Mark Walton on Alfa Romeo, CAR+ December 2015

Published: 27 October 2015

► Mark Walton talks Afla Romeo
► Will the Giulia be as Alfa promised?
► The 4C wasn't as good as the spec sheet

In defence of the Alfa Romeo 4C (which I’d never driven before, until this week): well, it’s a car that Apple will never make, that’s for sure. We should be glad about that, like David Attenborough discovering a new species of slug – it’s only a slug, but that’s something to be glad about isn’t it? Diversity. Apple (if it is developing a new car, as the rumours suggest) will no doubt launch a perfect white cube riding on gold discs, with Siri in the passenger seat telling you she’s no longer connected to the internet. The 4C is at the opposite end of the car spectrum – mid-engined, bare carbon tub, it looks like a cross between a Ferrari 360 and a Lotus Exige. A car with unassisted steering and rear-wheel drive. Just like Attenborough, skipping round his garden filled with existential joy, we too should skip around the beautiful little 4C, singing our heartfelt thanks that a mainstream manufacturer had the balls to build it, in a world of platform-sharing and self-driving electric-powered appliances. 

But just keep skipping okay – around and around and around – and whatever you do, don’t succumb to the temptation to get in and drive. Because yes, I’m afraid the Alfa 4C’s reputation is completely justified – stunning to look at, a specification to die for, but such a disappointment on the road it leaves you with the kind of ache you feel when your girlfriend breaks up with you and starts posting all the love poems you wrote for her on social media, #cringe. 

(I’m just imagining that would be awful, it hasn’t actually happened to me.)

But if it’s so painful to be reminded of how far from greatness (or how close to it) the 4C is, why drive it now, two years after it was launched? Because – duh! – if you read the last issue (CAR, November) you’ll know I had ‘an audience’ with the new Alfa Giulia in Italy, and got extremely excited by its seductive promise. A lightweight sports saloon? With a twin-turbo V6? Rear-wheel-drive? Carbon seats? With spec like that, surely it’s bound to be brilliant, right? I mean, it has to be, right?

Ah but wait… the 4C. As I discovered after about three miles, the Alfa 4C proves you can’t guarantee greatness with a spec sheet. It’s not the ingredients in the recipe that matter, it’s the way they’re baked together, and the 4C lacks something, something ghostly and ethereal, something that’s hard to classify or diagnose. Yes, the unassisted steering jigs around in your hand, pulling you off course as it follows cambers and contours; and it lacks transparency and feel at the wheel. But these characteristics could have been endearing – all those reviews might have said, ‘the car feels alive’; and that steering could have been described as ‘light and pure’. Instead, every reviewer said the same thing: the 4C lacks feel – a hard-to-pin-down gut sensation that tells you you’re on top of it, that everything’s beneath you. That wayward straight-line handling and the absence of detail in the feedback means you never settle into the drive, you remain cautious and wary. It’s like picking up a tray of wine glasses, all filled to the brim, and sensing straight away that the tray’s not balanced, and if you’re not careful you’re going to drop them all and spill gallons of red wine all over your best friend’s cream carpet, and his wife’s going to go absolutely bananas and the dinner party’s going to end early in shouting and bitter acrimony. 

Driving the 4C is just like that. 

So we can’t take the new Giulia for granted, not until we’ve actually driven it. But there is one thing that gives us hope – the guy who ran the project was Phillipe Krieff, who’s last job was the Ferrari 458 Speciale. If there’s one car on Earth that illustrates what’s wrong with the Alfa 4C, it’s the 458. Forget the power output, the romance of the badge and the price, the Ferrari (and its 488 successor) has a truly magical feel, like you’ve been partially absorbed into the driving seat, like you could drive it accurately with a mere flex of your buttocks.  

Can Alfa create that kind of magic in the Giulia? If it can, the 4C will remain a strange anomaly – a rare species to admire, but not necessarily keep as a pet. 

By Mark Walton

Contributing editor, humorist, incurable enthusiast