After all, it was a dramatic move. Alfa’s range was at a low ebb, with just the four-year-old Giulietta and six-year-old Mito occupying its ranks. A model like the 4C would endow the brand with some refreshed cachet and generate much interest, hopefully preparing the market for a series of appealing and competitive new models.
I’d seen the 4C parked up, and on the move, but I’d never actually sat in or driven one. During a range review event, however, the opportunity to test one arose. Admittedly I was only going to get – in automotive terms – mere moments in the car, but it might prove the only opportunity - and regardless, I was grateful for any time in the car at all.
A small course had been built on an airfield, and Alfa had brought along two fully fuelled 4Cs. It was busy, mind, with many other journalists on the event, so our time was going to be limited to three hot laps with an "instructor" alongside – it was clear Alfa was intent on looking after the cars, and understandably so.
As I watched one of the bright red 4Cs roll back into the pit area, brakes ticking noisily as they cooled, it struck me how small the Alfa seemed in person. Despite what you might have been told, it’s a relatively compact sports car – it’s actually shorter than a Mazda MX-5, but the body is over 14cm wider. Its overall measured width is only exacerbated by wide wing mirrors, which grant you a modicum of rearward visibility. It’s still narrower than a Mondeo mind, excluding the mirrors, so for most people it shouldn’t prove much of a problem to manoeuvre and park.
I loved its cab-forward looks too, which tenuously reminded me of the Koenigsegg CCX. In terms of being able to grab your attention and keep your focus, it’s a five-star car – even accounting for the occasionally awkward-looking rear-end styling. At a glance it looked a well-finished and resolved product too, which allayed some fears about it being developed on an overly tight budget.
With the car ready to go, I lowered myself first into the passenger seat – the 4C’s sills are high, like a Corvette - for a sighting lap with the instructor. Almost immediately I banged my knee on an edge or two, before clashing with the box for the heater controls, which juts into the passenger’s leg area. Disconcertingly, the whole assembly flexed slightly, along with the centre console.
My immediate impression was that it did feel very much the stripped-out sports car, with lots of exposed carbonfibre, snug seats and a tight cabin but – disappointingly – there was lots of flimsy, cheap-feeling plastic in places and a host of easily identifiable "borrowed" switchgear. I idly wondered if I’d really be willing to stump up £45k for something like this, a question that became more prominent when I noticed that the very visible surround for the ignition key was heavily marred already.
So, maybe the budget hadn't run to getting the fit, finish and materials spot on. Maybe the car would compensate in the way it performed. On paper, it racks up some impressive numbers. Its rear-mounted 1.7-litre engine puts out a substantial 237bhp and 258lb ft, which is sent to the rear wheels via a six-speed dual-clutch transmission. Because the Alfa’s claimed to weigh just 895kg dry, it’s capable of 0-62mph in 4.5sec and has a top speed of 160mph. For comparison, a PDK-equipped Porsche Cayman S, costing £50,705, will complete the 0-62mph sprint in 4.9sec and hit 174mph.
We cruised around the track, with the instructor pointing out the cones, apexes and turning in points, and I tried to comprehend what he was saying while coming to terms with the Alfa’s sheer volume and stiffness. You feel everything underneath – although not to a negative extent – and the 1.7-litre engine reverberates through the cabin. It reminds me of a rally car, rather than a lightweight sports car. I wasn't entirely convinced by the engine's intake or exhaust note however, which alternated between gratifyingly raucous, interjected with grin-inducing huffs from the dump valve, and just a wall of occasionally unpleasant mechanical noise at higher engine speeds.
Still, I couldn't help be enthralled by it - and sliding into the driver's seat for the first time, looking through the narrow front screen and at the all-digital instruments, I couldn't help thinking that this was a remarkable car. Truth be told, I'd never been in anything quite like it. With the transmission in automatic mode, I let my foot off the brake - then finding that the 4C needed a few RPMs before the clutches would pick up and you'd start getting any notable drive - and headed out onto the track.
Somewhat surprisingly the Alfa’s heavy unassisted steering didn’t deliver as much feedback as I expected – perhaps due to its heft at lower speeds – but it was delightfully precise and a little input resulted in a lot of lock, granting the car a lively and responsive steering feel. I wasn't keen on the excessively flat-bottomed wheel though, and would prefer something more conventional.
One thing that quickly became apparent was the seeming lack of suspension damping and travel, however. The track we tested the car on was particularly lumpen down the back straight, and the 4C was quite happily bobbing and pulling in a somewhat alarming nature as its speedo clambered past an indicated 115mph, with a modicum of kickback through the steering.
The car didn’t deviate excessively, but many drivers may find it a distinctly unsettling response. Without driving something equivalent on the same surface though, it's difficult to directly criticise it on. I expect that on smoother roads it'd be taut and well controlled, and just requiring a firmer grip and more attention on rougher surfaces.
Its brakes provided ample and sustained stopping power throughout the laps though, and the pedal offered up good feel and a well-judged degree of travel. Even bleeding off higher speeds proved trouble-free, as you’d hope given the Alfa’s reputed 895kg kerb weight, which is reassuring.
The engine and transmission, however, I wasn't entirely convinced by. The mid-range torque was superb but the 4C's output seemed to tail off quite quickly; initially I began by winding it out and manually shifting, but it felt considerably faster if you stuck to the higher gears and used the torque to surge around the track.
It wasn't quite the engagingly high-revving exotica that I'd expected, somewhat contradictorily, and it was only towards the end of my last lap that I was starting to get a handle on the best way to deploy its power. I'll reserve judgement on the gearbox, but during my brief stint it didn't feel anywhere near as quick or clean as the competitor's offerings.
Nevertheless, I couldn't help feeling that the 1.7-litre unit just felt a little too stressed and a little too ragged for such a precise and hard-driving car. A less heavily boosted 2.0-litre unit, or an extra cylinder or two, could possibly be a better choice for the lightweight 4C. There's nothing wrong with a small displacement engine, mind, but it needs to be super-smooth and suitably high-revving, even if it's a forced induction unit, to gel well with a lightweight sports car.
On the flipside, I was having fun. There's no doubting that fact - the Alfa Romeo 4C is an outright fun car to drive. I was even permitted to use the car’s launch control, which rewards you with a surprisingly smooth and un-dramatic high-speed departure.
Concerns about the car re-arose on the return to the pits, however. A closer inspection revealed that the loose gravel on the track was casually abrading all the paintwork off the trailing edge of the arches, while the underside looked like it had seen a considerable amount of action too.
Peering through the rear-end air vents, I could also see that the underpinnings of the 4C appeared fairly roughly finished; what looked like the airbox from a Giulietta was suspended inside the wing seemingly at random, while pipes, unfinished carbon edges and bracing bars weaved their way around it. That, I thought, would not prove acceptable to some. You'd never see such a lack of detail in a Porsche, for example, and it does appear to be a problem that Alfa has from time to time.
I do wonder what a 4C will be like after a year or two on the road. These examples, which were admittedly well-used press demonstrators, had myriad rattles, fizzes and marks. Previously I’d also been told that Alfa’s twin-clutch transmission had a reputed peak torque capacity of 258lb ft, so it was with a wry smile that I learnt the 4C put out – lo and behold – 258lb ft. It’s a dry clutch-based gearbox too, so potentially more prone to suffering from wear and thermal issues – which isn’t what you want in your sports car.
I’m sure Alfa has engineered out any potential issues like this with the 4C, but part of me remains concerned about ongoing durability. Some tuning companies have already hopped up a few 4Cs though, cranking them to over 400bhp and 330lb ft, with reputedly no issues, but I can’t help feeling they might be treading a fine line between components just surviving and disintegrating into clouds of shrapnel.
That rear-mounted engine must dump a lot of heat into the car too; will thermal cycling quickly expose any weaknesses or issues after a year or two on the road? Time, as always, will tell.
Afterwards, it took me a long time to work out what I made of the Alfa. It was fun to drive, on a track at speed, but it wasn't something I'd necessarily want to drive on a regular basis. It's too compromised, with no luggage space, that raucous interior and an on-road ride that'd probably prove overly firm. I'm not convinced that I'd buy one for the odd track day or two either, as I'd probably still opt for the established Porsche or Lotus alternatives.
It's certainly a good-looking car, and one that doesn't fail to grab the attention of passers-by, but again, its flaws count against buying it just as an outright posing tool for the weekend - and, to my ears, it delivered the wrong kind of noise for low-speed cruises through city streets.
Then, looking back at the 4C I'd just stepped out of, it struck me. Outside of die-hard Alfa fans, the 4C appears to be for buyers seeking a red Italian sports car. Sure, not all of them necessarily have to be red, but if someone wants Ferrari-like image and theatre for Porsche money, then the 4C is the answer. After all, what else like it is available at the £45k mark?
Now, obviously people are buying the 4C – the first 500 ‘Launch Editions’ have sold already, and I don’t think Alfa will struggle to sell the 1500-odd 4Cs it intends to make each year. I’m glad they’re making them, and I’m glad they’re selling them. I just hope the exercise helps Alfa move forwards to a brighter future, rather than just creating a brief spark of excitement.
Me? Well, I'd probably opt for a Porsche Cayman or an Audi TT RS. They might not be as outright engaging, but they'll be easier to live with, and more usable, and you'll know that they've not been developed and built to what appears to have been quite a tight budget.
Park all three together, however, and you know which one would draw the biggest crowd - and for some, that's all that counts.
Which would you like to have parked on your drive, and why?
We get behind the wheel of the coupé version of the Alfa Romeo 4C, see what we made of it here