Mo­tor­ing

Bill McKin­non in the Alfa Romeo 4C spi­der. John Con­nolly. Jeremy Clark­son on the Volvo XC90.

The Weekend Australian - Life - - FOOD & WINE - BILL McKIN­NON

The great Alfa Romeo re­vival is be­gin­ning to re­sem­ble the nonex­is­tent plot of Wait

ing for Godot, the Sa­muel Beck­ett play I was forced to read at univer­sity but found ut­terly in­com­pre­hen­si­ble ex­cept for its core propo­si­tion: even when you think some­thing may hap­pen, noth­ing ever ac­tu­ally does, and ei­ther way, does it re­ally make any dif­fer­ence? Dis­cuss. It did look for a while as though Fiat-owned Alfa would be­come col­lat­eral dam­age from the Fi­atChrysler merger, be­gun in 2009.

A ran­cid rep­u­ta­tion for chronic un­re­li­a­bil­ity, the huge in­vest­ment re­quired to cre­ate a real Alfa or three from scratch rather than an­other cheap, re­badged Fiat, and an ap­par­ent con­sen­sus that, in a post-GFC world where car­mak­ers can’t af­ford ex­pen­sive mis­takes, an Alfa re­vival was just too risky, did ap­pear to presage its sad, in­evitable demise.

Then the 4C coupe ar­rived in 2013 — an exquisite piece of petrolhead heaven in clas­sic Alfa style — to give the Al­fisti new hope and launch a re­turn to the US mar­ket, from which it had made a hu­mil­i­at­ing re­treat in 1995.

In 2014, Fiat Chrysler Au­to­mo­biles chief Ser­gio Mar­chionne an­nounced a €5 bil­lion ($7.3bn) spend on Alfa, to yield eight new mod­els by 2018, and that hence­forth the brand would “bench­mark it­self against the best that the Ger­man au­to­mo­tive in­dus­try has to of­fer”. Alfa sales, ac­cord­ing to this most ex­cel­lent the­ory, would hit 400,000 by 2018, up from 74,000 in 2013. Bravo! En­core!

In Jan­uary this year, in a re­vised FCA busi­ness plan, Alfa’s prod­uct “cadence” was “re­assessed”. In English, that means Mar­chionne has pushed out the time­frame for Alfa’s res­ur­rec­tion by two years to 2020, re­duced in­vest­ment in new model de­vel­op­ment and dropped the 400,000 sales tar­get.

So the bot­tom line is that since the 4C ar­rived three years ago we’ve seen no fresh Alfa metal, though the first fruit of Plan Alfa, the new-from-the­wheels-up BMW 3 Se­ries-sized Gi­u­lia, is now in pro­duc­tion af­ter (you guessed it) be­ing de­layed six months for rea­sons Alfa isn’t dis­clos­ing but, if form is any guide, prob­a­bly in­clude qual­ity and re­li­a­bil­ity.

FCA has de­nied the de­lay is due to the car re­port­edly hav­ing failed in-house crash tests. Gi­u­lia is due here early in 2017. Mean­while, we have the 4C Spi­der to re­mind us what a beau­ti­ful fu­ture Alfa could have if it ever man­ages to get its act to­gether.

Priced at $99,000, a $10,000 pre­mium over the 4C Coupe, the Spi­der fea­tures ex­otic con­struc­tion, akin to an F1 racer or seven-fig­ure su­per­car such as La Fer­rari, McLaren P1 or Porsche 918 Spy­der.

Its ma­jor struc­tural el­e­ment is a hand-lay­ered car­bon fi­bre mono­coque, in which you sit. Car­bon fi­bre is three times stronger and seven times lighter than steel, so even with no hard roof it is still suf­fi­ciently rigid and ro­bust to re­quire no ad­di­tional re­in­force­ment. Hence the Spi­der gains only 10kg over the coupe and weighs in at a feath­erlight 1035kg.

Be­hind the cock­pit, a tur­bocharged 1750cc four­cylin­der en­gine and six-speed dual dry clutch au­to­mated man­ual trans­mis­sion is mounted on an alu­minium frame, with a com­pact strut-style sus­pen­sion.

Up front, dou­ble wish­bones pivot di­rectly on the mono­coque, F1-style. The steer­ing has no power as­sis­tance, brakes are from Brembo with four-pis­ton front calipers, and wheels are 17-inch front/18-inch rear, shod with Pirelli PZeros.

So the 4C is an ex­otic lit­tle beastie, pro­duced in small num­bers — 17 per day — in the Maserati fac­tory at Mo­dena.

This car’s pri­or­i­ties are sim­ple: go, han­dle, stop. That’s why Alfa held the lo­cal launch drive at a track rather than on the road.

Fit, fin­ish and plas­tics are in­dus­trial grade and the con­trol lay­out is hap­haz­ard. That said, the untrimmed car­bon-fi­bre mono­coque and volup­tuous sheet moulded com­pos­ite pan­els in which it’s wrapped im­bue the 4C with a cred­i­ble sem­blance of su­per­car mys­tique.

A ribbed fab­ric Targa-style soft-top cov­ers the gap be­tween the car­bon fi­bre wind­screen frame and the rear of the mono­coque. It takes a few min­utes to in­stall and re­move via clips on each side and lives in a stor­age tub be­hind the en­gine when not in use.

The sin­gle dig­i­tal in­stru­ment dis­play is 21st cen­tury tech, but you get no An­droid or Ap­ple smart­phone con­nec­tiv­ity, just ba­sic Blue­tooth and an an­te­dilu­vian sin­gle DIN au­dio head unit. Air, cruise, an alarm, two airbags, rear park­ing sen­sors and leather up­hol­stery round off a skinny stan­dard equip­ment list.

That’s just fine be­cause the 4C’s driv­ing essen­tials are, mostly, sorted.

A throw­back to the era when tur­bocharg­ing was all about horse­power rather than fuel ef­fi­ciency, the 1.75-litre sin­gle-scroll force-fed four is flac­cid and laggy across the bot­tom end. Full boost and 350Nm of torque smack you back into the seat at about 3000rpm, from where the 4C ac­cel­er­ates hard, with­out let-up but with no ex­tra top-end kick ei­ther, to about 6000rpm. It hits 100km/h in a claimed 4.5 sec­onds, com­pa­ra­ble with a Porsche 911 Car­rera.

The lus­cious, rasp­ing en­gine note is com­ple­mented by a force-10 roar of air be­ing rammed through in­ter­cooler vents on ei­ther side of the car. Roof­less, you can’t even hear your­self scream. My Du­cati 750 Su­pers­port is qui­eter.

Fer­rari-style trans­mis­sion op­er­a­tion — push but­ton first gear (and re­verse), then fast, crisp shift­ing by pad­dles — is com­ple­mented by four shift maps (all-weather, nat­u­ral, dy­namic and race, which also switches off the trac­tion con­trol), a slow, clunky au­to­matic mode and an elec­tronic rear dif­fer­en­tial.

You have to work hard in the 4C be­cause like most track an­i­mals it’s only happy and co-op­er­a­tive when prod­ded by a smooth, rel­a­tively ag­gres­sive driv­ing style. It would be a sulky, can­tan­ker­ous thing to drive around town. Race-level g-force of 1.1g is gen­er­ated through fast cor­ners and up to 1.25g of de­cel­er­a­tion when you climb on the brakes.

Unas­sisted steer­ing feels as though the front wheels are em­bed­ded in half-set con­crete at low speed. At pace, while still heavy, it de­liv­ers bite, pre­ci­sion and feed­back no power-as­sisted sys­tem can match. Some un­der­steer is ap­par­ent on exit as the rear end squats un­der power and the nose lifts.

This trait, and the Alfa’s sub­stan­tial body roll — a con­ces­sion to ride com­fort, which in this car is prob­a­bly a lost cause any­way — can be di­alled out with the op­tional $10,000 rac­ing pack, which in­cludes 18inch front/19-inch rear wheels, track tyres, stiffer sus­pen­sion and a per­for­mance pipe.

More prob­lem­atic is the un­com­fort­able, in­ad­e­quately bol­stered driver’s seat, com­pletely lack­ing in up­per body sup­port to the ex­tent that when chang­ing di­rec­tion quickly your con­trol of the car is com­pro­mised by the need to hang on and brace your­self against be­ing flung around the cabin.

Alfa’s 4C Spi­der is a fab­u­lous, fun­da­men­tally use­less, toy un­less you use it as a track-day spe­cial in which case it’s a bar­gain that will re­ward you with huge fun and plea­sure.

Its place in the great Alfa Romeo re­vival re­mains to be de­ter­mined. It’s the be­gin­ning of some­thing glo­ri­ous, or a beau­ti­ful, syl­phic vi­sion of what could have been that ul­ti­mately sig­ni­fied noth­ing.

We must wait.

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