FIRST DRIVE: Alfa Romeo 4C

Alfa Romeo's most important car for decades is here at last. Can it deliver supercar thrills at half the price, or is it another target missed?

The Alfa Romeo 4C is an excellent track toy.

Alfa Romeo 4C
Price £45,000
Top speed 160 mph
0-62 mph 4.5 sec
Combined fuel economy 41.5 mpg
Road test economy N/A
CO2 emissions 157 g/km
VED band G / £180
Insurance group 50 (est)
Engine 1.75-litre turbo petrol
Power 237 bhp (240 PS)
Torque 258 ft-lb (350 Nm)
Weight 895 kg

What is it?

The 4C really is a lot smaller than pictures might lead you to believe. The roof barely rises above my belt-line, while the whole car isn’t much longer than a Ford Fiesta. It’s quite a bit wider though, lending it an incredibly aggressive, purposeful stance.

It’s that stance that says what it is; a no-compromise sports car that will act as a halo above the rest of Alfa Romeo’s rather meagre range. I took the keys to find out if it’s good enough to do that job.

What’s it like?

Getting inside means you have to cross a sill that’s as wide as that found on any supercar, something that starts to make clear its supercar-like construction. This gives strength to the carbon fibre structure that sits in the middle of the car, housing you and a load of gubbins to which an aluminium structure is bolted on at each end. Finally a hybrid steel and aluminium frame supports the 1.75-litre engine just behind the seats.

It’s a complicated and costly setup, but it leaves the 4C weighing just 850kg, which makes lightweight heroes such as the Lotus Exige look a little plump.

Once you've contorted yourself in to place in the cabin you’re presented with a rather bleak dashboard with little in the way of design flair. Two round air vents, a stereo system and some dials for the air conditioning are all that adorn the untrimmed dash (and both can be deleted from the specification), while the gearstick is replaced by a series of buttons to select a drive mode from the twin-clutch automatic gearbox.

The interior is rather spartan in the Alfa Romeo 4C.

Directly ahead, however, is an elaborate digital display that shows a large rev counter surrounded by other essential information. It all changes shape and colour when you change the driving modes of the car, flipping Alfa’s DNA switch to the Race position.

The race position enables launch control, something I could make dull use of on the private airfield we’d borrowed for the day. Hold the brake, press the throttle all the way down, and then release the brake when you’re ready; that’s all it takes to make the perfect start. The car suddenly darts forwards, the tiny engine trying hard to push your eyes back in to your head as you hit 60mph in just 4.5 seconds.

The red line approaches rapidly. Grab the paddle shifter on the right of the wheel and the DCT semi-automatic gearbox engages the next gear, and the acceleration continues. From 60 to 100, the lightweight construction allows it to gather pace as well as any of its bigger engine rivals, and even as the screen showed 130mph it was clear there was still more to come.

I couldn't access more though as the fast approaching corner was requiring my attention, and use of the brakes seemed like a good idea. The nose dives, despite the stiffer suspension that comes with the £3,000 racing pack fitted to my test model, but there’s no weaving around, just solid and effective retardation, lap after lap.

Serious driving face.

Turning in to the corner, the wide track and rigid chassis keeps things very much in check, with a hint of understeer that can be dialled out immediately by the smallest of adjustments to the throttle pedal. Changing lines mid-corner doesn't send the back end drifting wide; in fact it’s almost impossible to send the 4C sideways, even when trying hard.

Ride quality remained impressive too, the Alfa gliding reasonably smoothly over the occasional broken surface at Jurby, but then I probably wasn't concentrating on the ride quite as much as I could have while violently throwing the 4C from one turn to the next.

It's pretty, but impractical.

Is it practical?

No. Even using the very best man-maths methods, there is absolutely no way you can make a case for the 4C as an even remotely practical proposition.

However, there’s good economy of 41.5 mpg thanks to its light weight, and that also means that it’ll be kind to its tyres, saving you some money there. Theoretically, servicing and maintenance should be sensibly priced too, as the engine and gearbox are used in ‘ordinary’ cars elsewhere in the Alfa Romeo range.

Should I buy one?

If you’re heading off to a closed circuit, then the 4C is exemplary. Unfortunately it’s that everyday driving side of things that I couldn’t test out, the 4C being restricted to airfield use during this launch event.

However, this is a truly focused machine that won’t be ideally suited to the road. The shortcomings, from cheap plastics to impractical access and no boot space, are fine if you’re buying a track toy, but will soon frustrate on your a commute along the M1.

It’s also expensive enough that some very capable opposition from the likes of Lotus and Porsche become direct rivals. By the time you’ve added a few necessary options, you’re looking at £50,000, and that will buy you the excellent Porsche Cayman, a car you can live with every day.

But then you just need to look at the 4C. As ever with Alfa Romeo, the heart can easily overrule the head.

The Alfa Romeo 4C excels on the circuit, but its road manners remain unknown.

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