Expert Reviews

Test Drive: 2016 Alfa Romeo 4C Spider

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The Alfa Romeo 4C Spider is not a car as we know it.

If you want a raw, elemental, thrilling – and yes, fast – drive that requires your complete attention, this is it.

Sure, it has four wheels, an engine, a steering wheel and a radio (sort of), but beyond that, this tiny, tightly-wadded bundle of Italian frenzy with the porn-star body is like nothing else on the road. It’s an adolescent brat that just doesn’t give a $#!&. It’s that boyfriend/girlfriend your parents warned you about – self-centered, impossible, beautiful, half nuts, yet completely irresistible.

Is the Alfa 4C a true exotic? Absolutely. A guy in a Ferrari 458 Speciale gave me a big thumbs up. ’Nuff said. It’s all carbon-fibre, mid-engine, rear-drive and looks like a shrunken Dino. But more than that, the driving experience is as exotic as it comes. From another continent? Try another planet.

While other exotics (Ferrari, Lamborghini, et al.) have made great strides in accommodating humans in a humane fashion, this wee Italian will have none of that. You’ll throw your back out getting in. You’ll throw your shoulder out wrenching the tiny flat-bottomed wheel in the parking lot (no power steering). And keep both hands on that wheel, because this puppy is the very definition of tramlining. On anything less than a mirror-smooth road, it darts and sniffs about like a Beagle with ADD. Oh, and you’ll likely go deaf on an extended highway drive too.

Yes, the Alfa Romeo 4C has more flaws than a home-made diamond, but if you want a raw, elemental, thrilling – and yes, fast – drive that requires your complete attention, this is it. Just don’t ever… I mean ever… think you’ll get to relax behind the wheel.

Our tester is a 2016 4C Spider that has a list of $78,495, but carries about $12,000 in options that include a sport exhaust, wheel upgrade (18-inch front, 19-inch rear), racing buckets with micro-fibre inserts, carbon-fibre trim package, race tuned suspension, bi-xenon headlamps, yellow brake calipers, cruise and rear park assist. The searing yellow Giallo Prototipo paint runs $1,500.

If you’re going to spring for one of these quadruple-espresso wedges, do yourself a favour and get the Spider (convertible). Yes, the little fabric patch over your head is a bit of a pain to remove and replace, and it does pretty much eat up what miniscule trunk space there is, but the open-air experience is worth it. Additionally, with the roof off, the cabin is no longer a chamber of engine din.

Ah, the din. Only the Italians can make a 1.7L turbo-four sound like this. It kicks out 237 horsepower at 6,000 rpm and 258 lb-ft from only 2,200 rpm, barking like a wild dog and sending forth a volley of atomic farts on upshifts thanks to the optional $500 Sport Tuned Exhaust System. FCA head-honcho Sergio Marchionne famously termed this scrappy four a “wop engine”. It has bags of character and a surprisingly long and linear power delivery for a turbo. It bolts off the line and screams to the redline with equal verve.

Here, it’s all about the power to weight ratio. Checking in at a paltry 1,128 kg, the Alfa Romeo 4C Spider brags one horsepower per 4.7 kg. It is very quick, launching to 100 km/h in 4.5 seconds. And with all that mid-range torque at the ready, urge is available at just about any speed.

The sole transmission is a six-speed dual-clutch with paddle shifters. It mates well with the engine, keeping things on the boil and responding quickly to paddle shift inputs. In Race and Dynamic modes (other modes include Natural and All-weather) it proves to be pretty brainy, downshifting into bends and hanging on to the appropriate gearing when coursing through the twisties.

Funny thing about the 4C with all its lightweight, non-assisted purity. You think you’re going to jump into this thing and feel an instant transcendence – it’ll be just you and the road with the Alfa being the conduit of your bliss. It will whisper sweet Italian intimacies and you’ll become one with the motoring universe.

Think again, Mario.

Spec’d as it is with the bigger wheels and race tuned suspension, the damn thing never settles down. The ride is stiff, and the car is twitchy, nervous, gets all squirrely under hard braking, and as noted earlier, will try to pull you into the rhubarb if the road isn’t mirror smooth. Okay, my Italian is terrible, but I’m never sure what this car is saying. Was that “I love you” or “I want to kill you”? So Italian.

Once over the wide carbon-fibre sills and wedged into the cockpit, you’ll find all kinds of interesting features. The tiny flat-bottomed wheel is uber-cool, and an old-fashioned twist key fires things up. There’s no shift lever – just a quartet of round push-buttons on the lower console. Press the button marked 1 for drive. R is self-explanatory. A/M cycles between auto and manual modes for the transmission, and N is neutral. There is no P (park) setting, so when stopped you press N and reef on the hand brake. A rocker switch behind the shift buttons selects the drive modes.

The gauge cluster is completely digital There is no central screen here which means no back up camera, and this is something the 4C surely could use. Rearward visibility is essentially nonexistent, but we are thankful for the optional rear park assist.

The afterthought Alpine head unit is an 80s time warp – miniscule buttons and inscrutable functioning. I didn’t bother because you wouldn’t be able to hear it anyway.

But these are all the things that make the Alfa Romeo 4C such a unique animal. It’s a given that anyone spending 90 grand on this car will have other vehicles at their disposal. You’ll never take the 4C on an extended road trip (unless self-flagellation floats your boat), and probably not even an over-nighter because the rear trunk is so tiny.

No, the Alfa is a toy for short, extreme motoring blasts – the kind that clear out the cobwebs and heighten the senses. It’s the complete antithesis of everything we expect from a modern car. It’s Gina Lollobrigida with the personality of Joe Pesci. It’s flawed to perfection.

Engine Displacement 1.7L
Engine Cylinders 4
Peak Horsepower 237 hp @ 6,000 rpm
Peak Torque 258 lb-ft @ 2,200 rpm
Fuel Economy 9.7/6.9/8.4 (L/100 km, city/hwy/comb)
Cargo Space 275 L
Model Tested 2016 Alfa Romeo 4C Spider
Base Price $78,495
A/C Tax $100
Destination Fee $2,495
Price as Tested $92,640
Optional Equipment
$11,550 – Giallo Prototipo yellow paint $1,500; racing leather buckets $500; Convenience Group (cruise, rear park assist) $1,100; Carbon Fibre Interior Trim Group $2,000; Spider Track Package 4 (carbon fibre exterior mirrors, race tuned suspension) $2,300; car cover $400; bi-xenon headlamps $1,000; sport exhaust $500; 19x8.5 and 18x7 alloys $1,800; battery charger $150; yellow brake calipers $300