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Alfa Romeo 4C takes on the rivals

  1. Buy a Cayman. Historically, tests like this could be condensed into those three words, and we could all go to the pub. Because, for the past few years, the Porsche has had this game licked. Want a two-seater with the engine in the middle for about 50 grand? You know where to go. But then along comes the Alfa Romeo 4C, and suddenly you can have a mid-engined Italian coupe with a supermodel’s bottom for the same money. And then there’s the Lotus Exige. Traditionally, it’s a logical leap too far from the Porsche: too hardcore, no elbow room and a pain to parallel-park. But now that the little Alfa is here, with its exotic carbon-fibre chassis and unassisted steering, the gap is bridged. Want a two-seater with an engine in the middle for about 50 grand? The game just changed.

    Pictures: Jamie Lipman

    The article originally appeared in Top Gear magazine 

  2. Which is why we’re heading to Mid Wales in the wettest of winters. But first we must get there from TG headquarters, and I’m in the Alfa. From the moment you drive off it’s obviously a bit… different. For starters, the stiff carbon tub and bony seats put very little padding between you and the tarmac. Name a road between London and Llandrindod Wells, and I’ll tell you what it’s like – every bump, cat’s eye and lick of paint from one side of the country to the other. And while the Porsche and Lotus have six cylinders each, the 4C – you’ll have guessed from the name – has four, adding up to just 1.75 litres and 237bhp.

  3. To this is gifted a generous turbo, which huffs and puffs behind your head like a mad bicycle pump. On a four-hour motorway haul, with road noise and engine drone reflected around the bare floor, it all becomes mildly distressing.Less so in the Lotus. Its 3.5-litre V6 settles into a calm cruise, and, in Tour mode, the exhaust shuts its gob and the throttle loosens. The stereo is audible – in the Alfa, it feels like tuning into the shipping forecast from an actual ship – and you can even see rearwards through the glass engine hatch (the Alfa has one, but it’s useless). After the 4C, the Exige feels reasonably cushy, but it’s nothing compared to the leather-upholstered Porsche, which feels like a 325bhp La-Z-Boy in this company. Yes, it’s also bigger and heavier as a result – nearly 400kg more than the 4C depending on fuel and luggage – but it has storage compartments in the nose and beside the engine under the rear deck. The Lotus and Alfa require a separate courier service.

  4. But perhaps the best thing about not driving the 4C is following the thing, its round tail-lights burning like cigarette tips through the spray. What a pretty car this is, from the plunging neckline of the front grille to shapely hips that could only come from Italy. The engine is framed in the glassy rear hatch, which looks like the one from a Ferrari 430. You can see all this for yourself in the pictures, but what you don’t get is a sense of presence. Maybe it’s because it’s so new and unfamiliar, or maybe it’s just those arresting looks, but somehow you just know it’s something a bit rare – like a celeb in a room of nobodies.

  5. With such a square footprint, it creates the illusion of being supercar-wide, but it’s only 1.86 metres across – about the same as a Ford Focus – and inside it’s cramped, thanks to the exposed chassis that funnels into a V-shape around the footwells. You also slide across a foot-or-so of sill before you reach the sea-level seats, and by the time you shut the door, there’s nowhere to stretch out. Before you is a steering wheel with a flat bottom that serves no obvious purpose but looks fun nonetheless. Hiding behind it like small plastic ears are the paddles to operate the double-clutch TCT ’box and up above there’s a hi-def instrument display. Beside your knee are the buttons on the centre console to engage it, laid out like the ones from a Ferrari. There’s no manual option.

  6. Given our disapproval of previous Alfa TCTs, this could be a point of frustration. And while we’d still wager that a set of cogs operated by 
a good old stick would better unite man and machine, this dual-clutcher isn’t so bad, and a massive improvement on previous versions. There’s still a sort of bungee sensation when you squeeze the throttle and wait for the wheels to turn – you don’t get that in the Porsche with its equivalent PDK – but after that, it’s pretty sharp. Upshifts are snappy, and downshifts are aggressive, with a bark from the engine. If anything, it’s too keen to change up, but bossing it around in Manual and Dynamic modes seems to cure that. And curiously, the revs surge if you come off the throttle abruptly in second or third, which sort of pushes you along whether you like it or not.

  7. Over in the Lotus, things are simpler. Here’s an interior in its most literal sense: it’s inside the car. There’s a steering wheel, which is round. There are two basic dials and some knobs for the heater. There’s a metal gearstick. The stereo fits in a rectangular slot and plays something called a compact disc. And none of this matters one bit when you start driving, because the lack of stuff means lack of mass. You notice this whenever you turn or stop or summon the earthy strength of the 345bhp V6, which delivers its power in a smooth arc, thanks to the supercharger. You can be fearless with the throttle and place your trust in the tyres. Forces build quickly but surely. The steering gathers texture with every degree of turn. The brakes are meaty and talkative and don’t mind abuse. It’s the torquiest and the fastest accelerating by some margin: four seconds to 62mph and onto 170mph before you run out of gears. It is, arguably, the most enjoyable science lesson ever: lots of physics, a little chemistry and some dodgy biology in the driver’s seat…

  8. The Alfa, meanwhile, is a textbook case for a psychology class. This is the first time we’ve driven it on British roads with their surprising undulations and eccentric surfaces, and – though it hurts to say so – love is turning to anger. This car is on optional 18-inch alloys up front, 19s out back. I mention this because they’re excessively big. You already have a carbon-fibre chassis, and this car also has the optional sports suspension. 

  9. So it is, to say the least, extremely firm. The result of such wide rubber and so little absorbency is an unhealthy obsession with every square inch of road. Where the surface changes, the 4C follows, which is especially alarming when you’re braking hard and it drags a full metre to the left. It’s like walking a misbehaving dog intent on sniffing every lamp post, and for the next few days my wrists will genuinely ache from hanging on. Yes, the steering’s unassisted, but with all that disturbance, it’s actually hard to feel the tyres. 

  10. So where the Lotus gently interprets the road, the Alfa shouts it in your face. You drive the Lotus. The Alfa drives you. It’s a rush of blood. A blazing row with a slap around the cheek. I suppose some people get off on that, and others will forgive it, because, hey, it has character. Throw in the short wheelbase, stabby brakes and old-school turbo lag – it takes a very deep breath before blowing you up the road – and it reminds us of an Eighties supercar. One minute, you’re enjoying the hearty embrace of a corner; the next, you’re looking up the number for your insurer. Of course, there’s a flip side: the gutsy turbo and lack of weight means 0–62mph in 4.5 seconds. It’s faster than the Porsche, and not far behind the Lotus.

  11. But here’s the thing: we’d actually scrub some raw pace in return for more predictable delivery. Because what’s the point in all the power if you can’t actually use it? We’d lose the sports suspension too. It has barely anything to support – at 925kg, the 4C is even lighter than the Lotus – so it could be 30 per cent softer and cope just fine. You can have smaller wheels (albeit in a different design), and they’d still look great. Steering feel should return. It would relax on the road. And you could drive a few hundred miles without clawing out your eyeballs. Maybe when we try a car on standard springs and 17s we’ll be more sympathetic, but, for now, it’s just too much. At times, it’s genuinely stressful. Could you live with this every day? It would take an unhealthy level of commitment.

     

  12. And so to that Porsche, which is the exact opposite: a neat, industrial rhythm to the Alfa’s turbulent opera. It’s Kraftwerk versus Puccini. The 3.4-litre flat-six is paired to a seven-speed double- clutch PDK and, where the Alfa goes for a flourish of revs with each downshift, the Porsche just 
snaps them home. You won’t catch it out. It plays a rich, mechanical sound, and the exhaust can be opened or hushed with a button. This car has active suspension, and, in Sport Plus mode, it takes on a more aggressive mood, tensing its dampers and sharpening its response to every input. It does what you ask. It goes where you ask. And it does so willingly. Despite a 20bhp and a 174kg disadvantage, it still has the guts to keep up with the Lotus.

    It’s irritatingly hard to criticise the Cayman. It’s just so resolved, so complete. Its weaknesses in this company can be summed up thusly: the electric steering is less feelsome, but you won’t complain when it’s time for a three-point turn. There’s a fraction more understeer, but that’s 
a deliberate ploy to make it more friendly and less spinnable. And I can’t help feeling it looks a touch frumpy, although that could be a trick 
of the eye when it’s parked beside the other two. You could probably fix it with a lighter colour and a more delicate wheel design. But none of these matter when it’s home time and you slacken off the dampers for the motorway cruise, while the Alfa driver – already nursing crippled nerves – prepares for the long haul. It’s two cars in one, the Cayman. And that’s its greatest achievement.

  13. And yet… if you lived at the end of the perfect driving road and had another, more bearable car for daily chores, you could make a plausible case for the Alfa. Objectively, it’s flawed. As a sports car for the road, it’s not as accomplished as the other two. But it is an Alfa – the first rear-wheel-drive, mid-engine Alfa since forever – and by the rules of TG, you’re not a petrolhead until you’ve owned one. So perhaps we should approach it differently. This is not a one-size-fits-all daily driver. But you’d still put one in your dream garage, like you would a Countach or Viper. It’s 
a car for a collection. Something to show off and stare at. In other words, it’s the same trick Alfa used with the pretty 8C, and they’ve pulled it 
off again. (A few days after driving the 4C, I find myself on the online configurator. It looks perfect in pearly white, with the two-tone alloys – 17s front, 18s rear – that have a seemingly deliberate Ferrari-ish appearance).

  14. And the Lotus? Despite its talents, it’s almost too good for the road. It’d be even better around a track where it could embarrass a 911 GT3. Again, it deserves space in your garage. How much you use it depends how committed you are to lap times and spanners. If, however, like me, a dream garage is somewhat beyond your means, the answer is still obvious. Want a two-seater with the engine in the middle for about 50 grand?

    Buy a Cayman. 

     

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