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Alfa Romeo 4C: Minimalism, maximised

By Deon Schoeman 8 August 2014

Right now, one of the motoring world’s most desirable production cars is a small two-seater with a four-cylinder turbo engine and a dual-clutch gearbox. That may sound decidedly ordinary, but all doubts are dispelled when you see it in all its composite splendour. DEON SCHOEMAN drives the arresting Alfa Romeo 4C.

Minimalism is a rare commodity in sports car design these days. The last real exponent of the lightweight sports car art was the late Colin Chapman, whose Lotus cars have always epitomised the magic of wieldy, simple featherweight designs: cars that don’t need hundreds of kiloWatts to be fast and rewarding.

Most current sports cars have traded simplicity for complexity, and need lots of engine muscle to achieve decent power-to-weight ratios. But there are exceptions to the rule. The slim, trim and sexy Alfa Romeo 4C is one of those.

This is an Alfa like no other: a compact, low-slung two-seater with the stance, the attitude and the arresting aesthetics of a supercar. The surfaces are tautly stretched over the car’s frame, allowing function to determine form.

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It’s certainly not pretty in the conventional sense – but then, there is nothing conventional about the 4C.

The front view’s elements vector around the Alfa-synonymous triangle, which is embraced here by big, air-gulping air intakes on either side. The V extends upwards towards the A-pillars, and past light clusters that look too sci-fi to be true.

Set in carbon fibre casings, the individual light elements are arranged like a scattering of jewels on textured velvet, with the tiny ones acting as daytime running lights, combined with a larger Xenon unit for main illumination.

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The flanks are trim and almost delicate, offset by wide haunches with generously proportioned cooling apertures. Flared wheel arches embrace the wide-spoked alloy wheels.

Relative to its height, the 4C is wide and low, with a prowling, predatory attitude that expresses an appetite for speed and excitement.

The rear treatment focuses on the engine, mounted transversely just behind the seats, and proudly displayed behind glass. The round, recessed tail light clusters are a classic sports car touch, while the rear diffuser and the large-bore exhaust tailpipes are further confirmation of this Alfa’s dynamic intentions.

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What’s not immediately apparent is just how advanced the 4C’s construction really is. Pivotal to its sports car persona is its carbon fibre construction. The chassis is a carbon fibre monocoque, combined with aluminium for the front and rear beams, and the integrated roll cage, while the body panels are fashioned from sheet-moulded composites.

The result is an extremely strong, stiff and very light body with a low centre of gravity. The South African-spec car weighs just more than 900 kilograms, allowing a power to weight ratio of close to 190 kW/ton.

The doors open wide to allow access to a function-focussed cockpit. The low roof and wide sill make entry and exit slightly awkward, but once ensconced in the tailored bucket seat, the ergonomics are near perfect.

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Everything here centres around creating a pure and direct interface between car and driver. The layout is race-car simple, with a single TFT colour display for all key data, a grippy steering wheel, and gear shift paddles on either side. Real carbon fibre and aluminium surfaces contribute to the cockpit’s naked appeal.

Not that the 4C does without vital creature comforts. Electric windows and mirrors, air-conditioning, remote central locking and cruise control are provided, and those leather-trimmed bucket seats provide decent support, too.

But be under no illusions: on the move, it’s a raucous place, with the engine and road noise vying for supremacy, and making the standard audio system (with Bluetooth connectivity and iPod compatibility) all but redundant. Also, except for the shallow recesses of two cup holders, oddments stowage isn’t catered for – no cubby, no binnacle.

There is some luggage space in a deep, trough-like space directly behind the engine – but you won’t fit more than a single duffel bag in there.

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By hardcore sports car standards, the 4C’s engine is a humble device. The 1.75-litre four-cylinder unit is an all-aluminium design and features variable valve timing, direct injection and turbocharging to boost power to 177kW, linked to 350 Nm of torque. It’s mounted amidships, and drives the rear wheels via a six-speed TCT dual-clutch gearbox.

Frankly, I was disappointed by the transmission choice – until I drove the 4C. I thought a traditional manual would have suited the car’s hard-core personality, but the TCT in the 4C is fast and percussive, with a hard-edged, mechanical action that’s pure race car.

It retains an automatic mode, but to drive the 4C without controlling the gear shifts is to rob the experience of involvement – even in traffic, shifting gears, and savouring the throttle blip on downloads, is a vital part of piloting the car.

The running gear is all aluminium, with wishbones up front, and a strut-based arrangement at the rear. The ride is taut without becoming too uncompromising, but the stiff carbon fibre tub means that the 4C’s reactions to drive input are direct and unflinching.

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Yes, there’s nothing subtle about the 4C on the move. The engine’s turbo spits, crackles and pops with a race car-like intensity, and the gear shifts are quick and incisive. You don’t just drive the 4C – you experience it.

Like other sporty Alfas, there is a drive selector that allows access to more dynamic modes at the push of a button. In Dynamic mode, the throttle response becomes sharper, the engine’s mapping is more aggressive, and the gear shifts are faster, while the stability and traction control allow a measure of leeway before intervening.

There’s also a Race mode, which switches all driver assistance modes off, leaving the line of communication between car and driver completely uncompromised.

The real appeal of the 4C is the handling. Seated low in the bucket seat, the taut suspension and the direct, completely unassisted steering hard-wire you to car, so that you anticipate the Alfa’s every move.

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You don’t so much drive the 4C as think it through corners: the steering is sublime, with razor-sharp responses and loads of feedback that make it easy to precisely place the car on the chosen line. And yes, the car is fast.

Traction off the line is good, thanks to the mid-mounted engine and rear-wheel drive, assisted by an electronic diff. Launch control helps to slingshot the Alfa off the line, unleashing acceleration that feels relentless.

The zero to 100 sprint time is a rapid 4.5 seconds and top speed maxes out at 258km/h – but because you sit so low in the car, it feels even faster. With so little weight to propel, the 4C’s reaction to throttle input is instantaneous, with very little inertia, and a thrilling ability to punch past slow traffic in the blink of an eye.

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But here’s the question: would you pay R870,000 for a small, two-seater car with a four-cylinder engine and an Alfa Romeo badge?

Having spent a few days exploring the fast sweeps and quiet roads surrounding the mountain hamlet of Clarens, I know I would. Nowhere else can you get a bespoke, thoroughbred sports car with a carbon fibre tub, hand-built by craftsmen and boasting a power-to-weight ratio of almost 190 kW per ton for this kind of money.

In terms of dynamic talent per rand, the value proposition is even stronger. And with production limited to 3,000 units annually, exclusivity also comes into play. In short, this is one of the purest, most desirable, most rewarding cars to drive – and I desire one. DM

 

Alfa Romeo 4C

Engine

In-line four-cylinder, 1,750cc, turbocharged

Gearbox

Six-speed TCT dual-clutch

Power

177kW @ 6,000 rpm

torque

350Nm @ 2,200 rpm

0-100 km/h

4.1 sec

Top speed

258km/h

Fuel consumption

6.8 litres/100km (combined cycle)

CO2 emissions

157 g/km

Price as tested

R870,000

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