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