words: abigail bassett
It’s early and I am driving a tiny white Italian car up into the hills outside of Carmel, California. The world famous Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance, the Olympics of car shows, has descended on the Northern California coastal town. The streets are lined with people armed with digital cameras and sun hats peering hard through the fog to capture visual proof of multimillion dollar cars speeding around a bend. As I pass, they raise their cameras to their faces and click away. I feel a little like a celebrity caught without make-up. And I like it.
I’m piloting Alfa Romeo’s brand new 4C—the small 4-cylinder engine sits directly behind my head in the two-seater. Its guttural sounds rattle around the carbon fiber monocoque and bring a wicked little smile to my face. The car is low to the ground, curvaceous and wide. The gaping intakes accentuate the hips and help direct airflow into the engine bay.
The hawkish nose gives a subtle nod to the racing history of Alfa Romeo, a company making its first foray back into the US after being absent for 20 years. Even the steering is reminiscent of the sports cars of old. Stripped of the accoutrements like computer assistance, the Alfa Romeo is one of the last cars available on the US market without power steering. The drive is direct, full of the right kind of feedback and makes for an exhilarating experience. Each undulation of the road translates to the steering wheel.
The Alfa Romeo 4C embodies a physical package that harkens back to the days of the Italian car maker’s racing heritage and it’s an interesting re-entry into the US market. The famed Enzo Ferrari began his racing career driving Alfa Romeos in Italy and created the Scuderia Ferrari racing team while working at the company in the early 1920s. The 4C draws its inspiration from the 1967 Alfa Romeo 33 Stradale, the company’s first attempt to bring some of its famous racing technology to the public. It was the most expensive car on the market in 1968, priced at $17,000 and was one of the first cars to feature butterfly doors.
The visual and physical power of the Alfa Romeo 4C continues inside. Climbing into the cockpit you step over the exposed carbon fiber tub and into body-hugging leather sport seats. The mid-mounted, aluminum engine is enclosed in glass, showing off its 237 horsepower and 253ft-lbs of torque. In fact, when Chrysler/Fiat, the current parent company of Alfa Romeo, built the car they decided to drop the weight instead of raising the power. That means that even with a dry curb weight of 2200lbs, the car still has a weight-to-power ratio of less than 10lbs per horsepower. That helps push the car 0-60 in about 4.5 seconds and makes it a ton of fun to throw into corners.
There are a few quibbles on this near perfect little sports car. On uneven roads the suspension can be harsh. The “DNA” settings (standing respectively for Dynamic, Natural and All Weather) change the suspension and tuning slightly but even in Natural or All Weather, it can give passengers quite the beating on a rough road.
The interior could’ve been outfitted with seats with finer adjustments and an infotainment screen that doesn’t look like an Android phone lodged into the center console. Also, the 4C won’t be available with a manual transmission but only with the dual-clutch automatic controlled with paddles. However, that transmission isn’t bad, especially when paired with the direct manual steering. In fact it adds to the enjoyment of the Alfa Romeo 4C as you crank through all six speeds.
Alfa Romeo is looking to make a comeback and the 4C is its best chance—and its first impression for many buyers who don’t remember it from generations past. Made iconic in the US by the film The Graduate, Alfa Romeo never really maintained its foothold here despite a 40-year presence in the market that ended in 1995.
If the number of flashes is any indication, this stripped-down homage to Alfa Romeo’s racing heritage may give the company what it needs to bring the glamour of this Italian brand back into the limelight.
Engine: 1.7L inline turbo 4-cylinder engine
0-60: 4.5 seconds
Max Speed: 160mph
Max Power: 237hp @ 6,000rpm
Max Torque: 253lb-ft @ 2,200rpm
Base Price: $55,000 ($70,000 as tested)