog last by 13 clear points, another missing outright victory by just three.

There is no point trying to find a thread to unite the Ariel Atom 3.5R, Renault Mégane RS 275 Trophy and Alfa Romeo 4C. They all have four cylinders, forced induction and four wheels and that’s about it. So we’ll avoid the contrivance of establishing a link that’s simply not there and start – where else? – than at the bottom.

By any standards, the Alfa 4C did badly. When six out of eight judges place it 12th out of 12 and the other two 10th and 11th respectively, you don’t need to read comments like Matt Prior’s “its steering still follows lines seemingly first furrowed by farmers 700 years ago” to know how poorly it has done.

And were this some revved-up hatchback based on unworthy underpinnings, we might be disappointed but not too surprised. But it’s not: the 4C is a mid-engined two-seat sports car with a carbonfibre tub, unassisted steering and a kerb weight comfortably below 1000kg. With raw material like that, we’d expect it to be right up at the sharp end.

It stands as proof that even the best ingredients can only add up to so much if the cook is not following the recipe. The number of ways the Alfa squanders its inherent advantage includes, but is not limited to, its slow and inconsistent paddle-shift gearbox, the lag from the engine, the lack of feel from and kickback through the steering and an unwillingness to hit its marks like the precision instrument you’d think it should be.

Despite its fundamental stability, it did little to inspire confidence in younger testers and even less to encourage the more experienced hands to fling it around the track in the way that you might think a car of this shape and specification would beg. Lewis Kingston spoke for many when he said: “The leaden, numb steering and brakes didn’t impress and, overall, I found it a nervous, disconcerting car to drive.”

It wasn’t all bad. The 4C coped with the Combe bumps admirably well and it felt quick in a straight line, but perhaps the most illuminating stat of all was a lap time slower than all bar two of its competitors.

In the end, the 4C doesn’t present as an inherently bad car, just one that has been whipped out of the oven before it’s ready. This, of course, leaves open the tantalising possibility that they’ll put it back and let it cook until it’s done; despite all of its flaws, the 4C remains a car of massive potential, almost all of which right now remains sadly untapped.

In many ways, the Mégane 275 Trophy suffers from precisely the opposite issue. It’s not a low-slung, two-seat, mid-engined carbonfibre exotic. It’s a Renault Mégane. Not only that, but it’s a front-drive hatch that has been honed and honed for years until this current point, where it must be on the absolute limit of its development potential. And yet its capacity both to entertain and make us giggle at what is possible within the limitations of the front-wheel-drive format remains undimmed.

Tellingly, this was the car that almost all testers drove first, the one that would most reliably and safely allow them to dial themselves into the circuit. Matt Saunders said: “Nothing else here was as easy to drive quickly or inspired more confidence.” Mark Tisshaw’s view that the Mégane is still “the world’s best hot hatch and getting better every year” would have been hard to counter on this performance.

Indeed, a lone front-drive hatch amid a sea of rear-drive performance cars, it would have exceeded every expectation had we not already known very well just how good it is. It wasn’t cowed by company that set the highest overall standard yet seen in this competition, but instead showed that you don’t need a carbonfibre tub, a mid-mounted engine or double wishbone suspension to create a fine-handling car. If you know how to tune suspension, you can do it with front drive and a torsion beam rear axle.

Strengths? It has exceptional damping, probably the single most important component required for a happy driver at Combe. Its tail is loose enough to cope with mid-corner changes of plan but sufficiently stable to allow trail-braking right in to the apex. And torque steer, although evident, is rarely intrusive.

On the negative side, traction is inevitably an issue, even with a clever limited-slip differential; it can mitigate wheelspin away from the exit but not eliminate it entirely. Also, the engine has some lag and the gearbox is too notchy and slow to suit the character of the car. But in the end, Matt Prior called it “still the best wrong-wheel-drive car in the world” and, certainly in the context of what we were looking for here, it’s a judgement with which we’d all agree.

Which brings us to the Atom. Read these two comments: “It’s very twitchy on turn-in, catchable but not exploitable” and “Tricky to drive because it wants to oversteer on entry and it’s difficult to manage because more power just makes it oversteer more”.

The interest here is that these notes were made and published a dozen years apart, by me, as it happens. The first was when a 190bhp Rover K-series Atom first took part in this event in 2001, the second with the Atom 3.5 last year. To say that we had our hopes for this year’s Atom 3.5R under close control is probably understating it a bit.

That it would be fast was a given. A standard 245bhp Atom has the same power-to-weight ratio as a Ferrari F12. This one has 350bhp and a sequential shifter that allows clutchless changes in both direction. On past form, that would only make matters worse. But Ariel has also had a long, hard look at the chassis, introducing Öhlins TTX dampers costing over £1000 per corner, an adjustable limited-slip diff, very trick Kumho track day tyres and, if you want it (and you do if you’re serious about this car) the front and rear wing pack from the Atom V8.

The transformation is almost beyond belief. Forget the lap time – it was always going to be the quickest car here – and focus instead on the real story. Ariel reckons that on all but the longest tracks, the 3.5R is actually quicker than the 500bhp Atom V8, yet despite that, this is the easiest Atom that any of us has ever driven. And by some margin.

It feels like a car with its potential finally released, as if each additional component were the missing pieces in the jigsaw that lets you for the very first time experience the Atom in its full glory.

That nervousness on turn-in? Gone. You can drive it like the racing car it very nearly is – holding the brake way past the turn-in point, then using that seamless flow of power to cannon it away from the apex with just a touch of understeer, transitioning to easily held oversteer at the exit if you want it. In short, a flawless demonstration of poise, feel, accuracy and simply blinding pace.

It’s not important how much each alteration to the aero, tyres, diff and dampers accounts for this change; what matters is that a car we’ve always loved more in theory than in practice can finally take its rightful place among the finest-handling cars of its or any other era.

Lap times

Alfa Romeo 4C – 1min 17.7sec

Ariel Atom 3.5R – 1min 10.7sec

Renault Mégane RS 275 Trophy – 1min 19.4sec

Britain’s Best Driver’s Car 2014

Click on the links below to read each section of Britain's Best Driver's Car 2014, followed by the crowning of this year's overall champion as decided by our eight judges.

The supercars – Ferrari 458 Speciale vs McLaren 650S vs Porsche 911 GT3

The sports coupés – BMW i8 vs Porsche Cayman GTS vs BMW M4

The V8 muscle cars – Chevrolet Corvette Stingray vs Jaguar F-type R coupé vs Vauxhall VXR8 GTS

The verdict – Britain's Best Driver's Car 2014 is crowned

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Our Verdict

Alfa Romeo 4C
Alfa 4C is built to encapsulate all of the Alfa Romeo brand values

The 4C is Alfa's first true driver's car for decades, and it shows how brilliantly a small turbo four can go and sound in a lightweight package

15 October 2014
The Atom was always going to take this, but there is no surprise from Alfa. Although this is a stereotypical car that is dominate on the track it is Alfa after all so it's never going to be anything near to the potential of its competion. Just a tad of a joke when a reworked hot hatch, that on paper is quite a bit heavier, and doesn't have that much more power than the alfa is just under 2 seconds slower per lap. I think it highlights the technical expertise that has gone into each vehicle. Alfa is simply not up to the game. Shame like it does look good.

15 October 2014
I wonder if Autocar verified the weight of the Alfa on a weighbridge.

Although Alfa claim a dry weight of 895kg, the US version (admittedly slightly different spec) has an homologated kerb weight of 1105kg. Even that is for a basic spec car. Some US sources quote the actual kerb weight at 2650lbs (1202kg)

The differences in spec do not fully account for the difference. I would be amazed if a UK spec car had a kerb weight under 1000kg.

The idea of a sports car that is significantly lighter than a Cayman but has more creature comforts than an Elise is appealing, but it's a difficult tightrope for a manufacturer to walk along.

This test shows us that maybe the Lotus Europa was actually a better attempt to fill this niche. Perhaps we should appreciate it more

www.twitter.com/racingpuma

15 October 2014
So bearing in mind the comments above will you be revisiting the 4.5 star road test review you gave the 4C??

16 October 2014
I think Alfa go for the dry weight based on a vacuum packed version with no fluids at all (washer, brake, petrol, oil, glue, oxygen). Then fly the car to the moon, drop a green screen background of the Italian summer and then bam a weight to swoon over.

Don't get me wrong I think the 4C is great ambitious project for Alfa and they should be applauded to some extent, but they still pull out the old tricks that are getting beyond tiring now.

16 October 2014
what an utter propaganda! who was testing this car? have they been paid to lie like that? let me just remind you all that incredible test you did some time ago when you all loved the car,4 and a half stars 'Give me a track to play on, and I'd choose a 4C over any Ferrari"said one of your editors....and now all of a sudden is the worst sport car on market? give me a break! no more auto car magazine in my house! some british posh nerds testing a real sport cars....propably working for banks hehe

17 October 2014
This is the first time we read so bad things about 4C! All the magazines,test drivers of the world wrote the best since now about this car, but here we read something totally different!
They said that she is a ''Little Ferrari'' !
this is the conclusion of a previous Autocar:
''Our Verdict
The 4C is Alfa's first true driver's car for decades, and it shows how brilliantly a small turbo four can go and sound in a lightweight package''.
what is going here?
Motor Trend vote 4C in the second place ahead of 911,GTR, M4,Jaguar,Subaru STi. We believe them instead of you!

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