Photography by Greg Pajo
We've waited years to drive the new 237bhp Alfa Romeo 4C, so now it's here, it feels only right to pitch the Alfa straight into a group test. And as luck would have it, there’s a Porsche Cayman and Lotus Elise S waiting for us at the 2612m summit of this amazing mountain. What are the chances?
The pair perfectly bookend the 4C. The Elise has always epitomised Lotus’s ‘add lightness’ philosophy (it weighs as little as the Alfa, which means unassisted steering too) and the ‘S’ designation denotes this model has a supercharger, so like the 4C it has a forced-induction four-cylinder engine.
And the Cayman is the obvious rival for the Alfa to beat, because there’s no finer mid-engined sports car this side of an Audi R8. We’ve opted for the standard Cayman, rather than the more potent S, because the latter is £49k before you’ve spent £1922 on the PDK twin-clutch gearbox to match the 4C, and with a 321bhp 3.4-litre flat-six, its engine is nearly twice the size and produces 84bhp more. Still, even the Cayman has an extra 34bhp over the Alfa, and costs £3384 less. The 4C has got some work ahead of it.
Lotus first, and with its wide aluminium sill the task of clambering into the Elise is akin to potholing. And once you’ve fallen inside it’s even more minimalist than the Alfa: you look up at the fabric lining of the removable roof and its plastic support bars, and the only way to adjust the mirrors is to stick your hand out of the windows and grab them. The exposed alloy chassis is nowhere near as inviting as the 4C’s carbon either, but there’s still a radio and air-con, and more storage space than the Italian offers, with an aluminium trough for keys and coins to rattle around in, and a leather jockstrap that slides out from the dash and doubles as a kinky cupholder.
The steering wheel is delightfully thin too, especially after the Alfa’s terrible offering. You can delicately guide the Elise with fingertips, or wrap both hands around the wheel, but the 4C’s twin spokes are too thick, so you can’t properly grip the wheel and it’s only vaguely comfortable to hold if your fingers are extended over the plasticky paddles. It’s just a pity the Elise’s steering wheel doesn’t move for reach or rake.
But the steering does move in another, quite wonderful way. There’s nothing, not even a Caterham, that has steering like an Elise – the wheel is constantly writhing and wiggling in your hands, rich chunks of data being fed back from the narrow and high-profile front tyres. You drive an Elise first and foremost through you fingers, focusing on the steering loading and unloading in your hands, delicately guiding the nose through corners. And with the roof off and the wind whipping over you, it’s a sensory overload. It makes the Cayman feel numb and remote, and you wonder how Alfa has filtered out so much information when the 4C also has unassisted steering – it can’t communicate like the Elise.
The Lotus is how I imagine a Le Mans racer feels. You sit low in a snug seat, and look out over the dash, past a big single windscreen wiper, while the bonnet drops away steeply and the two wings rise up to cover the front wheels. There are two simple dials, one for your speed, the other for the revs, a gearstick (with a shift that’s lighter and less obtrusive than I remember) and some dainty pedals that are perfect for heel ‘n’ toe gearchanges. It’s an utterly immersive experience, and with sticky Yokohamas and tight body control, the Elise remains resolutely neutral however hard you push.
With a supercharger instead of the Alfa’s turbo, the little1.8-litre Toyota-sourced engine is also more responsive at low revs, and more urgent near the redline. But the sound is very one-dimensional: it roars hoarsely over the final 1000 revs, but otherwise it’s monotone with none of the bark or bite of the 4C. And after the solidity of the 4C’s carbon monocoque, you sense the Elise’s aluminium chassis isn’t as stiff. It feels like it’s flexing and moving, shimmying and shaking, but although the suspension is kept very busy, the brilliance of its tuning means the Elise always rides fluidly and fluently.
Once in a while you do wish the steering would shut up though. It’s like a child that’s constantly talking to you: ‘Daddy, did you notice the road surface just changed?’ ‘Daddy, did you feel that mid-corner bump through the offside front tyre?’ ‘Daddy…’ ‘Yes, yes,’ you want to say, ‘I did, but please would you just be quiet for five whole minutes and let me relax?’
The Cayman is a completely different proposition. It’s got two boots, an electric handbrake, a fuel saving stop/start system, and after the 4C and Elise it feels big and wide and rather too comfortable. Though after rock-hard seats and cramped cabins, a leather-lined interior with a good stereo and decent air-con is welcome. The Cayman immediately feels so complete, but can it match the interactivity and involvement offered by Lotus and Alfa?
The 911 GT3 overshadowed a Cayman S in CAR's 2013 Sports Car Giant Test, its steering bringing into focus just how little feedback most regular Porsches now offer. But without a Porsche Motorsport-developed, hardcore road-racer to compare it with, once again the Cayman’s steering feels crisp and incisive. Yet with the 4C and especially the Elise here, you also realise how many of the delicate little messages, the enjoyable extra ‘noise’ is filtered out by the electrical assistance, cutting you out of some crucial connections.
And it’s the same watching-from-the-sidelines experience with the twin-clutch transmission. Put the 4C’s gearbox into Manual and it’ll smash into the limiter and never kickdown, but the Porsche’s PDK transmission will always drop a few gearswhen you plant your foot and always upshift at the redline – even if you’re in the Manual mode, with the Sport Plus button engaged, and all the electronics turned off. This Italian-spec press car has the awful button-style shifters too, that can be pushed or pulled towards you. As long as you remember to upshift with your right thumb, and downshift with your left fingers it’s okay, but never has £283 for Porsche’s SportDesign steering wheel and proper paddles looked better value.
The PDK gearbox can show up the 4C’s six-speed TCT though. The Alfa’s gearbox changes quickly with a nice little thunk if you’re at 100% full throttle, but those occasions are rare, so for the most part the shifts are slow and sloppy. But the Cayman changes smoothly and instantly, whether you’re on part-throttle or have got your right foot buried. And if you do suddenly plant your foot, from say 70mph in seventh gear, the gearbox will be in third almost instantly, or second if you’re in Sport Plus mode.
You need that responsiveness, because after the torque of the Elise and the 4C the Cayman feels underpowered and sluggish at low revs – you need to drop a few gears and wind it out to feel its displacement advantage. What a hardship: the trademark flat-six thrum harmonises as the revs rise, becoming a crisp howl that hardens above 4000rpm and then resonates and fills the whole cabin with a rich yowl as you head towards 8000rpm. Go for the optional sports exhaust and it’ll crackle on the overrun too.
And on these tight roads those extra revs are welcome. The 4C and Elise can be caught between first and second, or second and third, but the Cayman has the extra revs to drop a gear and be right in the meat of its powerband. It’s easier to drive fast too: the steering is quicker lock-to-lock (2.5 turns instead of the 4C and Elise’s 2.75) so you very rarely have to move your hands, and because you don’t sense the suspension working due to the Cayman’s size and sophistication, you feel you can drive it harder and faster, right up until the point when a front wheel starts to skip over bumps as you’re braking for a corner and the ABS cuts in. It’s the most complete car here. But does that mean the Cayman is the best car here?
These three are similar yet disparate, and have shown up each other’s foibles, and their own individual brilliance. Nothing has steering quite like the Elise, or involves you in the purity of the driving experience quite so willingly, but as a consequence nothing can be quite so tiresome as well. The Porsche Cayman is at the other end of the scale, the safe choice, with a responsive engine, a great gearbox and composed chassis, but both the Alfa and Lotus highlight where it fails to communicate with you as vividly as they do.
Which leaves the Alfa Romeo 4C in the middle: it’s neither a Lotus Elise nor a Porsche Cayman, and although it’s not faultless, the more time you spend with it, the more it feels genuinely special. Alfa Romeo is, finally, back on form.