Alfa Romeo thinks we should see the inspiration for its new, impossibly gorgeous 4C in its classic 1967 33 Stradale. It’s not hard to see why. The Stradale is one of the most beautiful and unappreciated supercars of the era that spawned the supercar. As inspirations go, it certainly ticks off all the right boxes. Fast, delicately crafted and impossibly gorgeous, the Stradale, unlike its more famous contemporary Lamborghini’s Miura, had actual racing pedigree; its inspiration was the Autodelta Tipo 33, a successful endurance racer with wins at Daytona, Monza and the Nürburgring.
And one can see why Alessandro Maccolini, Alfa’s chief designer, pays homage to the Type 33. Much of what was astonishing about the Stradale (which, according to Google Translate, literally means “road” but for which Alfa’s unintended meaning was surely “road-going”), is what is implied in the new 4C’s name. Rather than relying on an outsized motor (its V8 displaced only 2.0 litres), the Stradale relied on minimalism for its incredible performance, its 700 kilograms feather-light even by race-car standards and incredible for anything even remotely “road-going”. Both the original Stradale and the current 4C represent Spartan motoring at its most extreme. With even the most pur sang of Ferraris and Lambos having gone all soft and cuddly, it’s something of a surprise to find that the new Alfa, like some sort of monastic throwback, offers neither air conditioning nor an audio system as standard equipment (in European trim, at least).
And yet, despite this trundle down Alfa’s memory lane, the 4C’s true inspiration, certainly from a technical point of view, is McLaren’s high-tech MP4-12C. Underneath the skin, the two cars’ basic rear mid-engine architecture is so strikingly similar that one has to wonder whether Marcus Waite, McLaren’s vehicle development manager, did a little moonlighting on the side. Though smaller in stature, the Alfa’s carbon fibre centre tub looks remarkably similar to the MP4’s, as do the aluminium front and rear sub-frames to which the suspension is attached. Scale the 12C’s chassis down by two-thirds, simplify the suspension and substitute a 1,750cc four-cylinder for the McLaren’s 3.8L V8 (both turbocharged, however) and you have the new 4C.
And that diminutive size pays dividends. While McLaren makes much of its use of the lighter-than-steel (and aluminium) man-made fibre, the MP4 still weighs almost 1,400kg. The Alfa Romeo, in contrast, tips the scale (again, in that radio-less European trim) at an incredible 895kg, testament to both its radical engineering and its singular purpose.
That lightness permeates everything the 4C does. For instance, the Alfa’s steering is purely mechanical, there being no boosting at all – hydraulic or electrical – to assist the driver. Said steering is also very quick, the combination providing an incredible level of feedback to the driver. We pundits keep lauding BMW on the sensitivity of its steering; by comparison, an M3 is a Mac truck with a blown hydraulic seal.
Of course, that also means the steering wheel follows every rut, bump or crevice in the road, the 4C the very antithesis of Camry-like calm on the superslab. It’s not that the little Alfa isn’t stable, but the wheel is constantly jiggling in your hands as every road imperfection is fed back through the steering rack. And, as one would expect, slow-speed U-turns can be a workout.
One lap around the Balocco Proving Grounds track in Italy is enough, however, to convince you that Alfa’s compromise is worth the forearm punishment. Thanks to double wishbones up front and a novel McPherson strut in the rear, there’s virtually no body roll at all, at least when you’ve got Alfa’s Dynamic, Natural and All-weather (DNA) mode selector pushed all the way up to Dynamic. Maximum lateral grip is said to be 1.1g and, despite (perhaps because of) the relative skinny tyres – 235/35R-19 Pirelli P Zeros at the rear and 205/40R-18s up front – all that adhesion is easily exploited. I tried jamming the 4C into corners with ever more determination, but ran out of bottle before the little Alfa ran out of grip.
Like the equally lightweight Lotus, the Alfa’s supercar limits are much easier flirted with than something weightier and more powerful. Monster motors may make the headlines, but reduced mass and a lower centre of gravity are much more fun to play with. Last minute oh-my-where-did-that-hairpin-come-from braking, for instance, yields a full 1.25g deceleration before the anti-lock brake system even starts to get antsy. Ditto for full-lock broadslides, which are simple in the 4C compared with heavier mid-engine cars. It’s especially true with the DNA in its minimalist Race mode, which puts most of the safety nannies to sleep; “saving” the 4C from a lurid, fully-crossed up corner entry is a lot less frightening than the same feat in, say, a Dodge Viper, Porsche 911 or even the McLaren. One gets away with all manner of Tomfoolery in the 4C that would have a heavier car beating guardrails into submission.
Its consummate ease of handling is certainly not because the Alfa is slow. Despite its seemingly pedestrian 240hp, 1.75L turbocharged four-pot (shared with Alfa’s much more proletariat Giulietta and MiTo hatchbacks), having just 3.85kg for every horsepower to motivate means a 4.5 second zero to 100kph acceleration time is as easy as setting the double-clutch six-speed transmission to Launch Control mode and flooring the throttle. And, while those four-and-a-half ticks may be a second or so slower than the mightiest of supercars, it is a half second quicker than the fastest Porsche Cayman can boast.
It all adds up, says Harald Wester, Alfa’s chief executive, to an 8:04 lap around the world-famous Nurburgring – fast by any measure and darn near incredible when you consider that 8:04 is the exact same time boasted by the V8 version of Audi’s R8. Those still contending that supercars need more than four pistons really do need to take a spin in the new Alfa.
That said, the 4C has a few of the limitations endemic to the supercars with which Alfa wants the 4C compared. Though not as cramped as a Lotus Elise, the Alfa’s cabin is very tight indeed; the MP4-12C and Ferrari 458 are expansive in comparison. The design chief Maccolini stands well over 6 feet 2 inches tall, and claims that he can fit inside the 4C, but he pointedly did not claim that it would be comfortably. Both seat travel and the rake of the seat back are limited for the driver. And, proving that Alfa really sees no intent for the 4C other than strafing back roads, current European models have no adjustments at all for the passenger. To be clear, I did not mean that the 4C’s passenger seat lacks power adjusters but rather it is completely devoid of any adjustment at all; no fore and aft movement to unbend the creaky knees or seat back rake movement to relieve lower lumbars. One either fits the little Alfa or suffers the typical bolt upright Italian seating position.
North America and a few other markets are promised some adjustability to accommodate significant others, though when, how much and exactly which other markets will benefit is unknown. It’s also worth noting that 4Cs destined for some markets will also garner a few extra air bags (European 4Cs do not have side air bags, for instance) and see air conditioning as a standard item. Wester says those models may gain up to 50kg more than their svelte continental cousins. But to be fair, the resultant 4C will still be lighter than virtually all its competitors. And, even with these additions, the 4C remains one of the most single-focused sports cars of the last quarter century. Practicality is almost always sacrificed in its singular pursuit of speed. But then supercars, especially those from Italy, should never be about practicality.
The 4C definitely deserves to be called a supercar. Though pigeonholing the little Alfa can be a difficult – it purports to supercardom yet sports just four cylinders, it’s made by Alfa Romeo and not by Ferrari or Lamborghini, etc – its intent is far more single-purpose than its Porsche and Audi contemporaries. Only 3,500 will be made in any given year, it has precious few concessions to comfort and, unlike the Cayman and TT RS, the 4C will never be a daily driver.
But, there is one huge mitigating factor that I suspect is going to make the new Alfa the motoring sensation of 2014. According to Wester, the 4C will cost less than a Porsche Cayman S. Though “launch” editions may command as much as €60,000 (Dh300,000), Alfa’s CEO promised that standard versions would cost US$54,000 (Dh200,000) when they arrive in the United States in mid-May. Complain all you like about the cramped cabin or interior bits sourced from rattly Jeeps and Fiats, but the 4C, unlike that rare-as-hen’s-teeth Stradale so many years ago, is supercar technology made affordable. It is, according to Alfa Romeo, “the driving machine without compromise”. That would appear to include your wallet.
The Alfa Romeo 4C goes on sale in the UAE in early 2014 and prices are currently unavailable.
Driving the classic Alfas
“It’s a sort of illness, this enthusiasm for a means of transport.”
Orazio Satta Puliga was the brains, inspiration and passion behind all the great Alfa Romeos between 1946, when he became head of design, and 1973. Though his reign saw many magnificent Alfas – the 1900 (his first success), the Montreal (perhaps his most exotic) and the glorious TZ, his greatest influence on Alfa’s legacy were the 1955 Giulietta and 1962 Giulia, both of which set production records – 131,806 and 572,646 respectively – for a brand which, up until that time, had struggled as a niche producer of exotics and race cars. Though both were traditional four-door saloons – a far cry from the 158 and 159 race cars for which the company had been famous – they both became the models for the low-cost sports saloons that followed.
Including my favourite, the late 1960s 1750, one of which Alfa’s Museo Storico trotted out for us to flog for a few laps around its proving grounds. Not nearly as exotic as the lithe Giulietta SZ or the snarly 1954 Sportiva that were also available for demo rides, the unprepossessing 1750 was nonetheless the most important of the historic Alfas on hand. Owned by the local collector Marco Mottini, who claimed his 32,093-mile model was completely original, the aged 1750 seemed impervious to the, shall we say, delicate reputation surrounding vintage Alfas. Indeed, despite its age, Mottini’s 1750 was as tight as a modern car, the steering precise, the shifting slick and the engine, despite its paltry displacement, fairly torquey. Compared with one of the stalwarts of the era, BMW’s iconic 2002, the little Alfa is a model of modernity and comportment, superior in every regard from handling to civility.
Of course, it is far from the rarest ride in Alfa’s motoring museum. We sample, for example, the 1954 2000 Sportiva, one of only two such Bertone-bodied sport coupes ever built. Powered by one of those double overhead gems that seem an Italian speciality, the 1,997cc four comes on the cam with a delicious roar, despite being more than half a century old, all the way to its 6,500rpm peak.
Thankfully, at the end of the day, we have just enough time for a few quick laps in something that more than lives up to the Alfa legend, the incredibly tiny 1961 Giulietta SZ Coda Tronca. Zagato-crafted, the aluminium-bodied coupe’s paltry 1,290cc is more than offset by the fact that it weighs but 854 kilograms. Only slightly less rare than the Sportiva – of the 217 SZs built, only 30 featured the more aerodynamic “truncated tail” – time has been kinder to the little Juliet with steering that is the very definition of delicate and a motor that sounds like it could top 300kph. On looks and sound alone, the “Kamm-back” Giulietta is the most desirable car here but, perhaps the most important lesson we learn this day is that few are the Alfas, comely or otherwise, that don’t roil the blood of anyone even remotely interested in internal combustion.
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