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Alfa Romeo's 4C Spider arrives in the UK. We find a way in which it finally shows its excellence, and several ways it doesn't

What is it?

It’s the first time we’ve driven Alfa Romeo’s 4C Spider in Britain. Alfa says it has made a few tweaks to the 4C since the last time we drove one in the UK. It’s disinclined to say what, exactly, but the most notable thing about this yellow example is, obviously, the fact that the roof comes off, not unlike a Lotus Elise’s. 

To remove it takes about the same sort of time as the Lotus's, but the Alfa’s seems better insulated. As well it ought to be, because the Spider costs a gnat’s under £60,000, which is a genuinely unfathomable £8000 more expensive than a version with a roof. At that premium, it should be better insulated than my loft.

To its credit, the Spider feels no more flexible of chassis than the 4C coupé; both have the same carbonfibre tub and, if carbonfibre is good at anything, it is providing lightweight rigidity and purpose to a chassis. The exposed bits look good, too, in a cabin that is for the most part well finished and, for the most part, in possession of a good driving position. 

The fundamentals are there, in other words, so it's a shame that the seat bases are short and that the steering wheel, a two-spoke-only affair and nearer square than round, is stupidly awkward to grip in a quarter-to-three position or to gain easy hold of while you’re turning it.

These things are frustrating because the otherwise the driving position is straight, with a brake pedal perfectly aligned for either left or right-foot braking (the 4C is dual-clutch automatic only), and the steering wheel adjusts widely for both reach and rake. It could be excellent in here.

Get used to that theme: the one where fundamentals are in place but somehow, in the details and the execution, the 4C sets out to frustrate.

What's it like?

Last time we drove a 4C coupé in the UK it was busy coming last in our Britain’s Best Driver’s Car contest, during which we tried it at the old and bumpy Castle Combe circuit and on the older, bumpier roads around it. Its suspension gave it little chance to shine because the steering was being pulled right and left in a way that nothing else this side of a racing car allows itself. It was exhausting.

Get this 4C Spider on similar roads and, I’m afraid, it’s a similar story. I had an inexpert passenger look across and ask why I seemed to be working the wheel so hard. In fact, if you only ever drove a 4C Spider on lumpy B-roads, of the sort you find if you turn either right or left out of the Lotus headquarters on Potash Lane, Hethel, I think you’d hate it. 

But then we took it to MIRA proving ground. This is where we conduct our road tests, something Alfa previously hadn’t wanted us to put a 4C through, but finally there it was, a 4C on a damp circuit in December. I didn’t expect much. But it was remarkable.

Being damp underfoot, even on our ‘dry’ handling circuit, lightened the 4C’s too-heavy steering, and even more so on the proper ‘wet’ circuit. Reduced grip and relatively smooth surfaces reduce the car’s tugging tendencies and let it show its innate handling balance and that, I’m pleased to say, is absolutely spot on.

There’s a touch of understeer, which can be countered by either lifting or applying more throttle (though the 1750cc engine still delivers too much lag), and then the 4C feels poised, adjustable and agile – like the Norfolk rival it never otherwise threatens to be. At times the steering almost becomes quite good – when it’s only delivering feedback, not kickback. And the brakes are truly exceptional.

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Should I buy one?

Truly, it depends where and how you’re going to use your 4C. One of our testers, who only drove it at on circuit, thought it was terrific. Others, who only drove it on the road, where the gearbox, in auto mode, slushes its shifts and gets caught between gears, found it just as exhausting and unsatisfying as before. 

For those of us who tried it everywhere, it was finally gratifying to find, however small, an operating window in which the 4C showed us its best. On smooth circuits, the 4C is, finally, a satisfying, rewarding sports car. But other sports cars still ask less, and deliver more often.

Alfa Romeo 4C Spider 

Location Surrey and Warwickshire; On sale NowPrice £59,500; Engine 4 cyls in line, 1750cc, turbocharged, petrol; Power 237bhp at 6000rpm; Torque 258lb ft at 1700rpm; Gearbox 6-spd dual-clutch automatic; Weight 940kg (dry); Top speed 160mph; 0-62mph 4.5sec; Economy 40.9mpg (combined); CO2/tax band 161g/km, 27%

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. 

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eseaton 18 December 2015

Simply insane not to offer a

Simply insane not to offer a manual box.
Sundym 17 December 2015

Sorry Zimmerit you are quite right.

The poor build quality issue wasn't mentioned in this article but in the original tests of the coupe with poor finishes to the interior surfaces and exposed wiring under bonnet mentioned which the reviewer was surprised about considering the large cost of the vehicle. I am assuming not much has changed when alfa lopped off the roof.
Zimmerit 17 December 2015

Where does it say the build quality is poor?

Read this report a couple of times now and I'm blowed if I can find any mention of shoddy build.