The engine’s noise has subsided from a roar to a quiet purr with a deep bass burble underneath, overlaid with the mechanical tickover of the drivetrain right behind my head. The climate control is still blowing cool air on me, but I’m warm, flush with the thrill and adrenaline that comes after one of “those” drives. I push the button to shift the car into neutral and put the parking brake on. My hand begins to move to shut the ignition off, but I don’t want to. What I want to do is take off the brake, put the car back in to gear, and roar back out of the parking lot to spend the rest of the day tearing around the local mountain roads in the Alfa Romeo 4C. Or the week, actually. Or possibly forever if I’m quick and clever enough to evade the police who will come chasing me when the nice people from Alfa become upset that I’ve absconded with their bright red baby.
But before I commit Grand Theft Auto, let’s rewind things a bit and discuss how I ended up sitting in a parking lot doing the mental math on stealing a car. If you want to stretch all the way back, the story starts before I was born and like any good story about Italian cars it involves Enzo Ferrari being a hardhead. You see, although Enzo knew that a mid-engined car made the best racer, he was hesitant to put a mid-engine car into the hands of his customers because he figured that with the unique handling characteristics that come along with the engine sitting behind the driver that all of his beautiful cars would end up describing beautiful arcs through the clear mountain air before crashing into the beautiful Italian scenery as they were driven backward off of cliffs up in the Italian Alps. On top of that, he categorically refused to dilute his Ferrari brand with any engine that was smaller than 12 cylinders. Luckily for the world, there were a few of his close confidants, including Sergio Pininfarina, who eventually got him to change his mind. Kind of. He agreed to produce a mid-engine V8, but it would not wear the Ferrari name. Instead it was called the Dino, and the rest his history. Today Ferrari has turned the making of mid-engined V8 street cars into an art form that nearly defines the company.
Yeah, I know. Nice story, but what’s that got to do with me sitting in the seat of an Alfa Romeo in 2014? Well, quite a bit actually. A lot of articles have been written calling the 4C a “baby Ferrari,” and in fact an Alfa rep I talk to early in the day refers to the car as being a sort of new Dino – the baby Ferrari that isn’t a Ferrari. That’s all well and good, but I want to see it for myself. When I first approach the Alfa in the flesh I’m somewhat surprised to be struck by how “Ferrari-like” a lot of the design is in person. It’s got rounded openings below the front bumper that are reminiscent of the F430. Behind the passenger doors, the hips of the car rise up in a beautiful swooping line that looks like how Ferrari should have done the rear end of the California and each rear fender has an intake scoop that could have been lifted from any number of Maranello’s finest. Then I open the door, and I’m greeted with a sight that until now has been reserved for those willing to spend Ferrari money: a sea of bare carbon fiber. I can not tell you how incongruous the sight of all of that shiny woven carbon stretching across the whole interior is in a car that has a starting price in the $56,000 range, but Alfa have done a fantastic job of making it work. Put simply, dropping yourself into the driver’s seat of a 4C feels like you’re getting in to something that costs four times the price and the experience is much closer to Ferrari F40 than it is Porsche Boxster.
It gives me James May’s famous “fizzing sensation” right away.
My feet slide in to the pedal box and touch the bare metal, floor hinged pedals which are perfectly spaced and positioned and that have plenty of exposed mechanical bits which further the growing sense of occasion. Then my hands grip the thick rim of the small diameter steering wheel with its squared off bottom, and I look for a starter button. There isn’t one. Right in keeping with its stripped down, old school ethic there’s a traditional ignition lock in the steering column, and you actually have to put a key in it and twist to start the engine. Imagine that. I slide the key in, and I have to admit that there’s a moment of hesitation before I twist. The car, up to this point, has made a serious impression on my senses, but it’s “only” got a four cylinder turbocharged engine. What if it can’t live up to expectations? I twist the key, the starter motor kicks over, the engine fires immediately, and my fears are assuaged. The sound may not be 12 cylinder Ferrari-epic, but Alfa’s exhaust tuning guys have done their job well and the tailpipes emit a sound of surprising depth and presence for a four cylinder engine.
Then my foot goes on to the brake, I release the old style handbrake lever, my finger pushes the “1” button on the center console to select first gear and manual shifting mode, and I take the Alfa out of the parking lot and on to the road. The pavement of the mountain roads where I’m driving the 4C isn’t exactly what you would call “perfect,” or even “decent.” In fact, it’s downright “rutted and uneven” and the first impression of the 4C in motion is all about the steering. It’s been a long time since I’ve driven a car without power steering and when the Alfa wants to wander across the road surface to follow the ruts in the pavement it takes me a second to wrestle it back in line. After that, though, steering the little car down the country lane becomes something of a religious experience. THIS is how sports cars ought to steer. Once you’re in motion it’s a little light on center but it weights up quickly and requires just enough effort as you apply any steering angle or when you’re moving at parking lot speeds, and it is so communicative, so feelsome, that you actually welcome the fact that it makes you work harder and pay more attention to what you and the car are doing than modern power assisted racks do. The 4C’s steering makes you put in just enough effort to completely involve you in the experience of driving without making it a chore. In my mind, it’s perfect and all sports cars ought to steer like this.
Good steering, though, is useless without road feel to match and again the people at Alfa have done the job of judging the 4C’s suspension just perfectly. While the steering lets me feel exactly where the car is going to point, the feel of the car and the road that’s passed up through the bottom of the thin driver’s seat is also perfectly judged so as to be extremely communicative without becoming intrusive or punishing, even on the rough back roads where I’m driving. The 4C hits that magic point where I’m able to feel exactly what’s going on at each tire all the time but just enough edge is taken off of the bumps and bounces so that they don’t intrude.
The final ingredient in the magic brew of the 4C driving experience is the cockpit itself – the positioning and design of each bit was clearly thought out to maximize the experience of actually driving the car. This idea is reinforced by the fact that on the European models, the passenger seat isn’t even adjustable. At all. Really. You can’t slide it forward or back, or even recline it. Sure, you can carry a passenger with you, but they get in the car and they sit right where Alfa says that they’ll sit, and that’s the end of it. For the US market an adjustable seat had to be fitted to meet airbag regulations. The driver, on the other hand, can slide the seat forward and rear and adjust the amount of recline, though only a tiny bit. When you sit in the driver’s seat of the 4C, you’re positioned fairly far forward in the car – your feet are near the line of the front axles – and fairly high and forward in the cockpit. At first I want to lean the seat a little further back to get my head further away from the windshield, but as I pilot the car through a series of fast short bends I realize that in this position I’m able to see the whole front end of the car and judge exactly where the front corners are, which means I can put them right where I want them for corner entry and apex.
The instrument panel is a TFT display which lights up in a soft white on a black background, with a central digital speed readout surrounded by an arc of tachometer which reads all the way to a redline of 6500 RPM. From my seating position I find that the rim of the steering wheel cuts right through the middle of the display and makes it hard to see all of the information, but I soon decide that I don’t actually need most of it anyhow, especially now that I’ve put the Alfa’s “DNA” driving mode selector into “Race” and am attacking the switchbacks as rapidly as the limited sightlines of the tree-edged road will allow. In “Race” mode the car fully activates the electronic rear differential to let you rip out of tight corner exits and strips away the electronic nannies – no more traction control, the ESC will only intervene if you’re in the middle of doing something very stupid under very heavy braking, and there’s no automatic shifting from the twin clutch gearbox – if you don’t hit the paddle in time, the engine will run right in to the rather abrupt fuel cutoff at just over 6500 RPM. I know this, because under full attack the 4C rips through the first few gears with a speed that beggars belief, and I run into it once or twice as I’m a little late reaching for that upshift paddle. The final effect of “Race” mode on the DNA selector is that the TFT instrument display changes from the docile blue color to a yellow highlighted background with a g-meter in the center, and the arc of the tachometer itself shifts from white to yellow to red as you approach the top end of the rev counter. You can see it even with your eyes up and on the road like they should be, and when that shift from yellow to red happens your right fingers need to be on the shift paddle and pulling if you want to continue with forward progress.
The next little while passes in a blur of sensations – the roar of the engine under acceleration interrupted by pauses as I shift and it takes a quick breath before letting loose with more angry song, the feel of being pushed sideways and then back against the seat as I apex and then shoot out of corner after corner under full acceleration, the rear differential working and tires scrambling to keep up, and the joy, again and again, of turning the wheel and feeling that perfectly weighted steering set the car up for turn in and yet another blissful curve. Then I come down out of the mountains and back to reality as I turn on to the main road and head back toward the parking lot where we are staged for the day. The DNA selector gets switched back to “Natural” mode, the display background shifts from yellow to black, and my thoughts go to the fact that when I get back to that parking lot I’ll have to give the car back. I don’t want to. I seriously consider turning around and heading back up into the mountains, but there are others waiting to drive and I figure I ought to share.
So it’s with regret that I pull back in to the parking lot, push the “N” button to put the gearbox in neutral, and pull up on the parking brake handle. Thoughts of absconding with the car, disappearing into the miles and miles of back roads where, surely, they’d never find me or at least take long enough to catch me that I’d get to enjoy the car for a while more drift through my head one last time. In the end, though, being a car thief just isn’t my thing so I shut the engine off and climb reluctantly out of the cockpit to hand the key back to the Alfa minder who’s waiting patiently off to the side. The 4C has wormed its way into my brain, though, and as it drives off with the next guy at the helm, I start doing the mental math on what it would take to buy one. At the $55,000 base price it’s definitely getting into “expensive” territory, but for the experience it delivers that price is an absolute bargain. Plus, I’ve got a retirement fund I could raid, and my son doesn’t really need to go to college, right?