Car Reviews

2019 Alfa Romeo 4C Review

Robert Pepper’s 2019 Alfa Romeo 4C Review With Price, Specs, Performance, Ride And Handling, Interior, Ownership, Verdict And Score.

IN A NUTSHELL: The Alfa Romeo 4C is refreshing, invigorating joy on wheels, a stark contrast in today’s world of beige identikit transportation, but there’s a price to pay both literally and metaphorically.

Alfa Romeo 4C Review

Lots of carmakers have histories as rich as Alfa Romeo, but few can claim such character for their cars. Alfa Romeos have always been a mix of beauty, oddness, performance and charisma, with cars like the Brera, GTV, 75, Alfasud, Spider and 156 cementing the marque’s reputation as one of endearing quirkiness. Yet in recent years Alfa Romeo lost its charm, producing largely forgettable clones. 
 
So that was the climate in 2015 when the 4C was released. Not just a new car, but an attempt by Alfa Romeo to reclaim their heritage and place as one of the world’s most distinctive and loved car companies.
 
 
Our review car is the 2019 4C Spider, which is the open-top version of the vehicle. My colleague Jane Speechley and I collaborated on this test, and we had the car for ten days during which we covered 3000km including a Melbourne-Canberra-Melbourne run, hours of back roads in the ACT, several speedbumps, lots of parking, our Melbourne test circuit, shopping, and a gatecrash of a Lotus owners meet.
 

What does the Alfa Romeo 4C cost and what do you get?

Our vehicle as tested had the following options:
  • Alfa Romeo 4C Spider – $99,000 plus on-road costs
  • Metallic paint – $2000
  • Red brake calipers – $1000
  • Racing Package (suspension, tyres, exhaust, wheels) – $12,000
  • Carbon and Leather Package (carbon mirror cover, bezels, gear buttons, leather surround instrument panel) – $4000

Total price: $118,000 plus on-road costs.

The specification list is sparse for a car that will set you back over $100,000 on the road. Yes, there’s cruise control, Bluetooth and the like…but no active safety, advanced infotainment, driver assists, heated seats, seat height adjustment (electric seats? you jest, surely, what a waste of weight) or anything else you might expect to find on an average 2019-model car, let alone one asking six figures. The interior is, to our eyes, stylish but the quality of components like the heating controls is bit sub-standard, feeling a little cheap and plasticky.
 
 
On the other hand, you do get a super-strong carbon-fibre tub that the chassis is based around and usually found in much more expensive supercars. There’s also a lively mid-mounted engine, an aerodynamically smooth underbody, dual-clutch transmission, and performance engineering, all wrapped inside a body that only Alfa Romeo could produce. So there is quite a lot of car for your money, just not in the feature list you’d use to compare runabout hatches. It’s a legal requirement of any journo who reviews the 4C to say it’s a mini-supercar, so there you go, obligation fulfilled. 
 
Out of that options list you can decide if the red calipers and carbon/leather package are worth it as they’re purely cosmetic. The Racing Package is tempting but although I’ve not driven a 4C without it, my view is that if anything the car as tested has too much grip for spirited road use, and I suspect the exhaust is pretty good without enhancement so maybe take that $12k and spend it on track days instead.
 
Our tester is the topless 4C Spider, but there’s also the fixed-roof Coupe, and there’s the limited-edition 4C Competizione (108 worldwide, 10 for Australia) which seems to just have a few cosmetic flourishes and the Racing Package described above. There’s no specification difference between the Spider and Coupe other than the roof.
 

What’s the practicality like of the Alfa Romeo 4C?

Settle back, and allow me to list all the reasons the 4C is not a practical daily driver. 
 
It’s so low that scraping the front is a worry, even more so than my Toyota 86 which is lowered from the stock height. It only seats two people, who had better be agile as getting in and out of the car is a lower-body calisthenics workout, and steering it at low speed takes care of the upper body. 
 
 
Inside the cabin, you have a drinks holder, an espresso holder, a tiny leather pouch that is a ‘glovebox’, small pouches behind the seats, a small box between the seats, and that’s it. At the single storage area in the back there’s not enough room for even a decent grocery shopping trip, and bags for a weekend away is pushing it, best share clothes. To open the rear storage you need to open the driver’s door, pull a release, and then prop the lid open – no one-hand gas strut operation – and then it’ll only take 15kg with a warning that it’s close to the engine, and maximum temperatures may be up to 65 degrees C.
 
The 4C is noisy, the Bluetooth handsfree works but phonecalls have a lot of background noise so raised voices are best, especially at 110km/h on the Hume. The infotainment unit is, ironically, an Alpine and looks like a JB Hi-Fi budget job you’d bung into a mid-90s car you don’t care much for. It’d be really good if the volume of the sound system changed according to vehicle speed, but it doesn’t. It’s either too loud at idle or too quiet when at speed. The sun visors are pathetically small, there’s no mirror, and no glovebox. And even filling the windscreen washer is a chore that involves undoing bolts. The sunvisors are microscopic and have no mirrors.
 
I’m now trying to think of ways in which the 4C makes your life easy, and the only one that comes to mind is the capless refuelling, just pull the filler open and insert nozzle. I think pretty much everything else in the 4C is more effort than a normal car.
 
But don’t let any of that gloom put you off for a moment.
 
You may well be able to live with the 4C’s undoubted disadvantages relative to, say, a Camry, and what you get in return is speed, exhilaration, an enduring sense of occasion and fun. You’re driving 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.
 
Now the question is – where do you draw the line between practicality and fun? Will the 4C’s undoubted charms wear off over time, leaving you the sour taste of painful inconvenience? Each to their own, but personal experience says humans are very good at adapting so you’d get used to living with the 4C, yet for me and many others, the sense of fun never gets old. 
 
It is also the case that the 4C’s practical limitations exist because of its advantages in other areas. It wouldn’t handle the way it does if it wasn’t small, light and mid-engined. And the competitors such as the Alpine A110, Lotus Elise and Porsche Boxster all suffer similar disadvantages, so if that sort of thing concerns you go look at bigger, less agile and less exciting cars.
 

How does the Alfa Romeo 4C work?

If you’re interested in the technicalities of how the car works read this bit, if not skip ahead to driving impressions. 
 
The 4C’s transmission is a six-speed dual-clutch unit, so it doesn’t have a torque converter like most automatics, but two clutches like manual transmissions – one for even gears and one for odd. Compared to a usual auto ‘box there is a much more direct feel to the driveline, and you notice the clutch engage and disengage in first and reverse, unlike the seamlessly smooth transitions you get with torque convertor gearboxes. The shifts are more instant, and the dual-clutch more efficient on fuel. And as the 4C is mid-engined, it runs a staggered tyre layout for reasons of performance not just looks. The front tyres are 205/40/R18 and the rear 235/35/R19, so the rears are 25mm taller and 30mm wider.
 
 
Like pretty much every modern sportscar, the 4C has a few electronic aids in addition to the standard ones you’d find in a Toyota Camry, such as electronic stability control. The ones of note are:
  • CBC – Corner Brake Control – when the car corners, there’s less weight on the inside wheels and therefore less grip. CBC is a variant of ABS which distributes braking force around the four wheels when cornering so each is braked to its maximum effect, which means more braking force on the outside wheels where the weight is shifted to, and less on the inside. 
  • DTC – Drag Torque Control – when the car is braked, the car may be in too low a gear and lock up the rear wheels due to engine braking. DTC ensures that doesn’t happen by increasing torque to the drive wheels.
  • ABS with EBD – similar to CBC, Electronic Brakeforce Distribution works in a straight line and distributes braking force across all four wheels to best effect. Normal ABS simply stops a wheel locking under brakes and doesn’t try to maximise braking effectiveness per wheel.
  • E-Q2 – no idea what this stands for. Think of it as a kind of electronic limited-slip differential, or brake traction control. When the 4C is cornering and accelerating there is a weight shift from the outside wheel of the car to the inside wheel. This means there’s less grip on the inside wheel which is liable to spin, and therefore there’s less torque going to the outside wheel which has plenty of grip. E-Q2 monitors this and brakes the inner drive wheel which has the effect of sending more torque to the outside wheel. That’s good for traction out of corners, and also if you want to cut the rear end loose for a bit of oversteer action.
  • ASR – Anti Slip Regulation – this is two programmes, better known as Brake Traction Control (BTC) and Engine Traction Control (ETC). The ETC function detects when both drive wheels are spinning and cuts the engine power, and the ETC programme detects when one wheel is spinning and brakes just that wheel, so pretty much the same as E-Q2 but not oriented specifically for acceleration out of corners.
Then there are the different driving modes, the “Alfa DNA.” These are:
  • All-weather– the E-Q2 system is disabled, the ASR intervention threshold (degree of fun before interference) is decreased. Standard throttle map. This mode is for low-grip surfaces.
  • Natural – the E-Q2 system is active, ASR is set normally, and this is your usual daily-drive mode according to Alfa.  
  • Dynamic – ASR intervention is reduced, throttle response sharpened, and gearshifts are earlier to change down and later to change up.
  • Race – manual control of the gearbox only, and you’re on your own as ASR and stability control are off, E-Q2 is highly active so the back end can and will step out under brakes or power, and if you don’t catch it, well, that’s your insurance claim. That said, Alfa say: “when the vehicle is in unstable conditions, the ESC reactivates automatically when the brake pedal is pressed until the ABS intervenes, thus returning the vehicle to stable conditions” which I think is hugely optimistic as if you’ve got it that wrong then you’d best just sit there and hope you hit nothing expensive on your way to the scene of the accident. 
In All-Weather, Natural or Dynamic modes you can select the gearbox to be automatic or manually shift it with the paddles. You can also shift gears manually in automatic mode which disables the auto-shift, and as usual with autos the car returns to automatic shift after a few seconds. That can be handy if you want to short-shift in case you think your neighbours may have heard enough of you coming and going.
 
 
If you liked that section have a read of this piece about why mid-engined cars are great and the marketing myths you’ve been fed.

What’s the Alfa Romeo 4C like to drive?

Around town

The 4C is a mix of fun and frustration around town. The low nose means you’re angling off to avoid scrapes, which is not as easy as it sounds given the width of the car and heavy low-speed steering. A small, low car coloured the same as the bitumen seems to be either overlooked by everyone else so you get cut up, or they stare in awe. Nothing in between.
 
As you’d expect, there’s more than enough zippiness to sprint away from the lights and change direction, front visibility is excellent but you are down low, and to the rear it’s poor but the mirrors are adequate, and amusingly, I can’t see the full extent of the passenger-side wingmirror so shorter drivers would have even less mirror to work with.
 
Parking is a pain as the turning circle is huge for the size of the car, rear visibility is awful, the dual-clutch transmission can be a little rough as it engages and disengages the clutch, there’s no reversing camera, just sensors, and the car is wide (40mm wider than a Camry, 60mm wider than a Boxster) with two long doors you need to open quite a bit to extract yourself. And we’ve talked about storage space already.
 
 
Alfa claim the 4C has hill start assist, but it never seemed to work so I’d just recommend holding the car with your left foot on the brake on hills as being a dual-clutch transmission there’s no creeping forwards at idle when forward gears are selected. The speedo is digital, with big numbers that are easy to read at a glance, and the dash display is a crisp TFT screen, well-designed with everything you need to know clearly displayed. No touchscreens here, and that’s a good thing. There’s not even any steering wheel controls. 
 
But that said..to my mind, all of that can be lived with because the 4C just makes your life more interesting and enjoyable. The engine note, the handling even at low speeds, just the pleasure of being in the cabin…I can’t define exactly why I loved driving the car, but it’s all of that and more. Stylish fun on wheels.
 
A word here on the roof. There are three configurations in practice – roof on, roof off with windows up, roof up with windows down. The roof itself can, with practice, be removed or fitted in about three minutes, easier with two people. It is stored in the boot, which doesn’t leave a lot of room for anything else. With the roof off and windows down you do get a nice open-top experience, to the point where long hair is messed up (well, looked fine to me but who am I to know). Conversation is possible in this mode at 100km/h, but it won’t be whispers. Put the windows up and the cabin can get a touch warmer, and there’s a bit less wind noise and blowing, but still nicely open. And then with the top on you’re fully enclosed so easy conversation – and no wind – but remember the 4C is not a limousine.

Freeway

When we explained to Alfa Romeo we intended to drive from Melbourne to Canberra in it, we got some caveats about how it wasn’t suitable lest we pan the car’s long-drive capability. Well, small, light, open-toppers aren’t usually good for long-distance trips and the 4C is no exception. It’s very noisy, and you can tell exactly which part of the Hume Highway you’re on by the drone of the tyres. Phonecalls at 110km/h with Bluetooth are a huge effort, so I resorted to the headset I brought along as a precaution. For comparison, Jane drove a Qashqai back, and we tested the Bluetooth hands-free on that…just beautiful clarity with absolutely no extraneous noise, as it should be in 2019.
 
A big issue, and one not easily forgiven as a necessary compromise, is that the car is easily distracted from its intended path by imperfections in the road which simply shouldn’t bother it. The 4C has an awful tendency to tramline and follow the contours of the road, worse than any other car I’ve driven. There’s no power steering, but that’s not the problem per se – I’ve driven Lotus Elises without power steering which are comparable, and they didn’t have the 4C problems which I suspect are down to wheel alignment.
 
I’d love to take a look at the stock settings, then sit down with a race alignment shop (not a nationwide chain who just set to factory specs) and figure out how to make the car less darty, and I’d suspect toe-in or maybe less toe-out would be a good place to start, plus maybe camber to fix the overly-heavy effort when parking.  As it is, the steering is direct albeit lacking feel at centre, and the stability issue may well be called part of the character of the car, but this is definitely a problem to fix. It’s not as if a mid-engined, lightweight, short-wheelbase car is lacking for agility so trading a little for stability isn’t a bad idea.
 
Now all that said, there’s cruise control, music to drown out the road noise, and the ride is firm but not uncomfortable, and for my 5ft 11 frame of 80kg the seats are more comfortable than their lack of padding suggests. The 4C would hardly be my first choice to drive interstate (my car trailer was a tempting option), but I would happily do so again…as even in a boringly straight line I was smiling.

The fun stuff!

Okay, so if you’re thinking this car is just a pretty body filled with Alfa quirks, think again. The Alfa Romeo 4C is everything you want from a machine for driving pleasure, and it is the only sportscar I’ve ever driven that has made me rethink my devotion to manual gearboxes. The 4C has the agility of a gymnastically trained cat, stops hard enough to jerk a phone from a teenagers hand, has sufficient power to make passengers nervous, is rear-drive, and delivers all the capability with true-Alfa-esque style and charisma wrapped in a body so beautiful that people even stop Facebooking for a brief moment.
 
 
The dual-clutch transmission is an inspired choice, as it provides more of a sense of direct connection than a conventional torque-convertor automatic. It is instantly responsive to paddle-shift commands, and the car will shift into a higher or lower gear if it possibly can – no over-nannying computers here. The downshifts as you decelerate add to the car’s ever-present sense of theatre, and there is no automatic upshift in manual modes, it’ll just bounce off the rev limiter. The only improvement I’d make is being able to bring the revs above 2000 at rest so you can make a quicker getaway – this is possible in Race Mode with launch control, but you don’t want to be setting that up every time you feel like sprinting away from rest, which in this car is pretty much every time you drive it.
 
The acceleration figure for 0-100km/h is in under 5 seconds, and it seems quicker because you’re so low and the engine is behind your ears, so drama is assured but it feels real, not pretend like so many cars today.
 
The engine tune could be a little better – firstly, the turbo noticeably comes in at around 3000rpm, and there’s a bit of a tail-off towards the top of the rev range. Again, you could argue the turbo is part of the charm, but I think most prefer a progressive push of power till redline. Both are relatively small points though and don’t really detract from what is a nicely powerful vehicle.
 
 
Braking is a 4C strong point. Because it’s a light car at under 1100kg, there’s only 40% of the mass on the front wheels so under hard braking there’s a lot of weight on the rear, so those wheels can help stop too, and the brakes themselves look to be pretty decently heavy-duty units…albeit with silly drilled rotors which are just asking to be cracked. You can left-foot brake the 4C and if there’s a little overlap with throttle the car doesn’t get sulk and cancel throttle inputs.
 
 
It’s at this point I need to mention an annoying shortcoming of the 4C, but one that can hopefully be easily rectified. The seat’s ability to support the driver is insufficient both laterally and longitudinally, needing more bolstering to do the job. Making the problem worse is the odd-shape and location of the footrest which is too close to the driver and too flat to be comfortable. Left-foot braking is easy in the 4C, but the lack of seat support is felt even more acutely. I’m also not a fan of the silly flat-bottomed steering wheel – a trend these days which might confer some sort of advantage but it doesn’t. Any steering wheel which can be turned more than about 100 degrees should be circular, thank you!
 
 
Now we come to the cornering, and that’s a definite 4C strong point. Every aspect of the corner is a delight, and a fast delight – turn in, mid, exit – all fast, fluid and feels right. But, our test was on public roads and such is the grip of the car we were never going to approach traction limits, so I can’t comment on the usual mid-engined features such as the 4C’s ability rotate into corners with lift-off oversteer. But what I did experience left me in no doubt that the 4C is a mighty driving machine and one I’d love to explore on a racetrack. The only cornering concern is again the steering, as on rural roads you may hit the odd bump and that has an unwarranted effect on directional stability. Yet somehow the grip and ride are such that it doesn’t feel as disconcerting as you may imagine. The 4C is not an uncomfortable car on rural roads, although when the short-travel suspension hits the bumpstop you wonder what kerb you’ve hit.
 
 
The 4C is claimed to have launch control, but I’m not so sure. If you want a really fast launch you need to hold the car on the brakes with your left foot and bring the revs up. By default, that’s limited to 2000rpm which isn’t enough for the turbo to wake up and you to have fun. What you can do is to select Race mode, accelerator to max, flick the downshift, and then you get the ability to bring the revs up much higher – with, it should be said, consequent wear on the clutch. According to the manual, the car will then hurtle forwards, changing gear automatically even though it is Race manual-only mode, but it didn’t for me.
 
Anyway, the feature is useful, definitely more fun than a fully automated launch control because then you need to modulate the throttle to avoid wheelspin all the way to whatever speed you feel like attaining.
 

How safe is the Alfa Romeo 4C?

There’s no ANCAP safety rating, and no advanced electronic aids like AEB, but there are several airbags – driver and passenger, side and knee. Also, the car can stop quicker than just about anything else on the market. There is no spare wheel, just a goo kit. There is a tyre pressure monitoring system, and RAB or Ready Brake Alert which detects how quickly your foot releases the accelerator and if it’s looking like you’re in the sort of hurry that indicates impending disaster, prepares the brakes for a hasty stop.
 

What are the competitors of the Alfa Romeo 4C? 

Here’s a handy table of relatively low-cost, rear-drive, mid-engined two-seaters, except for the 86 which is thrown in as a budget wildcard:
 
 
Alfa Romeo 4C Spider
Lotus Elise 220
Alpine A110
Porsche 718 Boxster
Toyota 86
Price (approx driveaway)
110495 (VIC)
103962 (ACT)
97980 (VIC)
 
135396 (man) (VIC)
129964 (man) (ACT)
 
35592 man, GT (VIC)
35438 (ACT)
Engine
1.7L 4-cyl turbo petrol
1.8L 4-cyl supercharged petrol
1.8L 4-cyl turbo petrol
2.0 4-turbo cyl petrol
2.0 4-cyl petrol
Outputs
177kW @ 6000 rpm
350Nm @ 2200-4250rpm
162kW @ 6800 rpm
250Nm @ 4600 rpm
185kW @ 6000 rpm
320Nm @ 2000-5000 rpm
224kW @ 6500 rpm
380Nm @ 2050 – 4500 rpm
152kW @ 5700 rpm (man)
147kW @ 5700 rpm (auto)
205Nm @ 6600 rpm
Tare Weight (kg)
1035
924
1094
1335 (man)
1365 (auto)
1270
Drivetrain
RWD, mid-engined
RWD, mid-engined
RWD, mid-engined
RWD, mid-engined
RWD, front-engined
Design
Spider, coupe
Spider (not named as such)
Coupe
Convertible, coupe as Cayman
Coupe
Transmission
6-speed auto
6-speed manual
7-speed auto
6-speed manual
7-speed auto
6-speed manual
6-speed auto
Length (mm)
3990
3824
4180
4379
4240
Width (mm)
1868
1719
1798
1801
1775
Height (mm)
1189
1117
1248
1281
1285
0-100km/h (sec)
4.5
4.6
4.5
5.1 (man)
4.9 (auto)
7.4 (man)
8.4 (auto)
Top speed (km/h)
258
233
250
275
226 (man)
210 (auto)
Fuel tank (L)
40
40
45
64
50
Combined cycle consumption (L/100km)
6.9
7.7
6.2
7.5 (man)
7.0 (auto)
8.4 (man)
7.1 (auto)
 
The 4C’s closest competitor is the Alpine A110 which is pretty much the same size and concept. The Lotus Elise comes in a variety of forms including the faster Exige versions, but all are manual-only and more spartan, whereas the 4C and A110 are auto-only and at least make some attempt in the direction of modern niceties.
 
I’d argue the Lotus is even more of a pure driving machine than the 4C, and is supported by a huge network of owners, clubs, and modifications, whereas the 4C is rather more niche.
 
Notably, when we gatecrashed a gathering of Lotus machines one owner slipped into the 4C and observed “wow, this is a luxury car” which is something only a Lotus owner could say. The 4C is significantly wider than the Lotus, and we measured the distance between the centres of the seats at 515mm for the Elise and 615mm for the 4C.
 
Then we come to the Boxster, which is larger, heavier and far more refined and practical than the 4C, A110 or Elise. So while lacking the raw edge of say, an Elise, the Porsche would be a much better all-rounder, one you can make phonecalls in, use as a weekend getaway car and then enjoy some mid-engined racetrack thrills when you’re back home. But the relatively common Boxster will never be as rare, cool or edgy as the 4C.
 
I didn’t expect to be thrown out of the car to rescue an errant tortoise, but I guess it’s all part of a road tester’s job!
 

Alfa Romeo 4C pricing and specifications Australia

Price From $99,990 plus ORCs 
Warranty 3 years/ 150,000 km
Engine 1.7L petrol 40cyl turbo
Power 177kW @ 6000rpm
Torque 350Nm @ 2200-4250rpm
Transmission 6-speed dual-clutch auto
Drive rear-engine
Body 3990mm (l); 1868mm (w exc mirrors) 1117mm (h)
Kerb weight 924kg (claimed)
Seats 2
Fuel tank 40 litres
Spare repair kit

Editor's Rating

How do we rate the interior and practicality?
How do we rate the value?
How do we rate the controls and infotainment?
How do we rate the performance?
How do we rate the ride and handling?
How do we rate the safety?
The 4C really is a cut-price supercar and is far more than its pretty looks, delivering all-round driving thrills like only a mid-engined car can, with an ownership experience no hot hatch or sedan could hope to match. But like all supercars, big or small, the 4C is gloriously impractical and for many, too expensive as a play car. But if you can get past those two disadvantages, then anyone who enjoys cars should take a long hard look at what is one of the most interesting vehicles on the market and a true Alfa Romeo.

Robert Pepper

Robert Pepper