Richard Hammond28 November 2013

Hammond drives the Alfa Romeo 4C

"It's not a Cayman, but I don't care": Richard falls in love with the baby Alfa coupe

According to the Rules of Top Gear, you aren't a proper petrolhead until you've owned an Alfa. Which, much to the amusement of certain rubbish-shirt-wearing scruffs, means I'm not. But here's a thing: I do have a sort-of automatic reaction to the brand, a kind of hardwired affection for it, and I'll tell you now that it comes from a heavy infection of Alfasuds and dog-eared posters of late Sixties Tipo 33 Stradales, rather than 145s and sad-looking 156s.

I haven't missed the significance of the fact that the Alfas I like, the Alfas that earth my emotional current, are all a bit... mature. Even really hardcore alfisti have to admit Alfa's been missing a little bit of the Romeo these past few years.

But no more. The 4C has arrived and, having prised the keys, it's obvious that Alfa has a car worth talking about again. And it makes me very happy indeed.

But I do think we're approaching this new kind of Alfa from entirely the wrong direction. I mean the whole road-test thing and putting it in context of the competitors at the right size or price or engine cc is entirely appropriate, because that's what we do. Comparing it to a Cayman is valid. But, having been belting around a mountain road in this squat, pretty, strange little Alfa, I don't think the people who will buy it are remotely interested in the group test or the lap times.

Let me explain. I get that the gearbox might not blow a hardcore road tester's frock up and that at certain points it can be a bit hesitant and mushy. I understand that the turbo's delivery is a matter of taste, what with its slight drone off-boost and the budgie-having-a-heart-attack twittering the rest of the time... and that if you were expecting a leather-lined Alfa to spirit the leggy secretary to a gastropub, then this probably isn't it. It's too bent on lightness, with the acoustics of a tin bath and a similar single-minded focus.

If you wanted to go down to that same pub and have some sort of "mine's better than yours" conversation, then you'd probably just opt for the Porsche, on the basis that it already has the PowerPoint presentation to prove, logically, the Cayman's superiority in absolutely everything.

But your heart doesn't know how to operate PowerPoint, and fumbles the laser pointer when it comes to remembering the stats. You'd buy this Alfa because you want this Alfa, not because it meets any specific one-potato, two-potato criteria. A charming, boisterous, pretty, fast little car. A car with an absolutely cracking brand heritage that's aligned itself stage left of the usual straight-cut competition. You can't really compare it to anything else, because it just doesn't fit in the pigeonhole. It's the best in class by default, because it's the only thing in its class.

After the first few hours of driving it, I thought: "That's an intriguing little car." But after lots of miles and much thinking time, I've decided that it's more than that. It's properly beguiling. It's a fantastic little gem. No, it's not perfect, but the foibles manage that magic little Alfa trick of actually making it more interesting. Kylie with a slight lisp or Gemma Arterton with noticeable laughter lines.

The truth is that the 4c is a bit weird. A new direction for Alfa. And its real victory, the real success of this car, is that it makes it an Alfa worth talking about, arguing over, getting passionate about. Isn't that all we ever really wanted? In fact, I missed it badly when I saw it drive past on the way to the location this morning, felt a proper pang. And I've come to the conclusion - after another night's heavy thinking - that this might be the time to become a proper petrolhead. I'm actually thinking about buying an Alfa Romeo, for the first time ever. I want one. As an indication of a car's success, it doesn't get much better than that...

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