Alfa Romeo has been selling cars in the United States for years, but most Americans don’t seem to know it; so the company brought some writers to the M1 Concourse, a private track in Pontiac, Michigan, and gave them the keys. I drove the Giulia sedan and Stelvio crossover, and learned why people like Alfa Romeos — but the 4C wasn’t part of the street-and-track experience. It had its own place, on the autocross.
The 4C itself was the first car in Alfa Romeo’s revival, and as such, it was — like the Dodge Viper — an extreme version of the brand’s values and goals, created to show where Alfa Romeo was going (and to gain experience in working with carbon fiber). It’s remarkably light, at 2,465 pounds, so its little four-cylinder engine’s 237 horsepower and 258 pound-feet of torque provide some serious acceleration.
The car has manual steering and an automated dual-clutch manual transmission that shifts for you, controlled by pushbuttons. Enthusiasts are itching for a manual, though the current transmission provides better performance — 0-62 mph in “the mid-4-second range,” with lateral acceleration of greater than 1.1g on dry pavement.
I got into the 4C in the pouring rain, the sole driver on the little autocross area. Getting into the car was difficult, given the high sills, which is par for the class. I am not a well-experienced autocrosser, so I can’t provide the full import of the car’s systems or design, but I can supply some regular-guy impressions.
The 4C launches well, in sports-car, rather than muscle-car, style. The tires gripped the wet pavement well enough for me to consistently get going without losing traction (I didn‘t load the engine, given the weather).
I manhandled the little Alfa through the cones at higher speeds with each run. It takes a lot of effort to move the steering wheel, between the manual steering and huge tires, but that didn’t hamper the driving. Owners presumably build muscle over time.
The one place I consistently lost traction, either from my own deficiencies or a slippery patch, the 4C started understeering; the first time it happened, I let up on the gas and hit the brakes, and stopped just before the cone. In further runs, I still felt a bit of understeer, but I was expecting it now, and the car came back under control very quickly. Mild understeer was better than having the tail end swing wildly out of control, the old-fashioned rear drive problem.
Autocrossing the 4C was fun, but the rain and the combination of a tight track and a car that outclassed my skill made it somewhat hair-raising. Still, it was enough to show me that the 4C was not just a mildly-well-powered coupe or technology platform, but a car built to a definite purpose. It is Alfa Romeo’s Viper, an extreme car that shows the way the brand will be from now on. One can see tuners testing the Giulia prototypes against the 4C; and, indeed, the Giulia sedan has tight, rapid steering, high traction, and a raceworthy performance model (the Quadrifoglio). You can sense the 4C in the Giulia, though one is tight little roadster and the other is an upscale sport sedan.
As we get more Alfa sedans and crossovers, the 4C will be there to hold things together; as the Wrangler is to Jeep, the 4C is to Alfa Romeo.
The author of Dodge Viper, Jeep’s Go-Anywhere Vehicles, and The Rise and Reinvention of Chrysler Minivans, David Zatz has been writing about cars and trucks since the early 1990s; he also writes on organizational development and business at toolpack.info and covers Mac statistics software at macstats.org. His latest book, for kids, is Meet the Jeep.
David has been quoted by the New York Times, the Daily Telegraph, the Detroit News, and USA Today. You can reach him by using our contact form (preferred) or by calling (313) 766-2304.