Review: Gizmag drives the formidable little Alfa Romeo 4C

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Running fast is one thing, but running fast in a zig-zag is where things get more interesting(Credit: Aaron Turpen / Gizmag)

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There are few things as satisfying as driving a car that has no doubts about its purpose. The Alfa Romeo 4C is a race car made for the track lover who would prefer not to haul the car to the track on a trailer. It is, in short, a street-legal track car. It knows this and revels in it.

For two days, an Alfa Romeo 4C Spider was mine to play with. It arrived early in the morning on a Monday, driven by a shaken delivery driver who quickly abandoned it to jump into a Toyota truck and its familiar comfort zone. After he'd left, I and my four year-old daughter walked around the little car for our first inspection.

She eyeballed the color (Rosso Competizione Tri-Coat) as I looked over the tires (Pirelli P Zero 3-season AR Racing). She poked at the twin exhaust ports as I considered the air intakes on either fender. Then we opened the door.

The interior was black leather and microfiber seating with carbon fiber to be seen everywhere else. The entire car is carbon fiber and aluminum. The frame, body, and so on are all carbon fiber, and looking into the 4C leaves no doubt about that as Alfa Romeo did nothing to hide it. Black and gray is everywhere, with thick door sills and tub-like floor pans. Underneath, mostly hidden from view, are the aluminum bits working as some of the supporting body frame and suspension.

Lifting the rear hatch, I latched it into place and picked up my daughter so we could look inside. What greeted us was a mid-mounted 1.7-liter four-cylinder turbocharged powerhouse covered in piping and airflow management gadgets. The two-piece manifold gives a true dual exhaust for the little car, and a concession to American opulence was seen in the tiny air conditioning compressor jammed into the engine bay. On the right (passenger's) side of the car, the large intake opening at the fore of the rear quarter pulls in air for the manifold and other goodies. To the left (driver's) side, its twin opening pulls air through the radiator.

Behind the engine is a carbon fiber tub moulded into the body structure that makes the, for lack of a better description, "cargo space" in the Alfa Romeo 4C. This massive 3.7 cubic feet (105 liters) of space is enough to hold a red bag with a car cover in it, another Alfa Romeo branded carry-all bag, and an ice scraper ... the latter apparently put in there by those misinformed souls who seemed to think this car would be driven in any inclement weather during its lifetime. When removed, the rolled-up roof from the Spider could also be stowed in there, if one pressed the hatch closed with force to pack it all in.

Our inspection completed, my daughter and I proceeded to climb into the Alfa and make ourselves comfortable in the 4C. In her case, this was a matter of pulling open the passenger's side door, climbing into the seat, and grabbing the leather handle to pull the door shut. Being 3 feet tall has its advantages. For myself, at over double that height, it was more a matter of putting one foot into the floorpan, pointing my derriere in the general direction of the seat, and falling in. I have used this technique in sports cars in the past, notably the BMW i8 and the FR-S/BRZ. It generally works.

Once ensconced inside the Alfa Romeo, I pulled the door shut and began inspecting the interior. This took about three seconds, two of which were spent wondering where the seat tilt controls were and why I couldn't see a glove box latch handle. My daughter, being the more astute of us, immediately proceeded to verbally put hammer to nail. "RACE CAR!"

That's basically how the interior of the Alfa Romeo 4C can be summarized: it's a race car. Coming from that point of view, you soon come to appreciate the small exceptions to that assessment, such as the switch that says "A/C" and the button that says "defrost" and the most obvious concession to road worthiness, the tiny little Alpine stereo faceplate. Complete with four (count 'em) speakers. Four tiny, useless, but very lightweight speakers.

There are otherwise few exceptions to the race car focus. The seats do not recline or adjust in any way except to slide a couple of inches fore and aft. The pedals are hinged from the floor and made entirely of aluminum. The steering wheel, which is thankfully flat-bottomed, tilts and telescopes a few millimeters. There is no glove box and the only drink holder is right about where the driver's elbow wants to be. There is no glove box, but a tiny pouch on the back wall has a beautiful, very out of place snap latch and leather cover. Probably put there by someone named Alfred from accounting on interoffice cooperation day.

This begins the introduction to the Alfa Romeo 4C. At this point, I inserted the key (no mamby keyless start in this race car), pressed the clutch and brake, and turned it. The engine kicked to life immediately. The entire car shook. The most energetic, raw sound emitted from the tailpipes and then continued. This wasn't the exhaust fart on startup you normally hear in a street car. This was the unfiltered, uninhibited growl of a tiny and very excitable engine. Akin to what the Tazmanian Devil sounds like when he starts warming up before becoming a whirlwind of destruction.

It's quite intimidating.

For the next two days, I sat in that seat with my buttocks clenched and my mouth opened full-tooth in what can only be described as the grimacing smile of adrenaline overdose. With no power steering, the Alfa Romeo 4C is not exactly an "around town runabout." At speeds below 10 mph (16 km/h), it requires Popeye forearms to maneuver. Get the car up to speed, though, and suddenly the steering wheel becomes the tightest, most precise, most dangerous thing you've ever handled. I have personally handled items that could level entire city blocks. I've fired weapons that could lay waste to Carthaginian cavalry at the touch of a button. They were all cake and ice cream compared to the Alfa Romeo 4C at 80 mph (129 km/h).

The Alfa 4C is capable of amazing feats of sports cardom. The little 1.7L engine outputs 237 horsepower (177 kW) and 258 pound-feet (350 Nm) of torque. All in a package that weighs in the neighborhood of 2,500 lb (1,134 kg), with me sitting in it. All of that power goes to the rear wheels through a six-speed sequential, automated clutch transmission. This means that in a professional's hands, the 0-60 mph (0-96.5 km/h) time of the Alfa Romeo 4C is about 4 seconds. For me, it means 0-60 in about 4.6 seconds.

That's just getting started. Running fast is one thing. Running fast in a zig zag? That's where things get more interesting. The Alfa Romeo 4C and its tiny wheelbase, low-slung weight, and superb handling and aerodynamics did a 90-degree two-lane turn at just shy of 80 mph (129 km/h) without squealing rubber. Not even the beautiful Jaguar F-TYPE with its all-wheel drive was that good, doing the same corner at 77 mph before the tires began to chirp.

The downside to that kind of control? At 80 mph on the freeway, you get the impression that if you sneeze while holding the steering wheel, the whole car might go into a roll. There is absolutely no slop or margin for error in the steering in the 4C. None. That is where the intimidation comes in. And it's why I loved driving the car so much. It's pure adrenaline. All the time. And wrapped in one of the most beautifully-packaged vehicles you'll ever see.

I woke up early on the third day with the Alfa, knowing it was going back. I called the fleet company responsible for the car to ask if they wanted me to drive it to them. I made up excuses about "needing the freeway time" in the car for, you know, testing purposes. The girl who answered the phone was the one slated to come get the car. She made no excuses for how intimidated the car made her feel and happily agreed to have me drive it down to them for exchange.

For two hours on the freeway, I gripped the wheel with aching forearms and tired fingers. I'd been holding that wheel almost non-stop for the past 48 hours. Fatigue was setting in. I ignored it and soldiered on. Because this was an Alfa Romeo 4C. A once in a lifetime car. A race car.

Product page: Alfa Romeo 4C

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