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Alfa Romeo 4C review: A snarling high-tech response to boring Silicon Valley car design

Jon Phillips | March 24, 2015
Sometime in late February, right when so many tech journalists were debating the merits of the presumptive Apple Car, I was careening through Marin County switchbacks in the Alfa Romeo 4C, and thanking the car gods for a snarling, stupid-fast Italian exotic that's actually difficult to drive.

The 4C is nowhere near as light as the Lotus Elise, which is designed around a 150-pound aluminum tub, and hits a total curb weight of 1,975 pounds. But both the Alfa and Lotus pay all the handling dividends you'd expect from trimming fat.

The 4C's steering wheel feels directly connected to the front tires, and the car changes directions very willingly during rapid slalom flicks. That's a function of not just the 4C's mid-engine design and lack of power steering, but also the car's relatively low weight. You just can't get this level of agility and nuanced steering feedback from a car that weighs 3,500 pounds.

But Alfa's weight savings should pay dividends in other areas that performance enthusiasts obsess over. Weight reduction improves braking performance, and thus stopping distances. Even better, weight reduction improves the life of your brake pads. That's a huge track day bonus. The front pads on my Lotus can make it through about three track events before they're down to metal. In most BMWs and Porsches, it's recommended you start with fresh pads before every event.

Sublime steering (in corners)

Without any power-steering assist, the 4C's a chore to drive under 10 mph. You really have to torque your forearms to wrestle the car out of parking spaces. However, once you're up to speed, Alfa rewards you with a sublimely undiluted steering feel, and more tire stick than you'll ever need on public roads — at least in the corners. In 3rd-gear sweepers, the 4C takes a confident set, and stays bolted to the pavement.

Granted, I never tracked the car, and only drove it at about 5-10ths on city streets (I didn't want to be "that guy" — and there have been many — who wrecked the press car). But the 4C still demonstrated gobs of grip, and gentle throttle lifts telegraphed the car's readiness to tuck in and rotate. With a car this light, weight transfer (the most valued currency of performance driving) is all the more vivid and controllable.

So that's the story when the 4C is loaded up with a lot of lateral Gs. But it's a different car entirely when you're strolling straight down the freeway at speeds as low as even 60 mph. Any kind of uneven road surface — minor divots, scabby cracks and fissures — would cause the car to wander. I found myself frequently retreating to the slow lane, gripping the wheel with 10 white knuckles, and hoping other cars would just stay the hell away, lest the 4C buck itself into an adjacent lane.

I wasn't the only driver who noticed. Car and Driver called the 4C a "busy helm," and the folks at Road & Track even checked for broken suspension parts. Personally, I would want to road-test the baseline 4C before buying any version of this car. The Racing pack version is, well, "involving." And while its extreme state of tune may be all the more rewarding during a 20-minute track session on a groomed surface, it's not really daily-driver-friendly.

 

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