First drive: Alfa Romeo 4C
What is it?
Alfa's long awaited halo model that sees a return to pure, unadulterated driving thrills from a marque that has lost its way somewhat over recent years. Just look at the current line-up: the tiny MiTo (not exactly pulse raising) and the slightly larger Giulietta (slightly better but still not brilliant). Then divert your gaze towards the low-slung, mini-supercar haunches of the drop-dead gorgeous 4C - a 236bhp, mid-engined, rear-wheel drive performance machine that offers a breathtaking driving experience and show-stopping looks in one fairly affordable package.
What's under the bonnet?
A reworked version of the 1.7-litre turbocharged engine that could and still can be found in more potent Giulietta models. The lump has been fettled by Alfa's chief engineers and now boasts an all-aluminium casing and improved direct-injection turbo performance. This unit is mated to a new TCT dual dry-clutch gearbox that is operated via paddles behind the steering wheel, while all 236bhp is pumped to the rear wheels via an electronic differential. Fans of the new engine - and there will be many - will soon see it transplanted to the Giulietta for a molten hatchback experience.
What's the spec like?
This is where the seductive Alfa falls down slightly as the interior is fitted with a surprising amount of hard plastic. Carbon inserts line the door panels and some surfaces but the predominant material is rough, arguably cheap-to-the-touch plastic - not something you'd expect in a circa £50,000 machine. The seats are comfortable and feature an Alcantara covering for extra grip but adjustments are limited to just rake and reach. It feels very much like a tarted up Lotus Exige in the way it ditches the mod-cons for a stripped-out racer ambience but customers will get air-conditioning, a small entertainment system and a few cubbyholes for wallets and drinks. The TFT display that covers all of the car's functions is a funky affair and the simple gear selection buttons befit a car whose sole purpose is to thrill. It's basic and follows function rather than form but it does a job and saves a lot of weight in the process.
The aforementioned Porsche Cayman will be the biggest temptation for buyers in this market as it serves up similar driving thrills with a few more luxuries. In fact, it can easily be driven everyday, which is not as easy in the stubby Alfa. Lotus also offers the Evora, that despite not setting the sales charts alight, is still a very entertaining car in its own right. Alfa purists will be easily convinced that the 4C offers a better cocktail of performance and aural delights but it will be trickier to tempt Porsche buyers away from a tried and tested formula of premium feel and unrivalled driveability.
What's it like to drive?
Thumb the little starter button that is placed on the short but neat centre console and the angry four-cylinder engine barks into life. The shapely Alfa's racing intent is made very obvious in the first few seconds of driving - the chassis is taught, the ride firm and the steering completely unassisted. This is no school run taxi and that's affirmed when the first corner is taken in anger. The front end is so keen to turn in, it's almost impossible to miss a visual or mental marker point. Allow the car to steady itself, wind off the lock, gradually feed on the power and grin like a maniac as the 4C finds epic amounts of grip. The stubby, low-slung nature of the chassis makes the whole experience more visceral and exciting as the sense of speed is increased tenfold – it slingshots out of corners with real gusto. The interior may be sparse, the seats slightly uncomfortable and the boot pretty much non-existent but that doesn't matter, this is a track-day machine that can rival the titans from Norfolk and Stuttgart all day long.
The AOL Cars verdict
Driving enthusiasts will likely fall head over heels in love with the 4C: it's noisy, it's surprisingly quick (did we mention launch control?) and it handles like a true thoroughbred. This is the sort of car that will have certain members of society instantly hooked but for that reason, we'd have liked longer with it. The noise and the drama is one thing but we know from the experience that if the 4C is to be a success, it has to be much more than that.
Model: Alfa Romeo 4C
Price: From £45,000 (£53,470 as tested)
Engine: 1.7-litre, four-cylinder turbo
Max speed: 160mph
0-62mph: 4.5 seconds
MPG: 41.5mpg (combined)
Emissions: 157g/km CO2