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 starts at $54,000 but looks like a $250,000 Ferrari to the untrained eye. It’s 100 percent dedicated to high-performance driving, and flicks a defiant me ne frego at any thoughts of civility, sensibility, and social responsibility. It’s louder than you want it to be. It’s ergonomically screwed. And it fidgets over crappy road surfaces so badly, you’d think Alfa replaced the car’s suspension bushings with zip ties.
But for all its impolite behavior, the Alfa Romeo 4C is also packed with technology—technology that stands in stark contrast to the battery-powered propulsion and robot driving aids so routinely hyped by today’s technology press.
And so we have the 4C. It’s a high-tech car that rejects the hottest automotive tech trends, and even flouts convention in the performance car space. It’s not the car I’d buy for either public roads or track days, but its story should impress tech-minded car enthusiasts in a meaningful way.
Let carbon fiber lead the way
You can count me among the meaningfully impressed, as the 4C adopts the design philosophy of the Lotus Elise, a car in which I’ve logged some 100-plus driving sessions on Northern California race tracks. In 2003, I was one of those mentally unbalanced early adopters who put down a deposit for the second-generation Elise when Lotus announced it would be coming to the States. My car—the 2099th “federalized” example—finally arrived in 2005, and since that time I’ve been an evangelist for all the addition-via-subtraction technology that cars like the Elise and 4C embrace.
In the 4C, that tech story starts with a carbon fiber tub that weighs just 236 pounds, and helps Alfa hit a total curb weight of about 2,470 pounds for the fully optioned, $70,000 Racing pack version I tested. Carbon fiber is pricey, but it’s vastly lighter than steel, and can also be vastly stiffer and stronger than steel in the right applications.
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.
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.
Visibility out the back is horrible. Ingress and egress requires a strategy. I love the look of the beautifully machined, floor-mounted pedals, but I could never find an acceptably ergonomic seating position with relation to the throttle pedal. More than 20 minutes of driving made my right ankle sore.
Maybe even worse, the 4C’s brake pedal felt absolutely dead. Oh, make no mistake—this car has incredible stopping power. But the brake pedal felt hard as rock, and lacked all the communication that Alfa Romeo nailed so well in the 4C’s steering.
A hedge against the robot invasion
Any American who cares about performance cars should be thrilled the Alfa Romeo 4C is sold in our country. The Lotus Elise and its even racier Exige variant are no longer available in the United States, so that leaves Alfa as the only manufacturer to sell a mid-engined, lightweight, reasonably priced exotic on Yankee shores.
We need cars like the 4C. It sucks up all of Silicon Valley’s antiseptic techno-utopianism, and dumps it out the wastegate of a turbocharger that prefers stinky exhaust fumes to kilowatt hours. It also demands that we not just drive ourselves, sans robot assist, but also pay strict attention to every aspect of the driving experience.
If I punted my Lotus tomorrow, I wouldn’t run out and buy the 4C, all its luscious Italian exotica notwithstanding. No, I’d buy a used Lotus, because it’s cheaper, a more agreeable daily driver, and 500 pounds lighter than the 4C. But I’m really, really glad the 4C exists. It’s a perfect hedge against all the tech trends that are killing our fun.
Jon is the Editor-in-Chief of PCWorld and TechHive. He's been covering all manner of consumer hardware since 1995.