6

Alfa's niche coupé now comes as a convertible, and while it still lacks the road refinement of a Porsche or the engagement of a Lotus, it delivers on track

If the noises coming out of Turin are to be believed, Italy’s once-proud sporting institution, Alfa Romeo, is right now on the cusp of a bold and uncompromising new dawn.

And like just about all Europeans with a good dose of petrol in their veins, we’re praying it’s not another false one.

Alfa Romeo introduced the 4C as a limited-run concept back in 2011

The new Giulia saloon is the first model of many to reinvigorate Alfa Romeo entirely, say the company’s top brass, and to redefine it as one of the world’s most dynamic, exciting and emotionally appealing premium automotive brands. It has been bold enough to state that there will be nine new cars by 2021 - including the Stelvio SUV announced at the LA Motorshow.

In Alfa’s brave new world, its cars will rule their respective classes on handling appeal and power-to-weight ratio. All will be bona fide premium offerings and design icons, with desirable coupés, mid-sized executive saloons and luxury SUVs all in the pipeline.

And barring the replacement for the Mito supermini, all will be either rear or four-wheel drive. The Germans had better watch out – and the Americans had better be ready with their cheque books.

Here they go again. But, for now at least, we can dare to believe in it. And here, we’re giving Alfa Romeo a chance to remind us that it’s capable of producing the extraordinary. Having missed the opportunity to put its ambitious 4C Coupé through the road test mill, we’re hopping to it with the new open-top version: the intriguing 4C Spider.

Advertisement
Back to top

The 4C Coupé was launched in 2013 and became the latest in a line of special low-volume productions after the 8C Competizione, the SZ and the Montreal.

Hand-built at sister brand Maserati’s Modena plant and in possession of a weight-saving carbonfibre tub, the 4C was intended as halo car and icon: to herald Alfa’s triumphant return to the US market. And it still may.

So can the cloth-topped 4C bring even more sporting appeal and successfully whet our appetites for the grand Alfa revival to come?

What car new buying white 3

DESIGN & STYLING

Alfa Romeo 4C Spider rear

When the 4C was first displayed as a concept car at the 2011 Geneva motor show, we wondered if Lotus might have had a hand in its construction.

It hadn’t, but you can imagine, before a carbonfibre tub had been confirmed, why we might have thought that the Norfolk-based company had donated some DNA: composite construction aside, the 4C is a mid-engined lightweight car in the Lotus tradition.

The rear deck is heavier than that of an Elise but it does have similar trait: lift it in the wet and water drips into the boot

With two seats and a modestly sized 1742cc four-cylinder engine mounted transversely and driving the rear wheels, the 4C has a dry weight of just 940kg in this Spider form.

In fact, full of fluids but otherwise empty, the 4C Spider tipped our scales at a respectable 1080kg – a full 120kg less than the Lotus Exige we weighed in 2013.

Look to the 4C’s carbonfibre construction if you’re after reasons why it’s so much lighter than a similarly sized Lotus. Yes, the engine is also smaller than the Lotus’s V6 but its four-pot is turbocharged and also bears the weight burden of being mated to a six-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission rather than a manual gearbox. Under 1100kg is an impressive figure.

In converting the 4C from a fixed-head car into a convertible, Alfa Romeo has perhaps inevitably made the Spider a little heavier than its coupé sibling: Alfa’s official figures have the 4C Coupé at 45kg lighter.

The Spider’s carbonfibre monocoque is itself unchanged, but there’s an additional aluminium roll hoop beneath what Alfa Romeo calls the ‘halo’ behind the passenger compartment, the windscreen surround is new (and fashioned from carbonfibre) and there’s a high-strength steel cross member in the engine bay to enhance body stiffness. Then there’s the weight of the insulated hood, too.

Those elements aside, the 4C Spider’s mechanical make-up is much the same as that of the coupé version. The engine produces the same 237bhp and 258lb ft of torque, and suspension is by double wishbones at the front but MacPherson struts at the rear. (Porsche’s Cayman uses struts, too, so there is no shame in that in itself.)

INTERIOR

Alfa Romeo 4C Spider front seats

Some cars give you a standard interior and then try to dress it up with overtones of sportiness by, say, adding carbonfibre pieces of trim here and there.

Alfa Romeo doesn’t have to do that with the 4C because where it puts carbonfibre on show is where the car naturally has it – in that trick chassis.

Because the cabin is bare carbonfibre, rather than bare metal, it feels much warmer and cosier than a Lotus

Instead, then, Alfa Romeo takes what would be a pretty bare interior and adds comforts to it. There are leather seats, although if you specify the yellow exterior, you also have to spend at least £1400 on these black leather chairs with contrasting yellow stitching, or £1780 if you want them partially microfibre covered.

A leather dashboard with contrasting stitching, meanwhile, is another £700. Alfa knows how to charge for options even on a car that doesn’t have many. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing: Porsche knows how to as well and that hasn’t done it any harm.

But if you are intrigued what the basic car gets as standard, well be prepared to be underwhelmed as it gets bi-xenon headlights, cupholders, air conditioning, Bluetooth and electric folding mirrors.

The seats themselves are supportive enough around the back, but some of our testers found they weren’t low enough and were short in the squab, which is a pity because the driving position is otherwise slung nicely straight, with a central brake pedal that’s good for left or right-foot braking.

The steering wheel adjusts for both reach and rake across a broad range, but there’s another pity there: that it’s not rounder and that it has two spokes sited just where your hands would like to rest. It’s frustrating, because the fundamentals are there.

Material quality is fine, for the most part, and where it’s not, our testers tended not to mind. That the heater controls wouldn’t look out of place in a Fiat Panda means they don’t weigh very much, after all, and all of the switchgear feels a cut above that of the equivalent Lotus, although not the Porsche. The luggage bay is more Lotus than Porsche, too: there is one, at the rear, of 110 litres.

It was a hard job to hear what the stereo of early 4Cs had to offer, even if you could tempt one to tune to the radio station you wanted to listen to. The Spider comes with a much better system that not only finds radio stations but also has decent music player connectivity.

There’s Bluetooth, too, so you can hook a telephone to it, but if you’re doing any kind of speed, you and the person you’re talking to won’t hear a great deal of each other. There’s no sat-nav option, but if you want to plug one in, there’s a 12V socket on the centre console.

ENGINES & PERFORMANCE

Alfa 4C Spider's 1.8-litre engine

It was wet when we conducted the performance figures for the 4C Spider, so even though it has launch control with a sensitive traction control system, it wasn’t going to get near its claimed 0-62mph time of 4.5sec, let alone the 4.1sec that an Lotus Exige needs in order to hit 60mph.

Still, given the conditions, the 5.1sec that it took to reach 60mph is a tidy result and not far behind a Boxster S’s 4.7sec (set in the dry).

Weight distribution on our scales saw the Alfa Romeo 4C weigh in 40% at the front and 60% at the rear

To give you a better idea of how strong the 4C’s performance actually is, from 30mph to 70mph it makes up quite a lot of both deficits, at 4.0sec versus the Lotus’s 3.7sec and the Porsche’s 4.2sec.

It’s worth noting, though, that because it has four cylinders and a turbocharger, it performs the above with slightly less aural intensity than either of the other two cars. It blows and whooshes and boosts, whereas the other two fizz and crackle – or at least they did, until the turbocharged Boxster came along.

The Alfa’s throttle response, then, can’t quite match that of rivals that don’t have to wait for a turbo to spool up, which is about as surprising as waking up at night to find that it’s dark, given that it manages to produce 237bhp from only 1.75 litres.

Peak torque comes in at 1700rpm – and at 258lb ft, there’s plenty of it – but if you’ve strayed that low in the rev range, the lag means you’re really going to have to wait for it.

Leave the gearbox in its automatic mode and you might well end up stuck down there, waiting. Not for no reason is the combined fuel consumption figure an impressive 40.9mpg. Left on its own, though, the gearbox chunters and stumbles a bit, so it’s much better to pick your own gears, in which case it’s responsive and puts a nice pop into upshifts.

RIDE & HANDLING

Alfa 4C Spider hard cornering

The number of stars our testers were inclined to dole out for this section varied according to where they drove the 4C.

But we think we finally have an answer to the question of why the 4C was so well received initially, when it was driven only at Alfa Romeo’s Balocco test track, and so poorly thereafter. Because at MIRA proving ground, whose wet circuit is remarkably smooth and whose dry circuit, while it has a little gradient, is also comprised mostly of well-kept asphalt, the 4C – like at Balocco – was a real pleasure.

Smooth tracks allow the 4C to shine, but the UK roads leave the Alfa Romeo restless

The 4C’s inherent handling balance, on lowish-grip, smooth surfaces, is exactly as you’d hope it would be. The car’s purity of design is allowed, finally, to show through. Body control is tight and there’s a touch of initial stabilising understeer, which can be turned into something rather more entertaining if you drive the roadster in the right fashion.

On really smooth roads, the steering is largely uncorrupted as well, and if it’s wet, it becomes lighter than usual, which is welcome, and yet it still filters good vibes back through the rim.

The problem comes out on the roads, especially typically battered ones like the Fosse Way close to MIRA proving ground. It would be unfair to have expected the Romans to have foreseen a 4C using the road two millennia after its path was laid, so the onus is on Alfa Romeo to ensure that its car, for all its on-circuit pleasures, is better able to deal with the dips and camber changes that set its steering wheel tugging and weaving and generally exhaust its driver.

Over a short distance you can forgive it – deciding that perhaps Alfa Romeo simply wanted to make its car exciting, which it undoubtedly has. But given the latent, inherent balance that the 4C sometimes displays, its road-going unruliness is a great pity.

All circuits at the MIRA proving ground were wet when we tested the 4C Spider but we suspect, in the end, that’s to the car’s benefit. Lower friction means lower steering efforts and it allowed the Alfa to demonstrate the kind of inherently excellent handling balance that a mid-engined, one-tonne car should possess.

Weight distribution is 40/60 front/rear, and the front tyres are smaller than those at the back, so under braking — and the brakes are superb — and on turn-in, there’s a little understeer. Which is as it should be.

From then on, it’s very easy to trim the Alfa’s line in whatever fashion you like: if you lift off, the rear gradually comes into play; and if you go hard on the power, after a little lag, there’s sufficient boost to unstick the rear, too. In the right places, it’s a real pleasure.

MPG & RUNNING COSTS

Alfa Romeo 4C Spider

We hardly need to flag up the biggest challenge for prospective 4C Spider buyers to face: the price.

At a whisker under £60k, it would seem to cost anywhere between 30 per cent and 50 per cent more than it ought, depending how much cachet you attach to its badge.

Porsche has set the residual bar high for Alfa Romeo, but the 4C won’t fall that short of it

Limited supply and expensive carbonfibre construction will be Alfa Romeo’s justifications, and after so many lean years and disappointing driver’s cars, Alfa Romeo brand devotees may well let the firm off the hook for taking advantage of them.

But the 4C Spider’s ambitious price puts it in direct competition with cars considerably beyond it in terms of outright performance, dynamic sophistication, usability and breadth of ability – and that, for us, makes it hard to recommend objectively.

That’s a terrible shame, because if it were as accessible as a high-end Lotus Elise, it’d be a real eye-opener. Instead, as a rival to the outstanding Boxster Spyder, it’s an also-ran.

For what it’s worth, our sources suggest that the car’s residual values will be commendable, and its real-world fuel economy – capable of surpassing 40mpg at a moderate cruise – should be likewise.

Alfa Romeo could have been more generous with standard kit by way of sugaring the pill, but the 4C wears sparseness and simplicity well. If it were ours, we’d keep our order pared to the necessities, including any features likely to improve resale value, such as leather bucket seats and special paint.

What car new buying white 3

VERDICT

3 star Alfa Romeo 4C Spider

To finally get the 4C into a location where it’s able to show its best is to finally begin to understand what has, otherwise, been a troubled sports car.

If you only ever drove this car on smooth race tracks, we strongly suspect you’d love it. Yes, a Lotus Exige or fast Lotus Elise remains marginally more capable and engaging, but really there’s much less in it – under the right conditions – than we’d hitherto expected.

In the right place or in small doses, it’s an invigorating sports car

It remains a pity, then, that the 4C is incapable of applying those basic skills where it counts, which is out on the roads where this roadster will surely spend most of its time.

If you’re a novice to sports cars or drive it only a short way, perhaps you’ll be fooled into thinking that it’s simply alert and keen.

But as Porsche, Lotus and a dozen small-scale sports car makers know, it doesn’t have to be this way: it’s possible to make a car that rewards in all places, not simply a chosen few.

To trouble the best in this small sports car section, Alfa Romeo need to sort out the suspension on the 4C, and then it will be come a true rival for the Porsche Boxster Spyder, Lotus Elise Sport 220, Zenos E10S and the Jaguar F-Type V6 Roadster, which are all better propositions as it stands.

What car new buying white 3

Matt Prior

Matt Prior
Title: Editor-at-large

Matt is Autocar’s lead features writer and presenter, is the main face of Autocar’s YouTube channel, presents the My Week In Cars podcast and has written his weekly column, Tester’s Notes, since 2013.

Matt is an automotive engineer who has been writing and talking about cars since 1997. He joined Autocar in 2005 as deputy road test editor, prior to which he was road test editor and world rally editor for Channel 4’s automotive website, 4Car. 

Into all things engineering and automotive from any era, Matt is as comfortable regularly contributing to sibling titles Move Electric and Classic & Sports Car as he is writing for Autocar. He has a racing licence, and some malfunctioning classic cars and motorbikes. 

Alfa Romeo 4C Spider 2015-2018 First drives