Tuesday test drive: Alfa Romeo 4C Spider
A targa top model joins the coupe, doubling the U.S. Alfa offerings.
BIG SUR, California – We were driving up the Pacific Coast Highway, the ocean to our right, sheer cliffs to our left, when we noticed something unusual: A group of tourists stopped in a turnout, looking not out toward the water, but toward a cliff.
We slowed and followed their eyes, and saw, about 100 feet up, a lone California Condor sitting there, posing as if he was under contract from the local chamber of commerce.
This is notable not just because we got a rare good look at America’s largest bird, but because had we been in the coupe version of the 2015 Alfa Romeo 4C instead of the brand-new Spider, we likely wouldn’t have seen anything unless we slammed on the brakes and got out. Visibility – or lack of it – is one of the central drawbacks of the 4C Coupe, which is almost claustrophobic inside.
But since we were in the Spider, and had removed the cloth top – a hard-backed targa top, really, that you take off completely by undoing a few clips, then fold into quarters and stow in the trunk – and we just looked up and to the left, and there was the California Condor, which appeared to nod as we passed.
But others did nod, as the already-handsome 4C is one of the few cars that is actually better looking in convertible form. There are seven colors, all of them appropriate, with the most appropriate perhaps being the new Giallo Prototipo, otherwise known as “yellow.”
Inside, the 4C Coupe’s rear visibility is akin to the view the driver had out the front of a Sherman tank – through a slit, basically – and since the Spider isn’t a hatchback, you look rearward through an actual window. Much better.
The Spider is $10,000 more than the base 4C Coupe – $53,900 for the Coupe, $63,900 for the Spider, plus a healthy $1,595 for shipping. The Spider has more standard equipment than the Coupe, notably the “leather package,” replacing the Coupe’s cloth seats, and an Alpine sound system that, unlike the system in the last 4C I tested, doesn’t require written instructions and an engineering degree to operate.
Otherwise, it’s the same car as the 4C Coupe, both good and bad. Good is the gutsy little 1.75-liter turbocharged, direct-injected four-cylinder, with 237 horsepower and 258 pound-feet of torque, mated to the six-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission with paddle shifters. There is no manual; I’m not sure the foot box is wide enough for another pedal. Bad is a rather raspy, industrial-sounding exhaust note that proves “loud” isn’t always invigorating – sometimes, it’s just loud.
Good is a weight of under 2,500 pounds, just like the 4C Coupe, since the convertible adds just 22 pounds. That’s the advantage of the already-stiff aluminum and carbon fiber chassis and tub; there is zero cowl shake no matter how rough the pavement. The windshield glass is 10 percent thinner to save weight, and the windshield frame is carbon fiber.
Good is the suspension, which serves up a tolerable ride on bad roads, and a surprisingly gentle ride on smooth roads. And good, bad or somewhere in the middle, depending on your preference, is the unassisted rack and pinion steering, which I found a bit twitchy and light at speed, but others praised. Mostly, it made me miss the Lotus Elise.
I drove three different 4C Spiders at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, and all three felt exactly the same, which is good. Very good. The 4C Spider is light on its feet, predictable, forgiving, and an absolute blast to drive. The Pirelli tires were the same size on all the cars – 205/40ZR-18 front, 235/35ZR-19 rear, but the compound differed with the packages, but all were stellar. Brake feel was perfect, brake fade nonexistent.
The 4C Spider has Alfa’s console-mounted “DNA” performance mode switch, which you toggle to “dynamic,” or “normal,” or “all-weather.” “Dynamic” is excellent for the track, and frankly, for the road, too. “Normal” is how Alfa got the strong EPA mileage numbers – 24 mpg city, 34 mpg highway, 28 mpg combined – but if you are buying this car, you won’t be satisfied with the leisurely shifting of the transmission in the normal mode.
There is also a “race” mode, but Alfa advised us not to use it at the track unless we were absolutely certain of our ability – one journalist thought he was good, put the car in race mode, and learned otherwise, and the result was a dinged-up Alfa and a hopefully more humble journalist. Really, in dynamic mode, you have to genuinely overcook a corner for the stability control to intervene.
The most heavily-optioned car I drove had the Rosso Competizione Tri-Coat paint (otherwise known as “red,” $1,500); a Convenience Package ($1,800); a Track Package ($2,400); red brake calipers ($300), Racing Exhaust ($500), “dark gray” wheels ($2,500), xenon headlights ($1,000); sport seats ($500), and Pirelli AR Racing rubber ($1,200), for a total list price of $77,195. I’d keep the exhaust, the track package and the tires, and you can keep the rest – and have more than enough left over for the $3,500 optional carbon fiber top, if you want it. You can keep that, too, since it can’t be stored in the already-tiny rear trunk, and the soft top can. With the soft top stowed, there wasn’t even enough room left for my soft brief case.
Alfa Romeo is making a slow-but-sure push back into the U.S. market, with a new sedan that is being shown in Italy in two weeks, and an SUV heading our way as part of an eight-product offensive. I’ve gone on record as lukewarm about the 4C Coupe, but I like the 4C Spider a lot, and reasonably optioned, it’s a bargain compared to the six figures you’d pay for other Italian-built, mid-engine sports cars.
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