x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Does the Alfa Romeo 4C live up to hype?

The Alfa Romeo 4C not only sounds perfect on paper, it drives like a dream too.

The Alfa Romeo 4C is a driver-focused machine that provides more thrills than convenience. The car accelerates from rest to 100kph in just 4.5 seconds, on to a top end of 258. Courtesy of Alfa Romeo
The Alfa Romeo 4C is a driver-focused machine that provides more thrills than convenience. The car accelerates from rest to 100kph in just 4.5 seconds, on to a top end of 258. Courtesy of Alfa Romeo

Occasionally a new car comes along and, for one reason or another, I don’t get to drive it early on in the press coverage process and, if that car happens to be something ordinary, like a Nissan Tiida or a Ford Fusion, I’m not too bothered and feel no ‘journo envy’. But when a car like the Alfa Romeo 4C comes along and I have to read the reports of others about its brilliance months before I get my turn behind the wheel, that’s when I can get a bit, shall we say, miffed.

And so it has been with the lithe Alfa. I’ve read the features, dribbled over the photographs, marvelled at its specifications and leered over them at motor shows. But, until now, I have never seen one moving nor heard its raspy exhaust note. It’s been like an itch I can’t scratch but relief is in sight because tomorrow I get to play with one, no holds barred, on the very racetrack used extensively in its development.

Now, though, I’m having difficulty concentrating on what’s being explained to me by our tour guide. I’m with a band of Middle East hacks, standing inside a production hall at the Maserati factory in Modena, Italy. I’ve been here before, seven years ago, when researching an article about the region and the reasons for so much motoring history having been made by companies based just a few kilometres from each other. Ferrari is down the road, Lamborghini is just a short sprint away and Pagani, Ducati, Pininfarina, and a whole host of other names that get us excited are all here too. The rapidly deteriorating De Tomaso factory and many others disappearing into the mists of time are peppered around this farming region and it’s a privilege to spend time here.

When I was last inside this hall, the Quattroporte was the only car being made by Maserati but sharing the lines with the big saloons were curvaceous sports cars being pieced together by Maserati’s technicians on behalf of Alfa Romeo. The 8C Competizione, a strictly limited production supercar, was enough to make my jaw hit the floor, it was so beautiful and so incredibly rare. And now there’s another Alfa Romeo being produced here – just as sexy, just as special and, for the time being at least, just as rare. The 4C might be half the number, in nomenclature terms but, from where I’m standing, it isn’t half the car.

Short, wide, squat and with more curves than a burlesque dancers’ convention, the 4C is a bona fide supercar that just happens to have an engine with what some might deem to be a rather deficient cylinder count. Its tiny, turbocharged 1.75- litre four-pot might fall short when it comes to bragging rights but, seeing firsthand the way its structure is pieced together, its advantage over the establishment is obvious: this thing weighs as much as my laptop.

Few could fathom Alfa’s initial claims about the 4C when its production was first mooted. How could it weigh just 895kg, unless it was built from carbon fibre? And how could any car built from carbon fibre possibly be priced (in the UK the price starts at £45,000 (Dh275,470)) to make it competitive against established sports cars such as the Porsche Boxster / Cayman? It didn’t add up.

But here it is, right in front of me, being pieced together by hand in a similar fashion to any McLaren or Lamborghini. A carbon fibre monocoque, or tub, is central to the 4C and, despite being stiffer and stronger than steel, weighs 65kg. From this the rest of the car is underpinned and, with lightweight composite body panels, that tiny engine, a compact twin-clutch DSG transmission, aluminium roof sections and sub-frames, and glass that’s 10 per cent thinner than that normally used in car production, it all adds up to not much at all. When Lotus founder, Colin Chapman, extolled the virtues of lightweight construction when it came to increasing performance, this is exactly the kind of approach he would have had in mind.

If your idea of an Italian sports car consists of it being constructed with all the care and attention normally associated with airport baggage handlers, it’s time to reappraise your national stereotypes. Because, while the Maserati factory isn’t as hyper clinical as the McLaren facility in England, there’s still an overpowering sense that this is a centre of excellence, in terms of both design and construction. It had to be, really, for the likes of Maserati, Alfa Romeo and Fiat to survive in today’s marketplace.

As impressive as all this undoubtedly is, however, the proof of the pudding will always be in the eating and as we pull up the following morning outside the Fiat Group’s Balocco proving ground (built in the 1960s by Alfa and still expanding), about 60km northeast of Turin, the weight of expectation must be crushing the poor little 4C. How could any car live up to the hype being foisted upon it?

Seeing the car in a real world environment for the first time, I find the shape as beguiling as ever. It’s not long enough to give off a true supercar vibe but that’s about the only thing going against it visually. That and, of course, those headlamp clusters. When the concept was first shown, it was fitted with normal, single unit glass items but, when the production example emerged, they had been ditched in favour of the grotesque things you see here. All very clever and effective, I don’t doubt, but the effect is akin to a supermodel’s face being blighted by unsightly boils – just what were they thinking? The relief I felt yesterday when I was informed that owners are now able to option their 4Cs with normal headlamps was palpable – the company has wisely listened to its critics and the car’s beauty can now be enjoyed without blemish.

It’s my time. Put into groups, we’re either sent off to experience a 4C, a Fiat 500, a Jeep or a new Alfa Giulietta. I’m called up and it’s the Giulietta first, which I actually come to realise is a good thing because it allows me to get the measure of the track before I clamber into the sports car. A few, rather exciting, minutes later and I’m squeezing my ungainly frame into a 4C after what has seemed like an eternity. I saw the concept car at the Geneva Motor Show in March 2011, surrounded by leggy models, and I’ve lusted after it ever since. Like a first date with ‘that girl’ from school, I’m afraid the reality won’t measure up to the fantasy but the grins I’ve seen punched into the faces of the first group of hacks to experience it this morning suggest otherwise.

The cabin is Spartan but not overly so, like a Lotus Exige. There’s exposed carbon fibre aplenty and the ambience is competition car rather than grand tourer – just as it should be for a driver-focused machine. A few slots here and there can just about accommodate your daily detritus but the message is simple: this is a car for thrills, not convenience.

With a foot on the brake pedal and a twist of the key (hooray!), the engine barks into life without much in the way of audible drama. Yet, from the outside, it’s not a dissimilar timbre to that of a flat-plane crank V8, as found in various Ferraris. Prod the throttle and there’s a gruffness that suggests twin carburetors, not state-of-the-art fuel injection and there’s an overtly mechanical thrashing that reverberates around the cabin. No, the 4C won’t be ideal transportation for that cross-continent voyage.

We reach the edge of the track and suddenly the pace car is off like a rocket, so naturally I follow suit. The 4C will accelerate from rest to 100kph in just 4.5 seconds, on to a top end of 258 – which is more than enough for almost any given situation. But it’s a car that’s about more than mere numbers and statistics and, by the second corner, I’ve already fallen head over heels in love with the way it delivers its goods. Believe the hype? It’s even better than I could possibly have hoped.

Steering is non-assisted, meaning the arms get a workout, especially at low speeds. The transmission is very quick shifting. The brakes are full of bite. The ride is firm, not harsh, and it inspires confidence to push on, even at speeds you know are just silly. Grip is just epic. Understeer is present but not that obtrusive, while oversteer is practically impossible to provoke. It’s a finely honed, precision scalpel, not some brawny muscle car. It’s, and I choose my words carefully here, almost perfect.

Lap follows glorious lap and I learn to exploit the 4C’s talents more with each one. Above 2,000rpm, the engine displays alarming urgency and it’s simple to slingshot your way out of corners in a heady blaze of firepower. Speed is effortless, overtaking happens in the blink of an eye and, when the next corner homes into view, it’s easy to load up the car in readiness for it to destroy it and prepare for the next one.

The way it moves silences any who have criticised it for its diminutive engine, the 4C proving beyond any doubt the benefits of lightweight construction with a power-to-weight ratio that puts it among history’s true greats. There simply is no need for any more power as it would corrupt the entire experience.

As I peel off the track after my umpteenth lap, I pull up behind another 4C. In the split second before me recognising it for what it actually is, my brain thinks it’s a Lancia Stratos, a Ferrari or some other classic piece of exotica, such is the outlandish sensuousness on display. Any supercar manufacturer would be proud of this thing and the fact that it wears an Alfa Romeo badge on its nose and rump gives me confidence that its maker is here to stay.

More than anything, I suppose, this is a Ferrari Dino for the 21st century and that, in my book at least, is as high as praise gets.

khackett@thenational.ae