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Car review: Alfa Romeo 4C

The Alfa Romeo 4C is perhaps the most important car for the Italian carmaker in recent years. Is this a sign of what is to come?

Over the years, Alfa Romeo has made some iconic sporty cars that ooze character – from the 33 Stradale to the GTV6. But the pickings have been rather bland in recent years, exacerbated by falling sales numbers which arguably hampered development.

Then came the curvaceous 8C Competizione in 2007. It was the first supercar the company made since 1997, and all 500 units built were snapped up around the world.

If you didn’t get a chance to buy one, good news – Alfa Romeo has introduced a mini-me version – the 4C – which has inherited many of the larger car’s sensual curves.

The 4C is not for the casual enthusiast, though. It’s a focused, hard-as-nails type of sports car. It’s really more suited to tackle the back roads or corners on a race circuit, than for commuting to work or the supermarket. If you need a frame of reference, it’s between a Lotus Exige and a Porsche Cayman.

But, unlike the notorious Lotus, the 4C is easier to get in and out of. Some flexibility is still needed, but it’s not as hard as it seems: Set one foot into the footwell, lower your buttocks onto the seat and then swing the right leg over the door sill. Simple.

The interior is well equipped for a car of this disposition. Once inside, you will immediately notice the fully exposed carbon-fibre surface that surrounds the cabin. The tub, which is essentially the cabin and chassis, is made of the highly exotic material that boasts both lightness and structural rigidity. The 4C is the only car in the sub-$400,000 price range to use carbon fibre for its monocoque structure.

Meanwhile, the seats are actually more comfortable than they look – offering good support despite the thin back and squab. The dash is well-designed, with the controls tilted to face the driver.

You twist the key to fire up the engine – no fancy push-start button here. The 1.75-litre four-cylinder engine isn’t exactly one that quickens the pulse. Its engine note doesn’t sound spectacular, but don’t let that lack of panache fool you. The turbocharged engine boasts 240bhp and 350Nm of torque. The power is transferred to the ground through a robotised dual-clutch gearbox, which is controlled via three buttons on the centre tunnel and two steering-mounted paddles.

The 4C is equipped with Alfa’s “DNA” system that allows drivers to select three modes to suit their driving style: Dynamic, Natural or All-Weather.

The default mode is Natural, which is the most relaxing way to drive the car. All-Weather is saved for wet and icy conditions, which is rather useless in our climate. Selecting Dynamic mode will wring more power out of the engine, relax the electronic nannying systems, and turn the LED instrument cluster into an angry, red dial.

For expert drivers who prefer an unadulterated drive, there’s a “hidden” Race mode that can be selected by pushing the DNA lever into Dynamic for five seconds. It shuts off the stability and anti-lock braking systems, in what Alfa marketing says “enhances” your driving experience.

Regardless of the mode, drivers will realise that the 4C is a speed demon. Official figures claim that the zero to 100kmh sprint benchmark is accomplished in 4.5 seconds, but it certainly feels faster than that, thanks to the strong torque available from just 2,200rpm. Oh, and also that carbon-fibre chassis and aluminium frame that have kept the car’s mass to a bare minimum. The golden rule of motor racing is to keep weight to a minimum, and the engineers have done just that.

Even the fuel tank comes with a cleverly designed flap, instead of a screw-on cap seen in almost every road-going car. The ultra-stiff chassis also allows the suspension system to do its work, without having to contend with any flex to the body. While that spells greater handling, it also means that you feel every knick and bump on the roads. And it isn’t just from your bum; because the steering wheel is unassisted, your fingertips can almost feel the letterings on manhole covers when you go over them.

With its low-slung profile and high negative lift (or downforce), the car always feels planted to the tarmac. It takes deliberate coaxing to get the 4C to wag its tail into an oversteer around a fast corner – but just for a moment – before it regains its composure.

And to haul in all that power, the brakes are able to shed 100kmh in a mere 36m. However, the brake pedal has an on-off feel that’s perfect for the tracks, but will take some getting used to on the roads.

The stunning 4C is certainly an eye-catcher. But, if you are looking just to pose, this car may be too involved for you. While it’s easy to drive and offers unflappable performance, it still demands concentration. With minimal creature comforts, the 4C is perhaps the ideal weekend “fun car”.

But the question above all is whether the 4C is the way forward for Alfa Romeo. Only time will tell if the trickle-down technologies will end up in the company’s mainstream vehicles, but you don’t have to foresee the future because the 4C is here now.