Alfa going back to the future

By Matt Greenop

Italian maker's look to the past creates a winner

The 4C Coupe can be a bit of a handful sometimes, but it is a welcome return to Alfa Romeo's glory days.
The 4C Coupe can be a bit of a handful sometimes, but it is a welcome return to Alfa Romeo's glory days.

To say Alfa Romeo has pedigree is like saying beer is a drink, that rugby is a game they play in New Zealand, or that Sebastien Loeb goes for drives in the bush.

Sure, these may all be facts, but they're understated. Alfa Romeo has a pedigree that ties racetrack and road, has motorsport titles and a garage that includes some of history's tastiest cars.

But there have been dark days at the Italian manufacturer - it happens, just as the All Blacks can lose at the World Cup.

The Alfa Romeo motorsport trophy cabinet is impressive - including five F1 world championships, 11 Mille Miglia, 10 Targa Florio, and the Le Mans 24 Hour four times.

And the roll call of road cars includes such stunning machines as the 33 Coupe Stradale, GT Junior, the 8C 2300 in the early 1930s and its stunning 8C Competizione reprise a few years ago, the GTs, Spiders and Giulia Sprint Speciale ...

the list goes on.

Of course there have been some horrors too, but I've learned not to call attention to Italian failures - they're quite passionate about cars and if you label one, say, ugly, you'll spend the next hour listening to a list of Italian cars that are beautiful.

But the odd lapse in taste and other backroom dramas are to be expected when you consider Alfa Romeo celebrated its century in 2010. It's been around long enough to see a few ups and downs - but now under the huge Fiat Chrysler umbrella, there is a fresh sense of optimism.

The little Mito and the svelte Giulietta do reasonably well around the world, but these two current range staples aren't the reason Alfaphiles are smiling. It's the 4C Coupe featured here - and after it was unveiled at last week's Geneva motor show, the 4C Spider is on its way.

Conversation with designers and engineers about the first Alfa sportscar in years to really deserve the badge reveals huge amounts of pride and passion for the 4C.

Its core is a very pure driver's car that also happens to look incredibly good.

The company's new-found smile hasn't been lost on Fiat Chrysler boss Sergio Marchionne, who at a Geneva motor show press conference last week said unequivocally that Alfa would never build cars outside Italy and would focus on rear-drive machines.

The full plan for the company would be revealed on May 6, said the charismatic chief executive, noting it would "effectively convince you that we have learned from our past mistakes in terms of Alfa - not just mine but even my predecessors - and that the next phase of Alfa will be right".

Then came what the Alfa tragics thought they'd never hear.

"Fundamentally if you look at what Alfa Romeo was historically - and I think we'll talk more about this in May - but if you look at it, it was known fundamentally for a very limited number of things," said Marchionne.

"It was a rear-wheel drive architecture. It was incredibly light. It was incredibly good looking and it was incredibly powerful, so power-to-weight ratios were unique. The performances of the engines were something exceptional. The cars were truly good looking.

"These are all things that you need to go back to. One of the fundamental issues of Alfa Romeo is that it never ever had, to the best of my knowledge, and this may be famous last words, but it did not have a front-wheel drive architecture, not until Fiat showed up, so somehow we need to go back and rethink all those pieces because they were a necessary ingredient of Alfa."

Finally, Alfa Romeo seems to be back where it's best - and the 4C is a shining example of that.

The interior of the Alfa Romeo 4C.
The interior of the Alfa Romeo 4C.

The 4C isn't about creature comforts - the door handle is a leather strap, there's about enough luggage space for a lunchbox and while the light and functional seating is great from the good seat, the design doesn't exactly embrace passengers.

Even the seat barely tolerates them and gives no quarter - no adjustments and importantly no recline.

I'm about 1.82m, and while about 50km in the passenger seat was okay, double that and it'd start getting a bit tiresome - and some of the lankier motoring journos at the launch last week in Balocco, Italy, said they found it quite hard to get comfortable.

The dash of the Alfa Romeo sports coupe, the 4C.
The dash of the Alfa Romeo sports coupe, the 4C.

From the driver's seat it's a different story, and while the 4C does have a few issues, it's really going to take the fight to the likes of Lotus - which has a few of its own foibles and also stakes its name and reputation on being a maker of proper sportscars.

It'll be a tight scrap. The 4C is built around a spectacular lightweight carbon tub, the Lotus around a lightweight "sandwiched" aluminium tub. The 4C sounds better; the Lotus has a slightly more direct steering feel. You can get out of a 4C without looking like Goofy, but the Lotus range is bigger, at least for the moment.

It's a struggle to pick a winner now, but when the 4C arrives next year we'll try to do a head-to-head comparison, which could easily end in a coin toss.

We rolled into the Fiat Chrysler test facility at Balocco and turned a corner to be faced with a line-up of red, grey and white 4Cs. They looked stunning - which Alfa designer Alessandro Maccolini put down to the abilities of the clay artisans in Turin.

"You couldn't make this car look as good without clay models," he told Driven. "The way the light works with the shape of the car and its curves can only really be seen with clay."

It is inspired by the 1966 Scarabeo prototype and the exquisite 1967 33 Stradale (which was capable of 260km/h), and Maccolini talked about the car with obvious pride before taking a swing at the local opposition.

"Lamborghini doesn't use clay - they're made with computers," he said dismissively.

Every little tweak has been made to the car's aerodynamics, which are vital for cooling the 1750cc four-cylinder engine and controlling the car's feel at speed.

It's got 40 per cent front/60 per cent rear weight distribution before you put the foot down, and when it's got a bit of pace on, those numbers switch and help keep a positive and stable steering feel when you're having some fun.

Although the car weighs only 895kg - so it's probably not the best choice in the tornado season - it felt confident on the road during the 200km/h region on the challenging "Alfa Track" section of the Balocco facility.

It definitely felt light at those sort of speeds, but its roadholding and grip were such that you knew it wasn't going to let go.

Alfa Romeo 4C.
Alfa Romeo 4C.

Two versions of the 4C Coupe will land in New Zealand - a standard and a special launch edition, which has a bit of extra fruit, including larger wheels and a rorty sports exhaust system.

It is quite loud, but if you're in the market for a pukka sportscar, you'll appreciate it. At constant revs it's reminiscent of a superbike readying to do something a little bit naughty.

But when you jump on it, the well-matched turbocharger doesn't display a hint of lag, even puttering along in a high gear. It just goes.

Slapping through the gears in the dual dry clutch TCT transmission shows how well the final pieces of development were executed.

The same transmission and engine tune are to be used in the new Giulietta QV, and where in the current model is okay for most applications but is a bit unwilling when driving at the upper levels, the new TCT calibration gives shift times of only 130ms at 100 per cent throttle.

It also has launch control, which these days seems to be a way for manufacturers to get a nice 0-100km/h time for the brochure - and it is nice, at just 4.5 seconds.

Alfa Romeo 4C.
Alfa Romeo 4C.

The TCT's response at lower revs seems a bit patchy at first, but familiarity soon dispels any issues and means the only time the car should ever be driven in auto mode is on crappy surfaces in traffic.

The tweaks to the 170kW engine include cylinder scavenging, which essentially adjusts valve overlap and angles to keep air flowing from the inlet manifold to the exhaust side, for more torque at lower revs.

Turbo lag is reduced in the same way, and again minimised with the pressure waves exploited by the "pulse converter" exhaust manifold for a precious extra few Newton meters.

Changes in materials mean the mill is 22kg lighter than the same 1750 in the Giulietta QV.

These tricks combine to give an impressive 80 per cent of its maximum 350Nm of torque from only 1800rpm - which is enough to push it past 250km/h singing its unique song loudly, while still meeting the Euro6 emissions targets.

This is a cracking pace for such a small car, but the big and, surprise, lightweight brakes will take the 4C from 100km/h down to zero in only 35m.

Like everything in the Alfa range, the 4C has the company's DNA system, in which Dynamic, Natural and All-Weather modes are selected with a switch on the centre console.

Each alters shift and tune patterns, but unlike the other sprouts this one has an extra trick. Holding the switch at the dynamic position for about five seconds engages race mode, disabling stability systems but keeping ABS.

The boot space of the Alfa Romeo 4C.
The boot space of the Alfa Romeo 4C.

The steering is unusual in that it has no built-in assists - it requires a combination of light grip on the straights and a bit of heft in the corners. The aim of this is to retain a positive and direct steering feel, and that is very much achieved - although a servo assist on the rack for parking would be useful. Adding to the carpark problem is the lack of a reversing camera, as the view through the rear window is not very good, and the wing mirrors are dominated by the big side vents.

A camera will be an option, and I'd consider it a must-have.

The car is just under 4m long and only 1183mm high, but it is quite wide at 1864mm - so vision will help in places where there are carbon-wrecking things like tall curbs, bollards or pedestrians.

Handling is extremely direct and there is a huge amount of mechanical grip, and while the quality of the twisting mountain roads was probably of a higher standard than ours, the cobbled streets of several little villages reminded that not only is the car light and you feel every paver through the hugely strong carbon shell, sports-focussed dampers and composite seats, but that occasionally it is necessary to take the DNA out of dynamic mode.

New Zealand pricing and specification is yet to be confirmed but it's likely to be between $100,000 and $125,000, depending on spec and options.

This certainly isn't the car for everyone - it is beautiful and impressively quick while still being frugal and environmentally responsible, but it's also loud, fairly hard riding and takes a bit of effort to handle.

Some people like that - I did. The kids on bikes, other car drivers and truckies did too - including a member of the carabinieri who didn't speak enough English to even start discussing anything like tickets. I think he just pulled me over to get a closer look. In the land of supercar style, that's a very good sign. Welcome back, Alfa Romeo.

Alfa started life in Italy under the ownership of French brand Darracq and was called SAID (Societa Anonima Italiana Darracq). When it was sold to a group of Italian aristocrats it was renamed Alfa (Anonima Lombarda Fabbrica Automobili) and began to turn away from the French styling to produce cars that Italians would like. The first car rolled out in 1910 and five years later Nicola Romeo took over.

- NZ Herald

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