Ollie Marriage16 January 2014

Driven: Alfa Romeo 4C in Britain

Can the gorgeous mid-engined coupe cope with our uniquely awful roads? Ollie Marriage reports

So, the 4C on UK roads for the first time. How was it?

Devastatingly pretty. So sublime to look at that I didn’t even notice the headlights. Everyone loved it. It’s beyond eye-catching, a slice of real exotica, so pert and neat and stunningly well executed. It brightened up the dankness of a January weekday. In short, the sun shines out of its pert...

Stop. I can't help but think you're skirting the issue here...

You're right, I am. So... how to put this? The 4C wasn't very good. OK, that's harsh, and I'm measuring it against some very high expectations. So let's instead qualify that by saying it wasn't as good as we hoped. But a car that looks like this and is made up of such a tempting cocktail of components and statistics - carbon fibre tub, mid-mounted engine, 895kg kerbweight, unassisted steering, rear-wheel drive - should drive better than the 4C does.

Let me guess: it's a bit rowdy on motorways?

More than that, though it's a fair place to start. If you gave yourself a sliding scale of civility and habitability, with the Porsche Cayman at one end and the Lotus Exige at the other, then, before driving the 4C, I would have placed it somewhere in the middle. Wrong. It's right down the Lotus end. Possibly beyond it, in fact. Put it this way. If you drive along at 70mph and put the windows down, the only difference you notice is a bit of extra breeze. The noise levels stay pretty much the same.

So the 4C compromised, more so than I expected. Yes, it has some boot space behind the engine, and the cabin is more ‘designed' than that of a Lotus, but it's still a bare place to spend time, short on toys and equipped with an entertainment system of genuine complexity and a set of speakers that struggle to make themselves heard. I think owners, many of whom I guess are buying it as their only car, will be quite surprised at the compromises the 4C forces on them.

Is it comfortable to sit in?

Not really. The seat lacks under-thigh support and are as thinly padded as the rest of the cabin. And with a foot-wide sill, small door aperture and low roofline to negotiate, dignity could be an issue. I also have issues with the steering wheel, which simply has too much going on: flat bottom, sloping indents that don't hold your thumbs in place, thickness changes around the rim. It could be that I was a bit grumpy at the 4C, but it made me feel like that. When I went down to the car park with the keys in my hand, I was so excited at the prospect of finally driving it. That wore off too quickly.

The gearbox was criticised in the early drives. That the problem?

Actually no. The double clutch gearbox isn't the best of its breed, but it's decent enough - I've got a feeling it's come in for some last minute fettling, as the paddles operate quickly and accurately. Nor did I have any issue with the ride quality - in fact I was surprised how poised it felt over the sharp-edged speedbumps outside our office. The ride is certainly firm with little body movement, but it's not harsh or crashy - Alfa has done a decent job. It doesn't have the stunning resolve, control and professionalism of a Lotus, but it's a long way from awful. The firmness and lack of roll does give the 4C snappy reactions. I had bigger issues with the brakes, which didn't feel that great underfoot, and, more importantly, the steering.

First drive: the Alfa Romeo 4C in Italy

Really? Isn't the steering unassisted and wonderful?

No. The hefty manoeuvring weight is fine and to be expected given the absence of power assistance, but it's what happens as speeds rise that I have issues with. The weight disappears, and so too, does some of the feedback. It was fine at high speeds, where the chassis lightness and accuracy gave me confidence, but on tighter medium-speed corners I wasn't quite sure of the 4C, which didn't accurately communicate how much grip it had left. Now, if I'd been on a smooth track maybe it would have been better. But I wasn't. I was on regular back roads and, to be honest, the 4C was acting rather distracted.

In what way?

Sniffing out every camber and bump and then chasing them down, tugging at the steering and weaving about. It makes the 4C not only hard to place accurately on the road, but feel wider than it actually is and far more tiring to drive than it ought to be. You have to give yourself space and work with the knowledge that this Alfa won't hold a perfect line on an average B-road - or motorway for that matter. I went the long way home and when I parked up I just felt a bit flat. The fizz was missing.

But at least it's fast, right?

It's plenty quick enough. Alfa's official 0-62mph time of 4.5 seconds is easily believable, plus the trip computer hinted at 35-37mpg which isn't to be sniffed at. And although the 1.7-litre engine is turbocharged and whipped from a Giulietta, it does have some character - enough that you could be persuaded into thinking a hint of Group B has crept in. There may not be a spine-tingling crescendo to either the noise or the power delivery, but the raucous whistles from the turbo certainly keep you entertained - if not relaxed. And yeah, it does get a proper shift on - the engine responds fast, picks up well and gives the chassis plenty to think about.

Doesn't sound so terrible to me.

Understand where you're coming from, but I did an office straw poll of those who have driven the 4C, and asked whether they'd have the Alfa or the Porsche Cayman. All seven people would have the Cayman.

Don't get me wrong, I wanted the 4C to be a stunner, not least because Alfa deserves a break, and a car that looks this good and has such a wonderful on-paper spec deserves to drive every bit as sublimely. And it really is a special car - it looks and feels special, and you're not going to have a dull moment while driving it. Nor a peaceful one. But it ought to be equally special to drive. And the annoying thing is that it's not far from greatness.

What's missing is the polish that would move the 4C into the magic realm - because make no mistake, I really think that with a final bit of polish the 4C could be great. Most of the faults it has are very rectifiable.

How?

Give it to Lotus Engineering. I reckon a month of damper tuning at Hethel could not only sort out the fidget and weave, but bring consistency and feel back into the steering. This type of car is not one Alfa has any previous experience of, and to me it seems as though the firm has been too proud to ask for outside assistance. I also think they've misjudged the positioning of the 4C and its potential audience. Where does it fit exactly? It's as far distant from a Mito as the 8C, and arguably even more specialist.

That said, the ideals that are contained within the 4C are very, very encouraging - the focus on light weight, carbon technology, efficient turbo engines. This is all brilliant stuff and Alfa deserves a pat on the back for it. Let's just hope the firm is able to carry the flame further in the future.

Final verdict?

Being generous: 7 out of 10. Look, if you're tempted by a 4C (and who isn't?) and you've never owned a small, lightweight sports car before, then you may know no better and be perfectly content, believing this is how all mid-engined coupes behave. Indeed, even if you have read this, you still might not mind. But I do mind. I mind that you might not mind. I mind that Alfa Romeo thinks the 4C is the best it can be.

Maybe my expectations were too high, but I wanted to see 4Cs everywhere, facing off against Caymans and TTs, a dazzling alternative that may demand compromise (just maybe not this much compromise), but boy, would the payoff be worth it. I can't see that happening. Considering its ambitious technological approach, this could, should have been a new beginning. Instead it feels like an Alfa of old - slightly miscast and not as fabulous as we'd hoped.

Richard Hammond drives the Alfa Romeo 4C

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