THERE’S something lurking in the special pit lane structure Alfa Romeo has built over its test track. Even in silhouette, it’s easy to pick out the rakish form of the Italian firm’s new 4C sports car.
It’s waiting for me, scowling. I’m about to take a scorching passenger ride around Alfa’s private circuit, driven by a race driver in the pitch black of night. You have to hand it to the Italians – when they do something, they go all out.
As soon as I say “ciao” to my driver we’re roaring onto the track, chasing down a snaking line of 4Cs ahead of us. As the professional drivers get competitive (and they always do) the taillights of the cars in front dance around like fireflies in the gloom.
We’re careering down the straight when I look over and see the speedo reading around 140mph. Even from the wrong side of the car, it gives a proper, high-octane buzz. Tomorrow will be my turn to find out if Alfa’s new two-seater lives up to the hype.
But when that chance actually came, I was disappointed. The interior’s Spartan and some of the materials wouldn’t be out of place on a Casio keyboard. Things don’t get better when you start it up, either.
The 4C has a small 1.7-litre engine from one of Alfa’s hatchbacks (no thoroughbred V8 here) that gargles and groans at idle. It’s not exactly exotic. Porsche will be pleased. What has all the fuss been about?
But the 4C is clever. Built from carbonfibre, the same lightweight high-tech material used in Formula One, it only needs a small engine. And because it’s light, says Alfa, it doesn’t need power steering.
So this brand-new £45,000 sports car has an unimpressive interior, a small, humdrum engine and no power steering. Can it really be worth that much?
Well, it is fast. The 4C goes up against Porsche’s two-seat Cayman model, but it’s actually as quick as the much more expensive Porsche 911 S. Its brakes are ferocious, too.
The Porsche beats it in most other areas, though. If you’re on a race track, yes, the Alfa Romeo might just have the edge, but last time we checked there weren’t many of those in central London. On the Queen’s highway the Porsche is the better car – more comfortable, nicer inside and comes with a bigger boot.
After a while, even the Alfa’s defining feature – that steering – becomes tiresome. Where the Porsche prevents lumps and bumps in the road wresting the steering wheel from your grip, the 4C writhes and wriggles in your hands to the point where it feels skittish and nervous, even on regular tarmac.
It looks stunning, granted, but ostentatiously so. Push the accelerator to the floor, pull the gear change paddle and the sports exhaust emits a great crack that’s guaranteed to turn heads. Yet despite its flaws, there’s something appealing about the 4C. Drivers will let you out of side roads because people just like Alfas – good luck with achieving that in your blingy BMW M3.
It’ll thrill you on that rare occasion when an empty road presents itself, but so will a Lotus Elise S. For the rest of the time, when you just want to drive normally, put luggage in the boot and carry a passenger in comfort, Porsche’s Cayman is the better car. Ultimately, the 4C isn’t the quite the alpha male sports car Alfa Romeo wanted it to be.
THE FACTS: ALFA ROMEO 4C
0-62MPH: 4.5 secs
TOP SPEED: 160mph
CO2 G/KM: 157g/km
MPG COMBINED: 41.5mpg
DESIGN Four Stars
PERFORMANCE Four Stars
PRACTICALITY One Star
VALUE FOR MONEY Two Stars