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Driven: Alfa's feisty 4C packs a punch

Power to the people: With sizzling performance and drop-dead good looks, the Alfa 4C will be a must-have purchase for Alfisti.

Raw Alfa Romeo 4C ignites both the rear tyres and the senses in rare fashion


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10 Mar 2014


IF YOU like your cars raw, punchy and full of life in a body dripping with Italian style, Alfa Romeo has the coupe for you. At least, it will from the second half of this year when deliveries of the all-new Alfa 4C two-door sports coupe start in Australia.

You will need $80,000-plus in your bank account and be prepared to wait in a rapidly lengthening queue for the Milan brand's first serious stab at an exotic rear-drive sports car for some time as it goes back to its roots.

Made in sister company Maserati's plant in Modena, Italy, with a heart of carbon-fibre and other high-tech materials, the low and wide two-seat 4C was developed from concept to showroom reality in just 28 months.

Instead of ramping up engine power to induce high performance, Alfa engineers chose to spend their time reducing the mass of the little coupe, resulting in a near-supercar power-to-weight ratio of just under 3kg per kilowatt.

The race-style carbon-fibre “tub” that forms the core of the car weighs just 65kg, and by the time the production workers have attached the all-aluminium front and rear sub-frames, light-weight composite panels, aluminium-block engine and other bits, the 4C tips the scales at under 900kg dry weight, and under one tonne when fuelled and ready to roll.

Despite employing a small-ish 1.75-litre turbo-charged four-cylinder engine pushing out 176kW and 350Nm, the 4C races from zero to 100km/h in an official 4.5 seconds, and then can slam to a halt in 35 metres, courtesy of steel discs with four-pot front callipers.

And after driving the car, we have few doubts that these claims are legitimate, and might even be a fraction pessimistic, such is the go and fro of this compact coupe.

The engine sits transversely behind the passenger cabin, buzzing lustily and willingly with every jab of the throttle. Turbo lag is notably absent, spooling up almost instantaneously to deliver hefty thrust from low in the rev range.

The test cars we drove on a mix of roads in and around Fiat Chrysler Automobiles' proving ground between Turin and Milan were fitted with an optional sports pack that included a barking sports exhaust emitting a soundtrack on the raucus side of rorty from the twin pipes.

While some drivers might find that a bit too much, few will have any complaints about the dual-clutch automatic transmission which changes cogs with a lightning speed reminiscent of a Ferrari or Porsche box.

The blat from the engine on every upshift under hard throttle is one of the highlights of a 4C drive, and even though we used the manual gearshift paddles on the steering wheel to good effect, the transmission's intelligent override on changes was so slick that we barely bothered after a while. Down-changes start almost as soon as the brake pedal is given a decent push, setting up the 4C for a quick exit from corners.

Alfa eschewed steering power assistance of any kind – electric or hydraulic – resulting in one of the most feel-full driving experiences available. The light weight of the 4C means the steering rarely feels heavy, except at slow parking speeds when it becomes a chore.

On uneven roads, the 4C requires a firm pair of hands on the tiller as the firmly sprung coupe bumps and grinds, alive like an animal, which is a bit disconcerting initially, but the driver learns to go with the flow. The ride quality is surprisingly fluid for a car of this ilk, and drivers should have no problem living with the car in the daily commute.

However, the 4C is a speed freak with a passion for country roads, and powering through corners is a 4C speciality. Sitting on an unusual suspension set up of double wishbones at the front and MacPherson strut at the back, the little Alfa exhibits prodigious grip and nimble demeanour in the corners, and sensational traction out of themThis was brought home in no uncertain terms when we went for a few hot laps with one of Alfa Romeo's test drivers who took one of the high speed sweeping corners – a replica of one at Monza – at white-knuckle pace, with the sure-footed 4C tracking flat and flawless.

Only occasionally did we feel the electronics giving a helping hand to keep the car planted. However, if the driver selects the new “race” mode on Alfa's familiar 'DNA' driving mode selector, you are on your own. Perhaps the 'dynamic' mode, when the electronics take a back seat but jump in when necessary, should be the default hard-driving mode.

Overall, the handling is similar to that of a Lotus Elise, which is the closest in concept to the 4C – lightweight, small but powerful engine and no frills.

Because the 4C is a 'stripper', there is little insulation to deaden road noise, particularly stones that pitter-patter against the underside of the carbon-fibre passenger cell.

However, Alfa has made a positive of the exposed carbon-fibre in the cabin, polishing it to a patterned black sheen that reassures the driver that the 4C means business.

Despite the 1.8-metre width of the 4C, the cabin is not overly generous in shoulder room. A lot of the girth goes into the muscular haunches of the exterior, which contribute greatly to the stunning looks.

The engine – just a few centimetres away over the driver's left shoulder behind a carbon-fibre wall – is ever present, but enthusiasts would not have it any other way.

Two of the biggest drawbacks of the 4C are strangely unsupportive seats that have little under-thigh support and insufficient lateral support, and the horrible rear three-quarter view that demands, at the very least, a rear view camera.

On our drive in Italy, we found ourselves briefly going the wrong way up a one-way village street, and the resultant three-point turn was no fun, with restricted view of the tight surrounds and plentiful traffic (not to mention stiff steering).

Another negative is the race-car-like entry and exit to the cabin, requiring a fall-and-flop technique to get into the seat. To climb out over the massively wide sills also requires an effort.

The cabin is, by modern standards, short on frills and long on business-like controls. LCD screen for sat-nav? Not here. Fancy stereo? Try somewhere else.

However, cruise control and electric windows are standardAs you would expect, the controls are all about the driver, with a chunky leather-clad steering wheel and easy switches that include console buttons to select reverse, neutral and drive.

But simplicity is strangely absent on the electronic screen that provides the instrument display in the binnacle ahead of the driver. Depending on 'DNA' driving mode, the display comes up with a variety of display formats that look sexy but are at the same time bewilderingly complicated and difficult to read at a glance.

The 4C is the antithesis of a family car, and that is reflected in the small 110-litre boot behind the engine. However, the space is sufficient for a couple of sports bags or a small suitcase for a weekend down the coast.

And it is no use looking to the front for some extra luggage space – the “bonnet” is fixed permanently shut, as there is no room for so much as a handbag under there.

Yes, the Alfa 4C is all business, in a fun way. Real fun, really fast.

Australian buyers can expect the 4C in three flavours – standard, special Launch Edition and topless Spider, ranging in price from about somewhere between $80,000 and $120,000. For buyers of the base model, an extra cost Sports kit will add the barking exhaust, larger 19-inch alloy wheels and lower profile tyres, extra carbon-fibre-look trim and a few other odds and ends.

That Sports kit will form part of the Launch Edition package, but despite a less constricted exhaust, peak power is said to be the same across all models, although the peak might be a little lower in the rev range.

The 4C coupe should arrive about August, with the Spider following either about Christmas or early 2015.

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