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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.

Violent forward motion

Alfa advances its technology storyline further with a relatively lightweight 4-cylinder engine that's turbo-boosted to within an inch of its life. OK, sure, it's not an electric motor like you'll find in your hipster neighbor's locally farmed Tesla, but it still sends a positive message to the performance car community: You don't need huge, heavy, gas-guzzling V8s for serious hustle.

Alfa's little 1742 cc four-banger helps keep total curb weight down, but thanks to 21.75 psi of turbo boost — or what I like to call ARE YOU FREAKING KIDDING ME HOW MUCH BOOST WHAT? — the 4C cranks out 237 horsepower and 258 pound-feet of torque. Alfa says that's good for a 0-to-60 time of 4.5 seconds.

That's about only 0.3 seconds faster than my naturally aspirated Lotus, but it feels a lot faster thanks to extremely short gear ratios in 1st and 2nd, and because the 4C's turbo kicks in violently after a noticeable bit of turbo lag. Frankly, I'd start my track sessions cautiously in this car, calibrating sudden bursts of forward thrust to corner geometry and my own talent levels.

Shift with confidence where it matters most

The 4C's high-tech drivetrain story continues with a 6-speed dual-clutch transmission. You can leave the car in its automatic mode (a boring, low-rev kiddie show unless you stomp the throttle), or paddle-shift your way up and down the gearbox. But just know this: There's no traditional manual shift option for the 4C. Alfa Romeo will not indulge your stickshift romance, and it's a move that suits me fine.

OK, I know, I know: There's possibly nothing more satisfying than executing the perfect heel-toe downshift before diving into a corner. But heel-toeing is also one of the most advanced driving techniques you'll ever master, and getting it wrong upsets a car's balance right when poise is paramount on the race track. Shoot, I probably lose two seconds of lap time just thinking about heel-toe downshifting.

So I really have no quarrel with Alfa's decision to forgo manual shifting. Dual-clutch transmissions don't suffer the parasitic power losses of slushbox automatics, they shift in milliseconds, and represent one of the smartest tech advances in the automotive space, benefitting both track day enthusiasts and millennials who've never learned to work a clutch. If I have any problem with Alfa's transmission, it's that throttle blips on downshifts just don't sound or feel very dramatic. But I guess erasing drama is what dual-clutch trannies are all about.

A loud, tiring ride

Aside from the confidence the transmission gave me on corner entries, I found the 4C to be a fatiguing, demanding drive. Of course, there's the aforementioned fidgety straight-line steering and peaky turbo. But the cabin is claustrophobic (more so than my smaller but open-top Lotus), and the Racing pack's muffler-less exhaust quickly loses its barbarian charm. It roars, it growls, it blurps, it blarps. That's fun for a while, but halfway into your daily commute, you'll be wishing for relief.

 

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