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Alfa Romeo 4C – what IS that?

When you think high-end sports cars, don’t forget about the Alfa Romeo 4C

“What IS that?”

That’s one of the phrases you’re most likely to hear when you’re driving around in an Alfa Romeo 4C.

“Beautiful car!’ is another one – on one memorable occasion, called out by a passing pedestrian as we cruised through the quaint township of Kangaroo Valley on a long weekend away.

And a laughing “woohoo!’ is what you’re likely to hear from your passenger in the front seat, when you take them for a long-awaited spin.

When we think high end sports cars, and convertibles at that, a few familiar names tend to pop up time and again. Ferrari and Lamborghini, of course, but coming down a little in price from there – think Porsche, Audi, BMW’s M Series, Lotus, and so on. The Alfa Romeo 4C might not generally be top of mind. Heck, I write about cars fairly regularly, and I wasn’t that familiar with them. Shame on me.

Arguably however, the team at Alfa Romeo might say they wouldn’t have it any other way. For a couple of reasons.

First of all, Alfa Romeos have always been cars for enthusiasts. Ask around, and you’ll find they have a niche – but very loyal – following. They’re affectionately known for being a little bit quirky, even a little bit odd sometimes.

The passion some have for them is clear though. Lovers of the iconic Italian brand tend to talk about their first Alfa with the same kind of misty-eyed romanticism that you’ll also see in many Aussie car tragics talking about the Datsuns and Geminis of their youth.

Second, and more broadly, if you’re going to shell out over $100k for a car, you probably don’t want a car that everyone else in the same price bracket has. You probably want something unusual and a little unique. You might even want a vehicle that says you actually love cars and maybe even know something about them – not just that that have you money to burn. 

If that’s what you’re after, the Alfa Romeo 4C certainly fits the bill. Where the 4C clearly nails it, is in appearance and performance. Put simply, it looks as sexy as it sounds (in other words, it is Italian to its core …). It’s one of a select few mid-engine cars on the market – that is to say, the engine is effectively located in the boot, behind the passenger cabin. Others in this class include the Porsche Boxster or Cayman, all three Lotus models, and the Alpine A110.

What that mid-engine means, is that the heaviest part of the car – and therefore, the centre of gravity – is right in the middle. The result is generally more even weight distribution, and therefore, better handling and better braking.

It also means a very satisfying rumble behind your head when you’re cruising along those country roads. It’s noticeably very low and very wide, with a sleek design that – to the untrained eye, at least – reminiscent of its distant Italian famiglia sporting the prancing horse brand. The nose and grill mark it as distinctly and unmistakably Alfa Romeo though.
Once you’ve fallen (almost literally) into the driver seat, you’ll notice that – even on conservative city streets – the primal roar of the engine is enough to attract attention. And probably annoy your boring neighbours over time. Passengers gasp on acceleration, and even more so when they realise, we’ve only just reached 60kmph – albeit, reached it rather quickly.

But having touched upon a few things the Alfa Romeo 4C is, it must be said, there are also some things that it is not.

It’s not particularly practical. A true two-seat roadster, the boot space is almost comically tiny, and there’s a leather sleeve where you’d expect a glove box to be. That low-slung body that holds so tight to the road also requires careful manoeuvring around even the mildest-looking speed bumps, kerbs and driveways.

If you’re used to a large, well-insulated car where you’re contentedly cushioned from the outside world, it’s not going to strike you as being particularly comfortable either. For example, for a week after I (… reluctantly … ) handed back the keys, I was looking wistfully at newly-discovered bruises on my legs, no doubt gained from misfires when slipping in and out between the bright red leather seats and sports steering wheel.

It’s also not subtle. This is not a car in which to sneak down to the shops, when you haven’t had time to take a shower and do your hair. Whether the top is on or off, it’s undoubtedly a car that turns heads, starts conversations, and brings out the automotive commentator and photographer in many passers-by.

Finally, there’s one very important thing the 4C is not. It is definitely not boring. My colleague Robert Pepper describes it perfectly as, “the sort of car you lock, walk away from, and just can’t help looking back at after a few steps. The sort of car you’d put in your living room as art, or for the less well off, as your Facebook profile photo.”

My overwhelming impression is that this is absolutely a car with pure character. It’s not the sort of car you can jump into each day, and switch off into auto-pilot.

It’s the kind of car that marks you as a person who knew exactly what they were doing when they bought it.

When you’re driving it, you KNOW you’re driving.

It’s a raw and physical experience, especially out on the open road, and even in town, thanks to that low driving position and the absence of power steering.

You can hear it and feel it through almost every part of your body (not least of all in your bumped legs and biceps working on that steering).
But it is oh. So. Worth it. It was just so much fun to drive. Maybe a bit like taking a roller coaster to work each day.

Look, to be blunt, it’s not going to be the car for everyone. If you’re looking for a premium version of your average solid-as-a-rock family car, the 4C might be more of an experience than you’re prepared to handle.
But if you’re prepared to compromise a little bit on comfort and practicality for the sake of style and performance – and let’s face it, this is not an unfamiliar trade for anyone who loves cars – then it’s worth looking past the more familiar brands and taking a closer look at the 4C.

Good on Alfa Romeo for bring back Italian motoring as it should be – exciting, charismatic, divisive, sometimes temperamental and always jaw-droppingly stylish. Non ci piove!

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