Road Raves: Alfa Romeo 4C

01/01/2014 12:00 AM

01/02/2014 12:59 PM

Based on looks alone, the new Alfa Romeo 4C could have a windup rubber band for an engine and probably still sell out its puny U.S.-market allotment of 1,200 units. Fortunately, there’s a lot of substance along with style crammed into this brand-new, two-seat sportster from the famed Italian automaker.

Let’s start with the basic construction: a lightweight, high-tech carbon-fiber tub is positioned between two aluminum substructures, and the body is also mostly composite, yielding an estimated (for our market) 2,650 pounds. The carbon-fiber tub’s importance to strength and low weight can’t be overstated, since it’s a technology found only in supercars from McLaren, Lamborghini and Bugatti — until now.

Power comes from a turbocharged, direct-injected all-aluminum 1.75 (1,744 cc) inline 4, cranking out 237 horsepower and 258 lb-ft of torque. And while that’s not a lot compared to a thundering Ferrari, it’s more than enough to propel the 4C to 62 mph in less than 4.5 seconds (according to Alfa). Weight distribution is 60/40, for a near-perfect handling balance in even the snappiest curves.

Surprisingly, there’s no manual shifter, although the six-speed dual-clutch transmission can be operated via gearshift paddles on the steering wheel. If something similar is good enough for the Ferrari 458, it’s good enough for the 4C.

Another surprise, and a thankful one, is that there’s no power steering: Rack and pinion addicts will rejoice in the feel of thrashing around a sports car without a computer’s so-called help. However, there’s plenty of tech in the Alfa “DNA” dynamic control selector, which manages the behavior of engine, brakes, throttle response, suspension and gearbox, giving the already personality-laden 4C even more oomph.

European versions have no muffler. That won’t happen here. But given recent industrywide advances in sonic exhaust technology, we can surely expect something throaty and primal with which to disturb the neighbors. Cabin space is snug but manageable: Think Porsche Cayman, which the 4C is targeting, but less posh. The seats appear disconcertingly slim but actually offer nice support. The leather-clad, flat-bottomed steering wheel is flat-out cool and the cabin’s surfaces, while primarily synthetic, create a no-nonsense yet comfortable environment. There’s no front trunk and the rear is only suitable for a few sandwiches.

Even so, you want one. Admit it. Who doesn’t want a Ferrari, even if it’s badged as a baby Alfa? But where to get one and how much will it cost? We’re told that the first 400 4Cs will be sold this summer as loaded-up “launch editions,” price TBD. Base price is also up in the air for now, but the prevailing rumor has the 4C at an estimated $54,000. Will the remaining 800 really sell for that, or will American safety mandates and options drive it up? Only time will tell.

Distribution is unclear, as well. Chrysler is a Fiat subsidiary, and the suits are quibbling about whether the 4C will be sold at Fiat dealerships, alongside the cute-as-a-bug 500 or amid Fiat’s higher-end Maserati line. One thing, however, is as clear as a sunny day in Tuscany: Whatever the price and wherever it’s sold, this fiery beauty won’t be hanging around the dealer’s lot for long.

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