You’d argue that Alfa Romeo is justified in labelling its 4C a ‘junior supercar’. The core ingredients are right for a start, thanks to a mid-engined, rear-drive layout, two seats in a minimalist cabin, a fast-acting dual-clutch transmission with paddle shift and, the pièce de la résistance, a carbon fibre tub. Alfa Romeo made a big noise about that when the 4C was first launched way back in 2013, pointing out that you’d need to spend twice as much as the price of the 4C to find any other car with such exotic construction. While it was right on that point (and initial impressions of the 4C suggested it could make an alluring alternative to the likes of the Lotus Elise), as we all became more familiar with the car, and drove it on our own test roads away from the glamour of an international launch event, it became clear that it wasn’t quite the superstar we first thought it was. Can the 4C Spider, launched a year later with further revisions, revitalise its fortunes? To put it to the test, we took the Alfa 4C Spider to Wales in the UK, without a chaperone or workshop team to oversee everything. The sun was shining and we had nowhere to be for at least eight hours — fántasitico.
It’s impossible not to be excited about this car. It may be over five years since the 4C shape was previewed at the Geneva motor show, but it has lost none of its drama, none of its sexy Italian allure, especially when finished in the new bright yellow hue. Arguably it’s better looking than before when viewed from the front, as the unusual LED headlights that were standard on the 4C coupé have been replaced in the Spider by a set of faired-in Xenon items. While these are heavier, they’re far prettier in a conventional way and they suit the 4C. The engine cover behind the rear window is new too, as is the roof, obviously. To our eyes, the coupé is prettier, but the roof is at least neatly integrated, visually.
Look closer and it’s not quite so impressive. It’s a fiddly thing to erect in particular, though most will get the hang of taking it out relatively quickly. You first of all twist the two cool-looking, Alfa Romeo engraved, clips in the middle of the windscreen header rail anti-clockwise, then unlock the solid strengthening bars above the side windows (best to drop the windows a fraction first) in turn before folding it all up and taking it down into the car. The folded canvas and its structure then can be stored in the relatively small boot behind the engine compartment, or, if you’re feeling lazy and you haven’t got a passenger on board, in their footwell.
While you can probably just about remove the roof from the driver’s seat, putting it back in place is a job for standing up and seeing what you’re doing. Remember to drop the windows, then balance the whole roof in place as best you can before slotting the leading edge under a rim at the top of the windscreen. That’s crucial to prevent the whole thing leaking, apparently. Then gently roll each of the side bars into their slots, rotating them into place while holding the locking levers out of the way. It’s quite obvious if you’ve got it right and no doubt it would get easier with practice, but the whole process could well put off a prospective buyer if they’re being shown how to do it in a showroom ahead of a test drive.
It’s best, then, that the salesman focuses on what’s new inside the Spider, such as the leather-trimmed dashboard and sports seats with evocative Alfa Romeo badge embossing and contrast stitching all over the place. Even so, it’s a small cabin by any measure and the design is minimalist in a way that will be familiar to drivers of any Lotus Elise, though here there’s lacquered carbon fibre on show in the chassis, not aluminium.
There isn’t much in the way of storage, however. You might fit a smartphone under the handbrake and there’s a cute leather ‘pouch’ between the seats that will hold your driving gloves, but at least there are two cupholders. The lack of storage is probably for the best, as, roof down, it’s a rather blustery cabin, and anything light not held in place is likely to escape.
The carbon sills are quite wide so those with mobility issues won’t find it easy to get into the 4C, but Alfa Romeo does try to help things by fitting a flat-bottomed steering wheel as standard. It’s a bit ugly, if we’re honest, but thankfully it feels good to hold. Behind it is a compact TFT screen that acts as the instrumentation pack. It’s small, but sharply rendered and its layout and colour scheme varies depending on which of the driving modes are selected (choose from All-Weather, Natural, Dynamic or Race). The view out is quite special, too. Look in the rear-view mirror and you see the new engine cover with the heat extraction vents and the new side buttresses; glance in the door mirror and you’re looking deep into the side air intakes; and out the side window you can see the bodywork rising to form the distinctive front wings ahead, visible through the windscreen. At this stage, it’s easy to imagine someone excitedly reaching for their chequebook before they’ve even gone for a drive. We’d urge them to hang fire...
Turn the ignition key and the engine churns into life, and settles into a purposeful buzzing idle. It’s the same turbocharged ‘1750’ four-cylinder engine (technically 1,742cc) as in the coupé, putting out a useful 240bhp and 350Nm of torque. Allied to a quoted 999kg weight (only 14kg heavier than the coupé despite some extra strengthening components), that’s good for a 4.5-second 0-100kph time. For some perspective, that’s about on a par with the manual version of the new 350bhp Porsche 718 Boxster S. Sadly for some, the 4C can’t be had with a manual gearbox. Instead, it uses a six-speed dual-clutch transmission with manual and automatic modes, and neat little gear-change paddles behind the steering wheel. It reacts smartly to input and its character changes depending on driving mode, from smooth around-town to snappy full-throttle upshifts, but it feels quite aloof.
It doesn’t help that the engine’s delivery is quite strange. With so little weight to push around, it effortlessly gains speed, regardless of revs, but there’s a distinct off-boost delay before you’re given the full performance when you ask for it. This sensation is accentuated by the fact that you can clearly hear the turbocharger spooling up and down behind you, especially if you’re just ambling about the countryside in higher gears. And the engine never sounds exotic enough for our liking from inside the car. Loud, yes, especially when fitted with the optional sports exhaust system, but melodic? No, not ever. That improves somewhat when you’ve got a piece of well-sighted road on which you can use all the performance for a sustained period, and in those conditions the 4C Spider flies along, sounding for all the world like a Group B rally refugee.
Tyre and brake technology has moved on apace since those heady days, and the 4C stops time after time no matter how hard you push it, with a firm (if not very feelsome) brake pedal. Oddly, as you begin to thread sequences of mountain road together, it becomes clear that there’s not much communication through the steering system either. Refreshingly, it’s an unassisted rack, and wonderfully direct, yet your hands don’t seem to have as much of a connection with the tarmac underneath as they should do. It means you have to second guess the grip levels at times (in fairness, this car’s low weight and centre of gravity mean there’s always plenty), especially on the exit of a fast corner when you’re trying your best to ease the power back in. Thankfully, the mid-engined layout endows the 4C with exceptional traction from the driven wheels, though in the wet it’s not difficult to induce it to slide about. Not that buyers of the Spider version will want to think about such inconveniences as rain.
In essence, at 10/10ths, the Lotus Elise has the 4C Spider licked in dynamic terms. But how many people drive like that very often? Not many, regardless of what you’ve seen on the Jebel Hafeet Mountain Road. Is it any good at say 6/10ths? That really does depend on the road, as the front wheels are strangely sensitive to the undulations of the surface. It isn’t really a problem on a twisty piece of road, where you’re psyched up and relishing a little steering wheel twirling, but we found it distinctly wayward on some sections of motorway, needing constant correction to keep the car in lane and going in the intended direction. This might not be enough to dissuade buyers from shelling out on a new 4C Spider and let’s face it: who can argue with them? Flawed it might be, but the motoring world is still a better place for the existence of this car.