There was a time when “sports car” meant a car designed for sport, that is, a car whose primary, and often singular purpose was the sport of driving. Carrying groceries or kids was secondary, and the idea of integrating a purpose-built receptacle for your beverage would have been laughed at.
Over the years the sports car has evolved, or more accurately,
devolved, into a comically over-engineered, overweight, luxury status symbol whose list of design goals place things like iPhone connectivity and multi-zone air conditioning systems above driving pleasure. Hence why so many of us have turned to vintage cars to get our excitement out of driving. How else are you going to feel connected with the road, the car, and the elements? Some of us still enjoy the sense of danger that comes with pushing a purely mechanical object to its limits and those of our own.
What is it?
The 4C Spider is not designed to be a roadster, but hopes to be a true sports car with a Targa top, providing that extra sense of openness. Both the Coupe and the Spider were designed with a simple philosophy of favoring lightness and efficiency over brute force and heft to yield a great driving experience. To get an idea of how light it is, consider the fact that two 4C Spiders weigh less than one BMW M4 convertible!
This incredible lightness is made possible thanks to an all-aluminum subframe, Sheet Molded Compound for the body, and most importantly, a carbon-fiber monocoque chassis, the likes of which can only be found in a handful of supercars each costing well over $300,000. The 4C coupe starts at about $55,000. Think about that for a moment.
Propelling this feather-weight (by modern standards) go-kart is a 1,750-cc turbocharged four cylinder mid-mounted engine. For those of you who are new to the Alfa Romeo world, 1,750-cc is a magical number in Alfa history. It’s the displacement used in some of Alfa Romeo’s legendary sports cars and sport sedans of the ’60s and early ’70s, such as the 1969 Duetto or the mighty GTAm that dominated the European Touring Car Championships.
You’ll love what it doesn’t have.
Some critics have complained that the 4C lacks luxury. To me, complaining about lack of luxury in a sports car is akin to complaining that a supermodel lacks a mustache.
I love the fact that it doesn’t have a slew of useless features that compromise its sporting nature.
Does it have motorized 83-way adjustable seats with integrated A/C rendering them twice as heavy as the driver sitting on them? Nope. Instead it has lightweight manually-adjustable seats that hug you with soft Italian leather featuring beautiful contrasting stitching.
Does it pump fake exhaust noises via its speakers to fool you into thinking the engine has character? No chance. The exhaust note is pure, authentic, and flaunts the turbocharger, giving you even more reason to keep the top off and take the revs to the redline.
You certainly won’t find a giant LCD screen in the middle of the dash with a control wheel so you can send text messages and download apps. It has a no-nonsense, driver-oriented clutter-free center console angled towards the driver, allowing you to stay focused on driving.
The list of useless and often weight-adding gadgets that the 4C Spider thankfully does not have goes on: no e-brake, no power folding mirrors, no lane assist, no stop-start, you get the idea. Best of all, it does not have power-assisted steering, a “feature” that definitely has no business existing on a car this light.
Perhaps the only useless feature is the radio which I never turned on, as I quickly became addicted to the sound of the exhaust. Kidding aside, there is one feature that an enthusiast could gripe about: the lack of a manual transmission. More on this later.
How does it drive?
On paper, we have the ingredients of what should be a great driver’s car. But does it live up to its promise? To find out, I borrowed an Alfa Romeo 4C Spider from FCA for the weekend, and organized a drive with eight of my Alfisti friends early on Friday morning. The plan was to meet at 7AM in Brentwood in the heart of Los Angeles and drive up to Los Olivos for brunch, taking the back roads and staying off the highways as much as possible. Round trip, this was about 300 miles and six hours of spirited driving in some beautiful winding hills with little traffic this early in the morning.
The manual top comes off easily, and stows away in a bespoke duffel bag. The catch is that with the top in the trunk, there is no room for anything else. This being July in drought-stricken Southern California, I took the top off and left it at home for the whole time I had the car.
One by one, my Alfisti friends arrive at the cafe that was our meeting point. We ended up with nice eclectic group of vintage Alfas, Brandon’s 4C Launch Edition, and my loaner 4C Spider. All of these guys are serious drivers with numerous vintage races under their belts, and they love to drive fast.
We set off and headed west on Sunset Blvd towards Pacific Coast Highway.
I said this in my review of the 4C Launch Edition, and I’ll say it again for the 4C Spider: as soon as you drive your first few yards, the lightness of the car combined with the manual steering will make a much-welcomed impression. It’s a sensation that as a driving enthusiast you will be familiar with, but it’s surprising nonetheless in a new car—almost foreign. You feel it whether you are maneuvering out of a parking spot or diving into a tight corner at speed.
As we start our drive, I notice that other cars look slightly different. I realize that this is because I’m sitting so incredibly low to the ground that I literally have a new perspective on the other cars on the road. Coming up on a new Porsche I thought to myself, “the new Panamera looks pretty good!” only to realize I was looking up at a 991’s rear.
After making our way through scenic but uneventful Pacific Coast Highway, we turn off on the 33 and again immediately get off at a road that takes us all the way around Lake Casitas, and we start to have some serious fun. The twisties and hillclimbs begin, and with no traffic ahead of us, we all open it up.
Like many drivers, I’m no fan of turbocharged engines and prefer the direct response and high-revs of a normally aspirated one. Unfortunately, this preference is something we all need to come to terms with as the majority of new cars are now turbo-charged to meet CAFE requirements. The 4C does suffer from significant turbo-lag, but on a drive like this, one in which you’re actively driving and pushing the car and looking forward to the next corner, that became much less of an issue as the turbo was well spooled most of the time, thereby practically eliminating any lag. Where the turbo four-cylinder does especially excel is how freely it revs. The 6,500 redline comes up very quickly in first and second gears. And the exhaust note is intoxicating! My loaner 4C Spider had the optional Racing Exhaust, a $500 option that is worth every penny.
As we wound our way through the hills and canyons, taking in the natural beauty, I kept gently pushing the limits, entering corners faster with each turn as I got to know the car better. The stiff carbon fiber tub, tight suspension, and the very low center of gravity combined together form a superhero jumpsuit—you slip it on and you have superhuman powers. Whatever you imagine you want the 4C to do it does it. And just like a paradoxically masculine spandex bodysuit, the chassis feels like your second skin, communicating every miniscule aspect of the road through the unassisted steering.
The stiff chassis and tight suspension somehow don’t compromise ride quality, either. On several occasions I faced unavoidable potholes, and each time I braced myself for a big thunk and for the car to get unsettled, especially when the pothole snuck up during a corner, but the 4C swallowed up the potholes with grace and stayed well composed.
This brings us to the controversial part of the 4C Spider: the transmission. Sure, the 6-speed twin-clutch sequential transmission can shift in the blink of an eye, faster than humanly possible, but so what? A manual transmission is simply more fun and more rewarding. That said, I could not see how fitting a manual in the 4C would be physically possible. There is absolutely no room for a clutch pedal without widening the car, and there is no room for a stick shift. Can we forgive Alfa Romeo for having compromised the manual in favor of a smaller car? That’s something each driver will need to answer for themselves. For me, after the 300-mile road trip, though I certainly would have enjoyed the manual more, I didn’t think for one second that I wasn’t in driving heaven!
I could fault the engine for the turbo-lag at low RPMs, I could fault the transmission for not being a manual, and the chassis, well, actually, the chassis is simply flawless, but what makes the 4C such a wonderful driver’s car is how all these ingredients seem to have been designed to work with each other to make a well-balanced properly engineered sports car, without the distractions of useless gadgetry or “luxury”, and without a ridiculous engine that overpowers the rest of the car. Like some of the great sports cars of the past, the incredible acceleration and handling is due in large part to fineness and lightness, not brawn.
The philosophy of lightness and efficiency really does pay off in this package, so much so that upon my return home at the end of the day after six hours of active spirited driving, my wife commented on how happy and relaxed I looked. I reassured her that I behaved.
The last time I was truly excited about a new car that didn’t cost a ridiculous fortune was in 1999 when BMW introduced the M Coupe. I bought that car, and it spoiled me. It was a true driver’s car with excellent performance and fit like a glove. As a bonus, its controversial looks and impracticality made it a rare car, despite its reasonable price. I guess you could say its raw nature filtered out the wannabe’s.
The Alfa Romeo 4C Spider gets me excited again. Though very different in its execution, it does remind me a lot about why I loved the M Coupe. It’s raw. It’s built for the driver. It simply feels the way a sports car should. And it looks like nothing else on the road.
Its very limited storage space makes it impractical for most, but that’s good news for the driving enthusiasts. The 4C will be a highly exclusive car, not because of an astronomical price tag, but because it’s not a car that the poseur will be able to understand or appreciate. I’ll be ordering mine as a Spider.