Alfa Romeo 4C: The Dual Exhaust Review

by Roger Garbow and Charles Moseley

Welcome to Dual Exhaust, where Roger Garbow and Charles Moseley critique the same car. And sometimes each other. Roger and Charles are from opposite sides of the political (and nutrition) spectrum, but they share a common bond and affection for cars. Especially ones that are fun to drive and have three pedals. The boys might be approaching their “sell by” dates, but they still act like juveniles. Feel free to add your own thoughts in the comments section. Enjoy.

Roger’s take: An Italian cure for stupidity

People do all kinds of stupid shit behind the wheel—most of which does not involve navigating an automobile. And automakers have willingly offered up features to enable this laissez faire approach to driving, further exacerbating the problem. But, some cars buck the trend of protecting you from yourself. Take the Alfa 4C. Except for the digital dash, the interior is devoid of the technology rampant in even the cheapest econobox.

The 4C doesn’t just forgo safety technology, it basically tosses out anything the Italian engineers thought superfluous in their pursuit of weight savings. Navigation? Nope. Touch-screen interface? Fuggedaboutit. Even the Alpine radio is ridiculously minimalistic, looking like it was a plugged-in afterthought from the local Modena electronics store.

The thinly padded seats look awesome and offer great support, but are manually operated, lacking even sbasic height adjustment. The shallow cupholders are nearly inaccessible, located over your shoulder, at the rear of the center console. Except for those two out-of-the-way beverage holes, there is no convenient place, or flat surface, to stash your phone. So, with no phone, fancy sound system, or triple caramel macchiato to distract, the pilot is forced to drive.

Approaching the 4C from the front, or back, the car looks like a proper Italian sportscar. It’s low and wide, similar in both dimensions to its mid-engine Italian cousin, the Ferrari 488. But walk around to the side and the similarity ends. The 4c is nearly two feet shorter than the 488, looking as if a Ferrari was caught in the middle of a multi-car crash. It may sound awkward, but somehow the proportions work, resulting in an exterior design that is quite sexy, especially with the optional unpainted carbon fiber roof of our tester.

Open the lightweight door, climb over the wide carbon sill, and take a seat. Like most low two-seaters, especially those with a composite chassis, there is no elegant way to get into the car, so do what works. Once ensconced in the snug bucket, the flat-bottom, thick-rimmed steering wheel adjusts, so it’s possible to get a decent seating position in spite of the fixed seat height. I’m vertically challenged and found I was looking out just above the wheel. If I bought one, I would need to find a solution for better forward visibility.

Turn the proper key—no silly start button on this baby—and you are treated to the delicious sounds of the turbocharged 1.7-liter 4-cylinder. The engine may be small, but it puts out a healthy 237 hp and 258 lb-ft of torque. The power is routed to the rear wheels through a 6-speed dual clutch manumatic transmission, actuated by steering wheel-mounted paddles.

Don’t look for a gear selector because there isn’t one. Forward or rearward motion is chosen through four push buttons on the console labeled 1 (first gear), N (neutral), R (reverse) and A/M (auto or manual). Behind those buttons is the for-aft “D-N-A” switch enabling the four unique drive modes: All-weather, Natural, Dynamic, and Race. The system adjusts throttle response, shift points and stability control. Driving on public roads, I spent most of the time in Dynamic mode, which allows some slip, but kept the safety net nearby in case I seriously screwed up.

Our test car included the optional “Track Package 1” which adds a “Race-Tuned” aka stiffer suspension. With this set-up, the 4C is twitchy as hell. Not in a bad way, but it requires constant focus. The track-ready suspension is influenced by the smallest imperfections in the road surface, but the unassisted steering is lightning quick, and the car is so light, the attentive driver is rewarded. With only about 2,400 lbs to motivate, acceleration is immediate with forward thrust available in every gear and 60 mph arriving in just over 4 seconds.

The 4C wants to be driven, and driven hard. Your right foot unleashes a very Italian bark from the exhaust. It might be too noisy for some, but to me it seems in perfect harmony with the car’s exotic looks. It’s hard to blend in with this car. It looks wild and it sounds aggressive. So you might as well go with it and drive the car as it was intended. On the tight and twisty two-lane roads hugging a local reservoir, the 4C was in its element, leaping from corner to corner, and clipping each apex with utmost precision.

Almost every other modern sports car, even those with serious performance potential, are neutered to the point where practically anyone can drive them fast. Even while fiddling with the radio or slurping down a Slurpee. You can be an idiot and probably not kill yourself in most of them. The 4C however is like a straight razor compared to a multi-blade, vibrating shaver. Both will give you a great shave, but if you lose focus, only one will slice your jugular.

Ultimately I love the 4C. I love the way it looks. I love the way it sounds. And I love way it drives. It is fast, precise, and totally rewarding. I could even live with all the ergonomic failures as a trade-off for the visceral rush it delivers when pushed hard. The 4C is certainly not a daily driver. Or even a second car. It’s more like a third or fourth car. But when you drive it, you’ll leave your phone, your drinks, and all of life’s other distractions at home…which will make you a better driver.

Charles responds: Having now read Roger’s somewhat in-depth review of the 4C, I find myself agreeing with much of what he has to say. BUT (and as Sir Mix-A-Lot says, this is a BIG but) I also find that he is too kind, and I will briefly explain why. This is a fun, somewhat silly, car. And what does one want with a fun and silly car? Participation! Roger is close to correct when he says the 4C will make you a better driver, but it misses one essential element in that regard – a MANUAL TRANSMISSION. Look, if you are looking for a ‘driver’s car’ – a car you can enjoy at the track and one twisty back roads, you want a manual transmission – especially in a car as fun as this. As Alfa only sells a few hundred of these things a year (about 400 per year) there is no excuse for choosing an automatic over a manual as the only transmission available. Alfa would likely have gained more enthusiasts with a manual than they would lose from not offering an automatic. And yes, my bitterness regarding this particular aspect of the car may have slanted my view. A bit.

Charles’ take: No no no YES no no no.

The Alfa Romeo 4C is a perfect example of why most normal people don’t like ‘car people’ – and I say that as a car person myself.  Car people can be pedantic, number-obsessed bores with an abnormal predilection for masochism in the name of anachronistic purity of function. In a nut-shell, the Alfa 4C is, for most of humanity, a terrible car. It is not comfortable, convenient, unobtrusive or useful. It is, however, extremely pretty and a tremendous hoot to drive.

The list of things that are wrong is long. Let’s start with simply getting in and out – if you are a lady in a skirt be prepared to entertain the general public in a way you may not wish to do habitually. If you are a man of normal height, be prepared to practice your contortionist skills. Once inside, you will find absolutely NO storage. No glove box, no place to place your loose change or cell phone, no flat surfaces at all. There are two cupholders placed behind you right elbow, making them useless. The two minuscule slivers of plastic above the windshield seem to be sun visors, but it is difficult to seriously consider them as such. Would you like to adjust your seat? What are you, a comedian? You are allowed a few inches fore and aft, but nothing vertical if you please. Gauges? Well, Alfa has apparently pilfered a TFT display from an inexpensive motorcycle manufacturer, so you will have to make do with that. You won’t be able to see it anyway as the steering wheel will inevitably block your line of sight, so perhaps it simply doesn’t matter. They also seem to have a friend at Best Buy who was able to get them aftermarket stereos at a deep discount.

Mid-engined cars such as this (Porsche Cayman comes immediately to mind) make up for the lack of interior space with creative approaches to trunk storage – usually there are two, a small but useful rear trunk behind the engine and a ‘frunk’ (front trunk) for smaller overnight bags. Not the Alfa. There is only a rear trunk. The mysteries of what lies beneath the front expanse of the car are forever sealed (literally) from your curiosity. Theoretically the size of the rear trunk, which, in a pinch could handle a small suitcase or two bags of groceries, obviates the need for a ‘frunk’, which would be true, except….. you are not allowed to access it in any sort of expected way. There is no button on the fob to open it, no keyhole to unlock it. The only way to access it is to open the driver’s side door and pull a hidden latch. Not too difficult, BUT THE FUN DOESN’T STOP THERE. The trunk is not spring-loaded, and in fact needs to propped up with a metal rod. And the latch is notorious for not always fully unlocking, so once you pull the lever you have to make your way to the back of the car and hope you can now raise the trunk – if not you must repeat the operation until it works. Try doing this with your arms full of groceries. In the rain.

Having completed all the steps required to pack the car and fold yourself back into the driver’s seat, you may now start the process of actually driving, and there are problems here too. Firstly, I would not recommend starting the car if one has neighbors. Nor would I recommend driving the car past the neighbor’s houses at any time they might be home. The 4C is a LOUD car, with no option to mute the cacophony. Not only is it loud, but it burps and farts at every downshift or lifting off of the gas. There are those (again, car-people) who love this. If you live in a community filled with these folks there is nothing to worry about, otherwise…. You will also find that the unassisted steering makes turning the steering wheel at anything under 10 MPH will take care of your cardio exercise for the day. Once underway you may find the transmission to be particularly unforgiving, the brakes touchy and the throttle initially numb then becoming hyper-sensitive. You will also find that you vision is limited to a 180 degree arc directly in front of you – you will see nothing behind you except through your exterior mirrors. Positioning these mirrors properly will become a necessary obsession. So as you set off you will be in a terrible mood, cursing anyone connected with producing or selling this car in dark, muttered oaths.

BUT. But once you get moving, once you find an open road – highway or twisty-two lane – all will be forgiven. The car drives beautifully. it DRIVES. You don’t need the stereo. You don’t need accessible drinks. You don’t need your cell-phone (you couldn’t possibly use it anyway). You don’t care about loose change, or getting groceries, what is behind you. Upset the neighbors? Screw them! They are undoubtedly dullard puritans with no soul or love of life. You, on the other hand, are vibrant. Connected. exhilarated.

Once the drive is over, and the Alfa gives you one last ‘blat!’ to let you know the engine is ready to rest, you sit in the seat and marvel at the beast. What a machine. And as you twist and contort to exit the car, the exposed bolts on the seat runners tear your pant leg and painfully scratch your ankle.

Roger responds: It’s a good thing the 4C is loud, so it can drown out the whining coming from Charles. “ooooh, the steering is too heavy. I have no place to put my change. The sun hurts my eyes. It’s too noisy. I got a booboo on my leggy. Waaaaa waaaaa.” Charles, buck up man! Old age has made you soft. You are missing the point of this car. While even the most potent supercar is easily drivable by incompetent nincompoops, the 4C makes you earn its rewards. You need to be worthy of this car. The 4C is not great in spite of the warts. It’s great because of them. Think of it as a vintage sportscar, with a new car warranty. Only true, diehard, enthusiasts will put up with the 4C’s quirks. And they will enjoy every minute. Ripped pants and all.


1 Comment

  • Sean Smith| July 7, 2017 at 7:02 pm

    Charles, Your feet are where the frunk would be.

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