The Alfa Romeo 4C is a lightweight sports car that sits between hardcore stripped out machines like the Caterham Seven and more civilised models from brands including Lotus and Porsche.
With its fixed metal roof the 4C may appear to have more in common with the Lotus Exige and Porsche Cayman, but the 4C’s pared back interior and super-lightweight carbon fibre construction makes it feel more akin to the back-to-basics Caterham.
Due to its high-tech materials, however, what truly sets the 4C apart, is its price, weighing in at £51,500 – around twice the price of a similarly fast Caterham Seven and more than a much more usable and upmarket Porsche Cayman S.
What is it?
The 4C is the only true performance car in the current Alfa Romeo lineup – standing far above the company’s mainstream Mito and Giulietta hatchbacks. It harks back to the era when Alfa Romeo made a range of sports cars that wouldn’t look out of place with a Ferrari badge attached.
Thanks to its carbon fibre frame, the 4C weighs less than 900kg – making it safely lighter than a typical city car – while producing around three times as much power. This lack of mass not only gives the 4C a helping hand when it comes to acceleration, but means that it promises agile handling around bends too.
What is it like to drive?
With a powerful turbocharged 1.7-litre petrol engine behind the driver’s seat and so little weight to slow it down, the 4C is a rapid machine, sprinting to 62mph in a Porsche 911-rivalling 4.5 seconds. Thanks to its stubby bonnet and the engine sat close behind the driver’s head, the 4C offers a very different driving experience to most cars – exaggerating the sensation of speed.
The low-slung seating position only serves to emphasise the focus on the road ahead as you drop into the cabin. Unlike in other Alfa Romeos, the engine has been tuned to produce a raucous exhaust note in the 4C, with the whistling turbo channeling even more noise into the cabin.
Pull off and the first thing you’ll notice, though, is the non-power assisted steering, which is extremely heavy at low speeds. Accelerate up to a cruise and the 4C’s roadholding abilities are impressive. With direct steering, firm but not uncomfortable suspension and barely any body roll even around the tightest corners, the 4C is barely more than a race car with number plates.
The turbocharged engine fires the car up the road with enthusiasm even if you press the accelerator gently, though it feels planted around bends, instilling confidence in the driver. The brake pedal requires a significant amount of pressure before slowing the car, though.
While it may be very capable, the 4C does get violently deflected by big bumps in the road, which makes it a handful to thread down a typical UK back road, as the tyres battle against potholes and cambers in the Tarmac. We also found both the accelerator and brake pedal heavily offset to the left, making it particularly uncomfortable to drive, depending upon your seating position.
Unusually for a car solely focused on providing a back-to-basics driving experience, the 4C comes with an automatic gearbox as standard, with floor-mounted buttons to select forward and reverse gears and paddles behind the steering wheel to shift gears manually. We found these buttons slightly tricky to reach and the gearbox a little clunky compared to the best modern performance-focused automatic gearboxes, though it changes gears quickly enough.
The 4C also includes Alfa’s ‘DNA’ system, which lets you choose between ‘Dynamic’, ‘Natural’ and ‘All-season’ modes. In the Dynamic setting the car responds quickly to the throttle and scampers around corners with vigour, while it feels a little tamer in Natural mode. All-season meanwhile tempers the throttle response, in attempt to make the 4C more drivable in snowy or slippery conditions.
What is it like inside?
The 4C’s cabin is an odd mishmash of pared-down simplicity and high tech features, with fabric door handles, a manual handbrake and body-hugging seats giving it an old-fashioned feel, while the floor-mounted gearchange buttons, garish digital dials and flat-bottomed steering wheel offer a much more modern look.
The car’s carbon fibre shell is visible in the cabin, while the red leather seats in our test car add a sense of visual drama and hold you in place relatively well. Our test car was fitted with air conditioning that is easy to adjust with rotary controls, though the audio controls are slightly recessed, making them tricky to reach from behind the wheel.
Is it practical?
In a word, no. The 4C is not intended to be practical, but simply getting in and out is a challenge for all but the most nimble of people. With the two seats being mounted very low down and wide door sills to negotiate, getting into the car is a case of gingerly dropping into the cabin, while getting out is similarly challenging. Attempting this when parked in tight spaces only adds to the difficulty.
The cabin also offers very little storage room, with only a cupholder and a small leather pouch for stowing small items when on the move. The boot is small as well, though it is just about possible to fit a hand-luggage sized suitcase and a few other squishy items in.
With short, stubby bonnet the view of the road ahead from behind the wheel is relatively good. Rear visibility, however, is abysmal, making what is a small car feel more unwieldy than you might expect when manouevring, despite the addition of rear parking sensors on the car we drove.
Should I buy one?
On paper the Alfa 4C is difficult to recommend, coming in at more than £50,000, while offering little in the way of comfort or equipment. Those purely after a visceral lightweight driving machine should get just as much of a thrill from the even lighter – and much more affordable – Caterham Seven range or the similarly rapid Lotus Elise. Buyers after an everyday performance car on the other hand will want to consider the Porsche Cayman S, which is much more sophisticated and high quality than the 4C but also costs less.
The 4C is undoubtedly an exciting car to drive, with bags of performance and impressive handling, courtesy of its lightweight frame, but some will find the driving position uncomfortable, the engine doesn’t make a particularly pleasant noise – and it is very noisy – and buyers are forced to have the automatic gearbox, which is an acquired taste.
There are undoubtedly many drivers after a sports car who will love the 4C, but we’d wager that this is in spite of how this Alfa compares to rivals rather than because of it.
Don't want to buy new? You can browse for a used Alfa 4C in our classifieds here.
Alfa Romeo 4C
List price: £51,500
Engine: 1.7-litre, turbocharged four cylinder petrol
Top speed: 160mph
0-62mph: 4.5 seconds
Fuel economy: 28.8mpg (urban), 56.5mpg (extra-urban) 41.5mpg (combined)
Emissions: 157g/km CO2
Euro NCAP rating: Not yet tested
Pictures: Jonathan Fleetwood