Alfa Romeo 4C Spider Review: A Recipe Perfected

Alfa Romeo 4C Spider Review 4

There is absolutely no substitute for seat time when judging a car. I thought Alfa Romeo had sold themselves out when they built the 4C without the option of a manual gearbox. I mean, who on earth would want a light little sports car without a clutch pedal and a gear lever? But the truth is, building a good car is a lot like cooking a good meal. Each ingredient must be executed well in its own right, but then the most important thing is how it all comes together as a whole.

The Italians are known for treating their cars exactly as they treat their food, as works of art. Alfa Romeos, in particular, have always had a sense of living soul, even if, at times, there wasn’t much else good about them. My friend, Evan, had an old Alfa Spider that only ever worked properly when he was taking a girl out on a date in it – now, isn’t that the most Italian thing you’ve ever heard?

Alfa Romeos are cars built on an ideology of passion and emotion first, and everything else second. Sure, in the past that has sometimes meant questionable dependability, but at least they never committed the atrocity of making life boring or mundane. Life is worth more than just living, it’s worth enjoying, and that is what Alfa Romeos are all about.

This white 4C Spider is actually the first Alfa Romeo I’ve ever driven. It marks the return of Alfa Romeo production cars to the USA, and will be soon followed by the new Giulia sedan. Being my first Alfa, I admit that I had underestimated the way they can make the ingredients of a car come together into one delicious masterpiece of a machine.

I quickly realized that the Alfa Romeo 4C Spider has something very special about it. I drove 8 very cool cars in the same weekend, including a Ferrari and some Porsches, but this Alfa 4C was the one I just couldn’t stop thinking about. Here’s why…

It’s an Exotic Sports Car, not an Exotic Supercar

The Alfa Romeo 4C is essentially a Porsche Cayman/Boxster competitor with the character and style of a Ferrari. Alfa’s people have even described the 4C as a Ferrari 458 Jr. It brings a genuine Italian exotic experience to the Porsche Boxster’s market segment for the first time. If Ferrari were to ever make an entry-level sports car in the same range, it would surely be a lot like the Alfa Romeo 4C.

In terms of performance, the distinction between sports car and supercar is important as well. In my experience, I find that sports cars can be fully enjoyed at speeds under 100 mph. Supercars, on the other hand, need to be driven beyond that to be fully appreciated because they’ve gotten so absurdly fast.

That is not to say sports cars cannot be fast, and able to crack 100 mph with ease. The Alfa 4C accelerates just as fast as a Ferrari 360, which was considered a supercar just 12 years ago. I’d say it has a lot to do with gear ratios, in addition to raw horsepower. If a car hits 90-100 mph in 2nd gear, then it’s hard to really enjoy driving it at more reasonable speeds. Also, if you have so much power that you can only go flat-out for a second or two without the speeds getting insane, then it’s a lot riskier trying to enjoy your car on public roads.

I think the little Alfa finds a nice performance balance for the real world. It hits 60mph in 4.1 seconds, 100 mph in 10.8 seconds, and it clocks the 1/4 mile in 12.7 seconds at 106 mph. Those are very decent numbers, and the 4C Spider is able to do all that with just 237bhp because it weighs only 2,465 lbs.

Furthermore, the 4C will be in 4th gear before it hits 100 mph, meaning there’s a lot of it to play with at fairly reasonable speeds. Then, if you want to go faster, the 4C can still reach 160 mph up top, which will feel really fast because the car is so small and so light.

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Much more than just a budget Ferrari

While Alfa Romeo did make the 4C feel very similar to a Ferrari 458 in many respects, I found it’s actually a lot more than just a Ferrari Jr. It offers some key things that modern Ferraris do not.

First is the 4C’s steering, it’s a manual rack without any power assist. Ferrari’s have very good, but very light and delicate steering, very different from the raw mechanical connection you get in the Alfa. It takes some effort to point the Alfa 4C where you want to go, and that’s because your hands are directly connected to the front wheels.

Many people say a car “drives like a go kart” only to convey that it has nimble handling, but there’s a lot more to a go kart than just that. The Alfa 4C actually does feel like a go kart on the road, but that’s thanks more to its manual steering than its nimble handling. Power steering, of all sorts, can be good to drive, but nothing can really compare to a great manual steering rack for true driver engagement.

Next, the Alfa 4C is truly a lightweight car, especially by modern standards. The lightest modern Ferraris still weigh close to the 3,000 lb mark, and that’s an extra 500 lbs you’ll definitely notice after driving this little Alfa. When it comes to fun, the lighter, the better.

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Lastly, the 4C is an Alfa Romeo, not a Ferrari, and that’s a good thing. There’s a huge difference in brand perception between the two. In a Ferrari you’ll be hated out of envy, in the Alfa you’ll be loved out of adoration. Plainly, the Alfa comes off a lot less “douchey” in our society, and that’s good for your paint job.

I experienced this firsthand. When I drove the Ferrari earlier the same day, I could see people glancing over at me like, “What’s he got that I don’t? Screw that guy, what a tool!” In the Alfa I had people literally cheer as I drove by, giving me the thumbs up. The Alfa Romeo brand is a lot friendlier and more approachable. Alfa isn’t all about being in some exclusive elitist club, and I think people like them better for it.

So I love the fact that the 4C is an Alfa Romeo, and no, I would not rather it be a Ferrari. In fact, I think it is so different from anything Ferrari makes right now, that I could see a 4C sharing a garage with any current Ferrari, especially one of their GT cars.

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Great ingredients add up

With any artisan good, it’s not what you do, but how you do what you do that makes your product what it is. Mama’s homemade pasta sauce isn’t special because she follows some generic recipe in a book, but because she adds her own tricks to the mix. Maybe it’s the plump juicy tomatoes she drives an extra 30 minutes to buy, maybe it’s the extra clove and a half of garlic she throws in, or maybe it’s the dash of aged wine at the end that doesn’t entirely burn off. Whatever it is, nobody else’s sauce is quite like mama’s.

Again, the Alfa Romeo approach toward building a car is similar. Their car has to be more than just a basic mode of transportation. Numbers can tell us a lot, but funny enough, they can’t tell us what matters most about a car like the Alfa 4C.

The brochure will tell us that the Alfa 4C’s 1.75L turbo four cylinder makes 237hp and 258 ft/lbs of torque, 80% of which is available from 1,700 rpm. But the brochure doesn’t tell you about the wondrous turbo lag that adds another level of depth the the driving experience. The 4C doesn’t just go right when you step on the gas pedal. No, there is a pause, a build up of anticipation before all hell breaks loose. For a few instants, the car keeps you waiting for that forward thrust you so desperately want, and that makes you want it that much more. It’s a little game of tease every time you hit the accelerator, and the car wouldn’t be nearly as good without it.

So many carmakers are trying to engineer-out turbo lag, and they miss all of the drama it adds to the experience. Not Alfa, though, they’ve got it just right.

Accompanying the turbo lag is the wonderful blow-off noise. It is pure turbo drama, an aspect you cannot have in a naturally aspirated car. As you accelerate, the 4C gives you that turbo-rush sensation, and when you let off, a sudden “POW!” comes as a thunderous applause for a job well done. It’s quite satisfying!

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Another aspect of the 4C I found incredible was the pronounced rumble that came from it’s little 1.75L engine, and my test car didn’t even have the optional sport exhaust. The 4C has an aural presence I’ve never experienced from a modern production 4 cylinder before. You can feel the engine’s tone in your chest, and it’s noise is very prominent as you drive along, helping to cement the car’s exotic feel. A wheezy little four-pot this is not.

I’ve already mentioned the awesome connection you feel with the road surface thanks to the 4C’s un-assisted steering, but you also get a ton of information from the road that comes through the chassis itself. Even resting your left foot on the dead pedal, you’ll notice vibrations that tell you about the makeup of the road surface beneath you.

Then there’s the hard brake pedal, which engages immediately and yields nicely progressive stopping control. The little Alfa’s steel brakes are powerful too, able to stop the car from 60 mph in just 97 feet.

The whole car has a hard, solid feel to it, very similar to a mid-engine Ferrari. There’s nothing even remotely spongy about the way the 4C drives, and that definitely makes it feel like a proper exotic on the road.

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Now, about that gearbox…

I had often said I would never want a small lightweight sports car without a clutch pedal. I had even kind of written off the Alfa Romeo 4C because it was paddle shift only. But now, after driving it, I have to back-pedal on all of that, and it’s all because Alfa Romeo’s execution is so spot-on with this car.

Alfa’s TCT Twin Clutch transmission is phenomenal, calibrated perfectly for the character of the 4C and it’s turbo engine.

In Dynamic Mode the 4C shifts crisply, with a nice “BRAP!” from the exhaust, and no interruption in acceleration. In that regard it felt very similar to the Ferrari I had driven earlier.

When you start the 4C, it defaults to Natural Mode and automatic shifting, and it’s very smooth in traffic. Dynamic mode and manual shifting is definitely the way to go for fun on the road, though.

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This brings me to the layout of the gearbox controls. There is no PRND lever that would make the 4C feel like a Toyota Camry. Instead, it has buttons in the center, just like a Ferrari, and that does wonders for making the 4C feel exotic. You see, this is a big deal because exotic cars are not supposed to feel conventional. When I get in a Porsche and I see the PRND lever, it does take away from the “special” appeal of the car. I’m glad that Alfa Romeo went with the buttons. It’s a small detail, but it matters to the whole.

So, the 4C’s TCT tranny is good, so good that the lack of a stick-shift is no longer a deal-breaker for me. Now, that said, I still wish Alfa would offer a manual option for the 4C, but it would have to be a great manual gearbox to be worth it. I’m talking crisp confident gear throws, a nice grippy clutch, and probably a metal shift gate for that full Italian driving experience. If Alfa isn’t going to make the manual perfect, then they just shouldn’t bother. The TCT is so good that I’d choose paddle shifting over a mediocre manual.

Where does the Alfa 4C fit in?

The Alfa Romeo 4C is a pretty unique car right now. It’s a more hardcore driver’s car than a Porsche Boxster or Cayman, but it’s not so hardcore that it’s unlivable on the road.

I’m someone who loves Porsches to death, and I’ve always thought they had great personality. But this Alfa makes the Porsches seem a bit dull, a bit too soft around the edges. In terms of feeling “special,” you’d need something like a Porsche Cayman GT4 to be on the same level as this Alfa.

The Alfa Romeo 4C offers the full Italian exotic experience in the realm of the sports car. No other new car does that right now.

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Dollars and Sense

The Alfa 4C Spider starts around $65,000, and prices can get up to $84,000 when loaded with options. Other than the nice wheels, the car I drove didn’t have too many options on it, and it was fantastic. If you keep things simple, $69,000 will get you a 4C Spider with nothing you’ll really miss. If you’re stretching your budget at all, I’d say go with that. Many of the options are nice, but most of them aren’t necessary.

As far as competition, there are a few ways you can look at the Alfa Romeo 4C Spider.

New against new

For $65,000 to $85,000 the most direct competition for the Alfa 4C has to be the Porsche 718 Boxster and Boxster S. The Porsches definitely get expensive, even topping $100,000 with all of the options you’d want. The Alfa is also a much more raw driving experience than the Boxster at this point. Not many cars could make a Porsche feel soft, but the 4C is one of them.

You could also look at a Porsche Cayman GTS, but the story is much the same.

4C vs hardcore used sports cars

Lotus Exige 240/260:

Many people compare the Alfa to a Lotus. In fact, the Lotus may be the only option here that could make the Alfa seem a bit soft. The Lotus Exige is a hardcore track rat, about as damn near a racecar as you can put a license plate on. If you’re serious about tracking your car a lot, then the Lotus Exige may be your car. If you’re more about a hardcore street experience, though, then the Alfa is probably better.

Porsche 911 GT3 (996):

A solid hardcore Porsche 911. Values have been increasing, though not as much as the later 997 GT3s. You can still find a decent 996 GT3 in the $70,000 range. Just keep in mind that their over a decade old now, and will likely need some work done.

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For those pushing their budget

Lotus Evora S:

I actually couldn’t believe how cheap these things had gotten. Available in the $50,000 range, an Evora S is a much better idea for anyone who would be straining their finances to afford the Alfa. The Evora is quite exotic, offers a hardcore driving experience, and is really fast. I wouldn’t spend more than $65,000 on one at this point, but it’s a great excuse to save some money.

Porsche Cayman R / Boxster Spyder:

These are both awesome sports cars, each with a more hardcore edge than the standard model. For $45,000-65,000 you can have a great example of either Porsche. These are the ones that would make it most difficult for me to justify buying a new Alfa 4C.

Acura NSX:

It’s not an option I’d seriously consider here, but it must be mentioned. The NSX is a great car, one with a lot of appeal for many people.

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Alfa 4C vs used exotics

Ferrari 360:

Definitely the best used Italian exotic to consider against the Alfa, the Ferrari 360 is a true dream car. While running costs will surely be steep, like really steep, the car itself likely won’t loose much value if you buy a clean one. If you take good care of it, and drive it regularly, the Ferrari 360 is actually a pretty reliable car. Just realize that the F1 gearbox eats clutches like crazy, and only manuals with lots of miles will be available at this price range.

In short, a Ferrari 360 may be a better financial option than the Alfa 4C if you’re paying cash for the car, and have cash on hand for maintenance. If you plan to finance it, though, I’d say go for the Alfa.

Ferrari 355:

Awesome sound, awesome style, awesome to drive. You’ll drown in running costs, though, and it will break down a lot. Generally it’s not a “good” idea, given what else you could have.

The shittiest Lamborghini Gallardo of your wildest nightmares:

First-generation single-clutch paddle shifts have proven terrible on the used market. The Gallardo is amazing experience, but we’re talking about the bottom of the barrel in this price range. As someone who’s driven a Gallardo with a failing clutch, I’d say stay far away.

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Verdict

No matter how you approach the Alfa Romeo 4C in the market, it’s a competitive contender, and quite desirable on all fronts.

Alfa Romeo executed this car brilliantly, even overcoming it’s lack of a manual gearbox. I went into my drive a heavy skeptic, and I came out a total convert.

And just to put the cherry on top, the 4C is actually quite economical if you decide to relax. The EPA says it’s capable of up to 34 mpg. I’m sure you could even justify it as a daily commuter if you had to.

The 4C Spider is not just good, it’s actually lovable. It’s incredible how the Italians can actually infuse a sense of living soul into a machine. It’s not the performance of the car, it’s the total experience.

Alfa Romeo nailed the total recipe with the 4C Spider. The ingredients add up to much more than the sum of their parts.

-Nick Walker

MoM Score: Alfa Romeo 4C Spider

Primary Function: Performance: 2
Secondary Functions: MPG(2) Practicality(1): 1.5
Visual Appeal: 2
Build Quality: 2
Value for Money: 2

Final Score: 9.5 /10

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10 thoughts on “Alfa Romeo 4C Spider Review: A Recipe Perfected”

  1. I have a LE coupe. This is one fantastic car…the more you drive it the more you love it. The trans is amazing. Coming from a traditional manual….there is no way that it can compete with this one. I too thought I only wanted a manual…was I wrong. This is not an automatic in the American style, it is a dual clutch very sophisticated trans. There is a reason why the supercars are going to these….130ms shifts and auto rev matching up and down is superb. I have race exhaust and sports suspension. This is what an engine is supposed to sound like and the suspension is very well damped. I have driven several US performance cars that rode far worse and handling was not even in the same ball park.
    Excellent article by the way too!

    Like

  2. I must confess my partiality to this Italian Supercar. That said, I noted recently an article which referred the new Mclaren as the new lower threshold for a supercar….well, Alfa Romeo IS the standard for a really affordable supercar. ALfa 4C is Italian, and a thoroughbred, equal to the German Porsche, after all, who owns that???
    We need a strong movement by the Alfa boys out there to step up, and vote with their wallets so Alfa Romeo will be with us for years to come. I doubt the values of well-loved 4Cs will drop much, as production is low, the car is HOT !!
    This machine is not really an automatic, in fact, I really like the shifting format. 34 mpg for me, is iceing on the cake. Did I say, yet I LOVE my Alfa 4C ???? Forever. WmRD

    Like

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