The tiny turbo lodged behind the cockpit of the Alfa Romeo 4C Spider is furious. I’ve done nothing to make the forced induction motor so irritated, yet it still whirs and snaps and bellows its frustrations for the world to hear. “Fine,” I think to myself. “Guess I’ll drive in a way that merits your complaints.”
That’s pretty much how the first five minutes unfolded every time I started out in the Italian roadster, and I imagine the process never changes for owners. The convertible variant of Alfa Romeo’s grand return to U.S. shores picks a fight with anyone who dares nestle into its carbon fiber cabin. For some, the constant struggle between man and machine just isn’t worth it, but for others, the reward of a tight chassis, communicative steering, and feisty powertrain will make the 4C one of the most exciting driving experiences imaginable.
When I first eyed the Alfa Romeo 4C Coupe in 2014, I instinctively referred to it as the Italian Lotus Elise. Similar proportions – short and squat – a chopped roofline, and tall, curvy wheel arches; it all felt so familiar. However, the distinctions have stood out more over time.
Unlike the micro Elise, the 4C appears substantially wider from the front and rear. Low-slung though it may be, it also sits higher off the ground. Where the Elise features gaping scoops and slats, the 4C uses more subtle shapes and air inlets for a provocative figure. Non-enthusiasts who miss the Alfa badge up front may still confuse the two mid-engined ultra-light vehicles, but with the Elise on hiatus in the American market, the 4C has every opportunity to distinguish itself.
About town, the blood-red 4C Spider captures plenty of attention. Those whose ears don’t perk to the sound of squirrels trapped in the car’s engine bay are transfixed by the 4C’s flamboyant silhouette. Though I tend to favor the continuity of a coupe, the Spider’s roofless shape has its own magnetism. Windows down and poorly designed ragtop stowed (more on that later), the car’s C-pillar curls like a wave ready to crash on the passengers.
Nothing to See Here
Despite the aesthetic intrigue of the 4C Spider’s exterior, the interior looks as if it’s been stripped of valuables.
Here’s the shortlist of “conveniences:” floor mats, an Alpine aftermarket stereo head unit, air conditioning, automatic windows, and a 7-inch TFT driver display. That’s it. Looking for steering wheel controls, automatic climate settings, an infotainment system, backup camera, or safety features? Try elsewhere. The 4C is about driving, and the message is loud and clear via the cabin experience.
The tactile luxuries include a leather-wrapped flat-bottom steering wheel, dashboard, and emergency brake lever. Elsewhere it’s a mix of carbon fiber (along the door panels, housing the instrument cluster, and amongst the center stack) and cheap plastics. The weight saving measures aren’t exactly hidden.
Headlining the 4C’s cabin is a pair of sport bucket seats. Despite being molded from rigid carbon fiber, each throne is well padded, wrapped in leather, inlayed with Alcantara, and shaped to comfortably hold passengers in place as the sports car endlessly rips around corners.
A Spartan cockpit is to be expected of a performance car that touts lightweight engineering, but I can’t wrap my head around the soft-top design. Not only is the removal process labor intensive – it will take one person at least five minutes from start to stowage – the top itself is bulky and heavy. Perhaps there’s no way around the labor associated with a T-top roof (I haven’t personally sampled many), but there must be a lighter, more streamlined design. What’s the point of a roadster if you’re too discouraged by conversion process?
All Revved Up
Providing motivation to the 4C Spider’s rear tires is a 1.75-liter turbocharged 4-cylinder motor. 237hp and 258 lb-ft of torque is delivered via a 6-speed dual clutch transmission with steering wheel-mounted paddles. At a curb weight of just 2,500lbs, little Italy scurries to 60 mph in 4.2 seconds and is drag limited at 150 mph.
Despite its haste in a straight line, the 4C Spider comes alive the moment you come upon a curvy stretch of road. The magic to Alfa’s responsive steering is a manual rack – no electric assistance, no hydraulic pump. While almost every modern car uses some form of aid as you turn the wheel, the 4C directly connects the driver’s inputs to the front tires. Because of this, low-speed angling is a full-body workout but high-speed maneuvering is phenomenally involved.
Augmenting the emotion is a dual-clutch that kicks with every shift. Left in automatic mode, the transmission seamlessly moves through each gear, but take control and prepare for an aggressive transition. Gear changes are respectably quick, but not as instant as, say, Porsche’s PDK or Audi’s S-tronic gearbox.
Performance is modulated by four drive modes. All-weather is ideal for slippery road conditions and relies on maximum traction control. Natural can otherwise be translated as “normal” mode with a good blend of throttle response and smooth gear changes. Things get interesting as you move to Dynamic, where the 4C’s computers pull back yield to driver articulation. Finally, holding the drive mode toggle forward for eight seconds accesses a hidden Race mode. This will completely disengage the traction control system – hopefully you’re sufficiently caffeinated.
Fortunately, with only 237 horses raring to go and an ideal engine configuration, every movement of the 4C Spider’s svelte body is manageable. Like an elite athlete, the 4C digs into each curve, staying perfectly flat as you trail brake into the right position for corner exit. So good is the handling precision that all complaints about the interior squalor fade away.
The Price of Exclusivity
Until the Lotus Elise makes its grand re-entrance to the states, the 4C Spider stands alone in the under-$100K featherweight, mid-engined, convertible sports car category (yes, it’s a fairly niche segment). Porsche’s Boxster is the most direct rival to the 4C, but saddled with an extra 400 pounds compared to the 4C, the German challenger behaves quite differently on road and track.
Perhaps due to its unique positioning (and extensive use of carbon fiber), the 2016 Alfa Romeo 4C Spider is hardly a bargain. Prices start at $65K and optional equipment like the Track Package, Bi-Xenon headlights, and silver fan spoke wheels quickly approach the $75K mark. If the 4C Spider was daily driver material, its price wouldn’t be such a tough pill to swallow, but as an occasional performance treat, it’s a tougher sell.
In the end, those who prize engagement and exclusivity will be drawn to the 4C without reservation, and though it may not pad the wallets of Alfa Romeo executives, it will stoke the excitement of true enthusiasts.
1.75L 4 cylinder turbo
237hp/258 lb-ft of torque
6-speed dual clutch with paddles
0-60 in 4.2 seconds
top speed 155mph
$65,495 ($73,995 as tested)
205/235 wheels in Pirelli P Zero tires
For more information, options, and pricing, please visit our 2016 Alfa Romeo 4C Spider page on AutoWeb’s search and configure site.
Photo Credit: © 2016 Alfa Romeo / Miles Branman