We need to talk about the Alfa Romeo 4C. So far every press car driven in the UK has been on Italian plates, left-hand drive and in ‘racing’ specification. This means bigger wheels – 18s at the front, 19s at the rear – stiffer springs and dampers, a rear anti-roll bar, a thicker front anti-roll bar and more aggressive front geometry settings.
It all seems to work well enough in mainland Europe, but presented with the unique challenge that is Britain’s rutted and anything-but-care-worn road surfaces, the 4C becomes decidedly more… troubled.
What do you mean ‘troubled’?
This manifests itself in a front end so lively you quite genuinely spend every moment of your time behind the wheel having almost no idea what the car is going to do next. Amusing under power, perhaps – think of it like torque-steer, except you’re driving a mid-engined, rear-wheel drive coupe – but under braking, the way it twitches and chases cambers is something else entirely.
One word for the experience is ‘involving’: there is no other car on sale at this price point that demands such total concentration. Another word is ‘exciting’: you will most definitely get out feeling incredibly alive. Still another is ‘terrifying’, though the less generous members of CAR’s writing pool have been known to use just four letters. A recent escapade in Wales with such a car left many of us bitterly disappointed.
This, however, is different. The Alfa Romeo 4C driven here is one of the very first UK press cars, and in addition to that dubious personalised number plate and right-hand drive, it glories in the standard chassis configuration. Which is to say, suspicions that it’s counting down the moments until it chucks you into a ditch are considerably diminished. In theory...
What is the Alfa Romeo 4C ‘comfort’ spec?
The standard configuration – which has already earned the unofficial sobriquet of ‘comfort’ spec – winds back much of the aggression. So you get 17- and 18-inch wheels (not pictured, for logistical reasons), softer springs and dampers, no rear anti-roll bar and a slightly more road-friendly front end.
‘Comfort’ is a bit of a misnomer, because the actual ride comfort is least of the racing spec 4C’s worries. Still, the standard car is noticeably less punishing during a fast motorway cruise, suggesting cross-continental efforts are no longer out of the question – unless of course you want to take some luggage, because no manner of fettling underneath is going to expand the boot beyond the 110-litre hot box aft of the engine bay.
We digress. More pertinently, the front of the car is far better behaved. That’s not to say you can entirely relax – movement under hard braking remains pronounced enough to make caffeine a must-have accessory on a cold morning – but you can now feel the 4C working the road surface, rather than being totally taken under its influence. This is comfort-enhancing in a buttock-unclenching, eye-muscle-relaxing kind of way.
So is the standard Alfa Romeo 4C any good on UK roads?
This writer speaks to you as someone who quite enjoys the life-affirming challenge of driving the track-spec 4C quickly on the road, if not the adrenaline shakes in the aftermath. But suffice to say even previously unimpressed CAR team members found the standard version much, much better to drive. Suddenly, the undeniably special nature of this carbonfibre flyweight begins to shine.
The joy of no longer needing to anticipate the unexpected all of the time is that you get to fully appreciate the rest of the package. That 1750cc turbo four might not be an aural classic in the traditional sense, but if you’ve ever entertained Group B rallying fantasies, the chuffing and whooshing coming from just over your shoulder is scintillating. And with so little weight to push around, it gives the 4C mighty shove – spooling up swiftly enough to nail gaps in traffic unflinchingly, yet still building to a tremendous crescendo of boost between upshifts.
The paddleshift twin-clutch gearbox is only occasionally recalcitrant, and the eagerness with which it otherwise endeavours to action your commands suits the animated nature of that excitable engine. The smaller front wheels make the unassisted steering a little lighter and more consistent, and you finally sense you can start to exploit that mid-engined balance. With strong traction, a four-square stance and such a stiff structure, the ‘true’ 4C is nimble, alert and exceptionally potent, and lives up its promised billing at last.
The 4C will always have its detractors. The cabin is sparse, the plastics are coarse and the stereo is a joke – spin it as weight limitation or a side effect of Alfa spending all the money on carbon. It’s also noisy (the optional sport exhaust especially being an anti-social behaviour citation waiting to happen), uncompromising, and in no way a rival to the Porsche Cayman. Alfa will tell you it’s not supposed to be.
But it is special. And exotic. And that exposed carbonfibre monocoque is a constant reminder of both. People will always turn and stare, that engine will always make you giggle, and the 4C will always give you moments to make your heart rate spike. Spec the standard car if you want most of these to be for the right reasons, not the wrong ones.