First Drive: 2015 Alfa Romeo 4C [Review]

Though not without shortcomings, the 4C is a thrilling, visceral joy ride.

This isn't the first time we've seen Alfa Romeo in the U.S., and it's not even the first time we've seen the brand in the last decade. However, this might be the first time many Gen Y-ers have heard its name. Those fortunate enough to have spotted one of the fewer than 200 stateside 8C Competizione coupes and spiders should count themselves lucky; its' a rare, sloppy, and gorgeous machine that never really grabbed much attention, but it certainly captured our hearts.

Before that, Alfa left the U.S. in 1995, following its last hoorah with the 164. By this time, brands like Toyota, Honda and Nissan had found the elixir to create reliable, functional sedans, leaving Alfa Romeo to take its Italian eccentricities and occasional hiccups back to Europe.

That leaves 20 years behind us, and 20 years for Americans to wax nostalgic for cars once beloved. And, that's two decades to wipe the slate clean for young drivers who have grown up with the Internet, flat-screen TVs, and text messaging.

Alfa Romeo is counting on both, and the brand is making a big splash this year with the launch of one very noticeable 4C sports coupe.

More Interesting Than Most

It's not hard to tell that the 2015 Alfa Romeo 4C is ultra-small and ultra-alluring. While the obvious comparisons here might be with Porsche Cayman, you'd be surprised to find the Porsche sitting at over a foot longer from nose to tail. Think Lotus Evora, and you're still too big. Instead, the 4C shares a similar footprint with the now-unobtainable Lotus Elise, making it feel like a relative matchbox car on American highways.

The 4C looks happy - almost bird-like - thanks to its pointed grille and rounded headlamps. But don't be fooled by its generally upbeat disposition; the 4C's chunky rear hides a mid-mounted engine under a glass cover, which more than just hints at the sporting intentions behind this car's design.

One interesting note here: the entire passenger cell of the Alfa Romeo is made of carbon fiber, a lightweight, sturdy, and incredibly expensive option normally reserved for quarter-million-dollar supercars. This move was made in the name of weight-savings, as was the decision to manufacture the body panels from a ‘composite' plastic, which Alfa claims was necessary in order to get the shapes they wanted for the design. Apparently, metal was too heavy and couldn't be molded correctly anyway.

Inside, it becomes pretty obvious that the 4C prioritizes the driving experience over virtually anything else, including creature comforts. Much of the monocoque's carbon fiber is visible, but the rest is either covered in cloth and inexpensive plastic, or you can option to cover the seats and dash with leather. The radio looks like an aftermarket install, the HVAC controls are all manual - much like an Elise - but the gauge cluster makes uses of a high-res digital display instead of a cheaper, analogue setup.

However, the wheel is thick, sturdy, and flat-bottomed, and it's a rewarding thing from which to pilot the 4C. It's also the best-feeling component in the car's interior.

The 4C is powered by a 1742cc (1.8-liter for ease) turbocharged four-cylinder engine, which produces 237 horsepower and 258 lb-ft of torque. That might sound relatively low for a car that looks so sporty, but it's important to keep in mind that the Alfa Romeo weighs 50 pounds less than a Mazda Miata, which only makes 167 horsepower. The 4C is a relative rocket, and paired with the six-speed dual-clutch automatic, this engine launches the Alfa from zero-to-60 mph in around 4.5 seconds. That's base Porsche 911 territory

Alfa's ‘DNA' drive modes allow the throttle and transmission response to change with the way you'd like to drive. Dynamic mode is triggered by ‘D,' Normal mode by ‘N,' and we'd suggest driving something else to work if you feel like you need to use the All-Weather ‘A' button.

The suspension offers incredibly nimble performance without ever becoming too harsh over broken pavement. That's not to say that riding in the 4C is a soft, supple experience, but it's not exactly jarring, either. However, the lack of power steering and a too-quick steering ratio makes the car tremendously enjoyable to drive aggressively, but exhausting to manage if you're trying to relax on a commute.

Behind the Wheel

Since the Lotus Elise and Exige's exit from the U.S. market in 2011, we've been woefully lacking in sports car with the level of steering communication that comes without hydraulics and electrical assists. Even Porsche and BMW have moved to electric steering at this point in the game, so the Alfa Romeo 4C arrives as a welcome entry to the market. There's simply nothing else available with the same kind of unedited driving experience.

While it may the look the part from the exterior, the 4C's interior unapologetically detaches the car from any dreams of being a luxury vehicle. The seats are firm and the wheel feels good to the touch, but the rest of the interior materials are sub-standard, not too far removed from its FIAT 500 next-of-kin. However, it's not uncomfortable, and at least shorter drivers should feel pretty intimate - but not necessarily cramped - inside the cabin.

The 4C delivers in the torque department, both in terms of feel and sound, and it's almost as much fun to listen to the turbo spool and blow off pressure as it is to be tossed back in your seat from a cold start. You feel quick at just about any speed, thanks to the turbo, though we wouldn't turn our noses up to most cars with a mid-fours 0-60 anyway. The top speed is limited to 160 miles per hour, and feels planted and agile as it climbs in speed.

The car's steering is both a blessing and a curse, though. With an ultra-quick ratio and direct connection to the wheels that allows the driver to make split-second decisions with confidence, the 4C is an absolute delight to hammer around on the track or down curvy coastal roads. However, that direct connection offers no forgiveness on the highway, and you have to lock your arms in at 10 and 2 at all times, lest an imperfection in the road sends you zipping across multiple lanes. It's an exhausting practice, commuting in the 4C, which means shoppers will want to consider it for the weekend warrior that it is, and not the daily driver that it will never be.

We had the chance to drive the 4C around San Francisco, up the Pacific Coastal Highway to Napa, and put our skills to the test at Sonoma Raceway. Pushing the 4C's limits proved to be an immensely fun time, and we never wished for more power behind the wheel. Rather, we found the power to weight ratio to be a perfect fit for this tiny toy, and the suspension was ultra-communicative, especially with the upgrade Sport setup.

The interior left much to be desired, though, and we're left wondering how OK it is to build a car for a single purpose, when so many sports cars today can do all things well.

Alone in the Market

Alfa Romeo tells us that the 4C is "only an appetizer for what will come” in the next few years, and the brand plans to bring a mix of sedans, crossovers and SUVs to the American market before 2020. The 4C starts at $54,900, making it the absolute cheapest way to get an all-carbon passenger cell and Ferrari-worthy design, and a topless Spider version will likely follow in the coming months.

For now, the 4C will come to market with 500 serialized "Launch Edition” models, after which only around 500 additional cars will follow over the next three years. With that volume in mind, the Lotus Evora truly is the only other sports car on the market to offer similar thrills and exotic design for the money, and even it has a touch-screen navigation system and power steering.

But that's kind of the magic of the 2015 Alfa Romeo 4C. It's a purpose-built car that relishes in its performances and celebrates its shortcomings - the party boy of the sports car class.

Leftlane's Bottom Line

As the first vehicle to herald the brand's comeback tour to the US, the 2015 Alfa Romeo 4C makes for an interesting car for a specific kind of driver. For our money, we'd spend the extra coin on the Launch Edition model, simply because it'll make for a cooler collector's car later in life.

2015 Alfa Romeo 4C base price, $54,900.

Photos by Davis Adams.

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