In the automotive world there are some brands that conjure up all sorts of images. Ferrari might bring to mind F1 or just flashes of red as one of Maranello’s finest roars past you. Bentley always makes me think of the famous Bentley Boys climbing behind the wheel with their white overalls and goggles before hurling the car around a dusty racetrack. How about a Rolls-Royce with its champagne-filled picnic baskets at a polo tournament while the corgis run around?
Alfa Romeo is another brand that creates an emotional picture. It could be of the first ever F1 race which was won by an Alfa. It could be of the car you owned in the 1980s when there were more Alfas in SA than anywhere else in the world outside of Italy. Perhaps your memory is of trying to fix up the rust on an old Alfasud, or maybe it is of falling in love with an Alfa Junior at the racetrack. There is an emotional connection to Alfa which even those of us who have never owned one cannot help but experience.
In the words of Fiat SA boss Trent Barcroft: “Maybe we lost our way about the (Alfa Romeo) brand over the decades.” In some ways he is right but even in cars like the 159 the spirit of Alfa remained. Its cars are endearing, even when bits fall off. Strangely, an Alfa owner accepts this as part of its character. Enter the new 4C, a car which Barcroft says “digs deep into your soul” and “rediscovers the brand”. Assembled at the Maserati factory in Modena, Italy it is seen as the new future of Alfa Romeo, a future which sees its brand pillars reversed from those you might traditionally associate with it.
According to Shane Howarth, the company’s head of marketing and products, the new pillars are efficiency and advanced technology, and then dynamism and style. This might be true in the soon to be launched updated Mito and Giulietta models but the 4C is all about dynamics, style and performance. The design takes inspiration from many Alfas of old, most notably the 33 Stradale. It sets out to be a raw driver’s machine in the same vein as the Lotus Exige rather than succumbing to that everyday supercar mantle touted by so many manufacturers now.
It is a real old-meets-new car in going back to basics in some aspects and heralding the new era of technology in others, so what better place to experience it than the Kyalami racetrack. The 4C has a carbon fibre monocoque which contributes to it weighing in at just 920kg. Internationally it weighs 895kg but in SA we like to have a radio, air-con and carpets hence the extra kilos. That weight is split 40% (front) and 60% (rear) to combine with the mid/rear engined layout and give it true sportscar handling. It is powered by a 1,750cc turbocharged four cylinder that kicks out 177kW at 6,000r/min and 350Nm between 2,200r/min and 4,250r/min, all this channelled through a six-speed Alfa twin clutch gearbox to the rear wheels, which are a slightly larger diameter than those up front.
Inside it has a sportscar feel with sports seats that hold you tight and pedals hinged at the bot- tom rather than the top. What is also old school is the steering. There is no electrical assistance, in fact there is no assistance at all. Instead it is all about the connection to the tarmac beneath you. It is a temperamental machine, which occasionally fights with you like a toddler having a tantrum. On the straights it produces reasonable power but it is in the corners where the fun really starts. Drop down through the box and get on the power through the apex and the engine roars behind your head as you hear and feel the turbo boosting up.
Allow too much boost and you will be facing the wrong way in no time, but get everything right and you find yourself exiting the corner with a smile on your face no one knows actually comes all the way from your soul. It was so engaging I barely noticed the cool digital display in front of me that changes colour and configuration depending on the mode you are driving in.
Only 25 owners will understand what I am talking about as that is the local allocation for the year and they are all sold, including a number of special launch edition models. Priced at R870,000 the order book is already quite full, but the local operation is hoping to get a higher allocation next year so you could get a car in 2015.
I know what you are thinking, though. The price is firmly in Porsche Cayman S territory, though the two are different. The Alfa does not try to emulate the luxury or quality of the Porsche. The Cayman S is a real sportscar that loves to be taken to the track. The Alfa is a sportscar that belongs on the track and occasionally should go on the road. Even then, it should only be to get fuel before heading back for some addictive fun in the corners.
The Facts: 2014 Alfa Romeo 4C
Engine: 1750cc, four-cylinder, turbocharged, petrol
Power: 177kW at 6000rpm
Torque: 350Nm at 2200rpm
0-100km/h: 4.5 seconds (Claimed)
Fuel consumption: 9.8/100km (Claimed)
Top speed: 258km/h
Price: R870 000