2016 Alfa Romeo 4C Spider Review: Curbed with Craig Cole

Is an Open-Air Alfa Just as Enjoyable?

The Alfa Romeo 4C Spider does things no other vehicle can, for better or worse.

Really, there’s no other car on the market in North America today that looks this hot, drives this well and costs so little. The base price for one of these open-air sports machines is less than $68,000 ($78,495 in Canada), which gets you hyperdrive-like acceleration, more grip than an octopus tentacle, and a largely carbon fiber structure. What rival offers all that along with luminous Italian pedigree? None that I can think of.

Its closest rival is probably the Porsche Boxster, but even then, Zuffenhausen’s offering isn’t made of so many exotic materials. A closer competitor would be something from Lotus, but you can’t really buy those here these days.

A Pint-Sized Performer

One glance at the spec sheet exposes this Italian beauty’s true nature. She can rip from zero to 60 mph in as little as 4.1 seconds and pull 1.1 G’s on the skidpad. Trouncing that impressive performance, her brakes can decelerate you at 1.25 times the force of gravity. There’s no need to visit a chiropractor; just perform some panic stops to take the kinks out of your spine.

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Enabling these giant-slaying figures, the 4C is built around a handmade carbon fiber and aluminum monocoque architecture that provides biblical levels of rigidity along with incredible lightness. Dressed for action, this car weighs just 2,487 pounds (1,128 kg), a mere 22 lbs (10 kg) more than its coupe counterpart, which is a remarkable engineering achievement.

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That feather-like construction allows the 4C’s mid-mounted 1.75-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine to accelerate it like a jet hooked to an aircraft carrier’s catapult. It is seriously fast, though not a viscerally quick as, say, a Camaro SS, which is similarly speedy. The Chevy punches down low with tons of torque, while the Alfa needs a moment or three before its turbo reaches operating velocity; the party doesn’t really start until the tachometer registers 4,000 rpm.

Matching its rapid straight-line speed is an appropriate amount of internal combustion music, or if you prefer lower octaves, racket. When equipped with the optional $500 racing exhaust, this car is loud. And let me be clear, it’s basically just noisy. There’s no mistaking it for anything other than a droning four-cylinder, which is unfortunate. Luckily, there’s also some background notes to keep things interesting. Abruptly getting off the accelerator produces a warbling sound from the blow-off valve, and the turbo hisses like startled cat. If nothing else, all of this makes for an interesting automotive symphony.

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Aside from the racing setup and the stock exhaust arrangement, you can also get an Akrapovič (that’s pronounced Ah-krah’p-oh-vich) two-mode titanium setup from Slovenia. You know, that country at the northern end of the Balkans that everyone forgets about.

On paper, the 4C is endowed with a rather skimpy 237 horsepower and 258 pound-feet of torque, but thanks to an advantageous power-to-weight ratio, it moves with absolute authority. A quick six-speed double-clutch transmission is the only gearbox available. For the most part, it’s fast and smooth, though the inherent compromises of this transmission design are still present, namely odd slipping sensations at low speeds and occasionally harsh shifts.

Automatic Transmission, Manual Steering

The 4C Spider’s gearbox may be of the automatic variety, but, curiously, its steering is not. Since this car is so light, the tiller is completely manual – yep, there’s no form of boost here, be it electric, hydraulic or otherwise. All you’ve got to change direction are your own burly biceps.

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This purity can make parking a bit challenging, as the wheel fights you unless the car is rolling, but the tradeoff is brilliant communication. The 4C feels like a laser-guided missile. Think about where you want it to go and it’s there, every single time. The steering is almost perfect, except for one thing.

If there is one downside to all of this, it’s that this car tends to read the road. Ruts in the pavement cause it to wander annoyingly so two hands on the tiller are mandatory, which is fine since there’s nothing else to do with them. The car has no armrests and aside from looking like it was designed in 1998, the “new” Alpine sound system’s head unit is nearly as incompressible as the Parrot unit it replaced, so good luck listening to your favorite music … or hearing it over the engine and road noise.

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The 4C also lacks a glovebox, there’s practically no trunk space, and even emaciated teenage gymnasts will have a hard time fitting inside, as its sills are wider than the Great Plains. Further compromising things, the seats are tiny and barely adjustable. In fact, I couldn’t even see the top of the tachometer in my normal driving position.

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As for the ride, it’s firm but not as harsh as you might think given this car’s unabashedly sporty ethos. However, thanks to its starchy suspension and stiff structure, the 4C seems to skitter over larger bumps, hopping from one imperfection to another in certain conditions.

Raggedy Top

Another manual aspect of the 4C is its fabric roof. Unlike other convertibles, the lid on this car has to be taken off and reinstalled by hand.

The Alfa’s roof is comprised of a strip of fancy cloth with log-like girders on each end. They contain the latching mechanisms. To remove the top, just unhook everything and carefully maneuver the roof away from the body, making sure to avoid scratching anything. With practice, it’s a fairly simple process, but on reassembly, you’ve got to make sure the leading-edge of the fabric is tucked into its groove properly to keep wind noise at bay, a mistake I made.

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The good news is this roof will fit in the 4C’s trunk; the bad news is that it takes up all the space.

Prodigious Pricing

While far cheaper than anything else made of carbon fiber and imported from Italy, the 4C Spider is still far from a value play. The example we evaluated cost $73,395 (US) out the door, including $1,595 in destination charges. Obviously, there are plenty of stellar cars you can get for that much cash, models like a BMW M4, Shelby GT350 R or Cadillac ATS-V to name a few. No, they’re not as pure as the 4C and they don’t offer an open-air driving experience, but they’re nearly as fun and a hell of a lot easier to live with every day.

The Verdict: 2016 Alfa Romeo 4C Spider Review

Ditto for the Porsche Boxster, arguably this Alfa Romeo’s primary rival. Despite not being quite as driver-focused, it’s probably the better overall car, even if it’s not half as sexy.

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If you live at the top of a twisting mountain road or go racing every weekend, you should take a serious look at the 4C Spider. It drives beautifully, looks even better and is likely to become a coveted classic in the coming years. But if you need even a modicum of practicality, you’d best look elsewhere, since this is really more of a street-legal go-kart than a car.

Discuss this story on our Alfa Romeo Forum

  • Eric Cameron

    And those 4 cons would be the perfect reason why I would not buy this lol.

  • Mark S

    Much as I like the history and heritage of Alfa (would like to visit the museum one day), just think that the Cayman or Boxster is the better all round competitor despite the higher price (after adding options) yes even now with the 4 cylinder turbos.