I still remember a certain Monday morning, mid July 2008, as if it were yesterday. As early as 10am, the temperature was a stifling 30°C, the mile long Mistral Straight at the Paul Ricard Circuit in the south of France was staring me down, and all the while I fidgeted nervously in the cockpit of an actual F1 racing car, perspiration in large blobs gathering uncomfortably under my fire protection suit. It was definitely a once in a lifetime opportunity that few ever get to experience, and the fact that the memory is still so vivid is testament to that.
And in the seven odd years since, I’ve yet to experience that same raw emotion when behind the wheel of a vehicle. Sure we’ve had sublime Porsches and Ferraris pass through our hands. We’ve had high performance vehicles such as the Jaguar F Type and Chevrolet SS come and go. We’ve even taken to the track in AMGs and Evos. But nothing has been close to that all out race car experience… until now. Welcome to the Alfa Romeo 4C. And just as the Renault F1 was a car of contradictions, so too is the 4C. Let’s start with the positives. When it comes to aesthetic beauty, I have no hesitation in saying the 4C is the hottest looking car I’ve driven. Full stop. Overseeing the design of the vehicle was the legendary Lorenzo Ramaciotti, who also has on his CV the design of the Ferrari 456 and Enzo, cars that he modestly describes as “not bad”. Built at the Maserati plant in Modena, Italy, the 4C is basically a carbon fibre monocoque connected to aluminium sub frames and wrapped in composite body work. It’s a combination of materials and technology geared towards one thing, performance. Weighing in at a mere 980kg, it’s the weight to power ratio of less than 4kg/HP that the designers and engineers were striving for. And achieved. Striking exterior features include those off the wall, and at times controversial bi LED headlights that have often been referred to as “like an insect’s eyes”.
Then there are the deep, gaping side air intakes that not only add to the look of the vehicle, but provide gulps of oxygen to the 1 750cc turbo petrol engine that sits just millimetres behind the cockpit. The rear is dominated by lines that rise to the boot 110 litres while two understated exhausts pop out of each corner below owl like lights. And just as intoxicating the 4C is to the visual senses, it is probably one of the most frustrating cars I have ever driven for a number of reasons. During the week that I had it on test, I never quite got the hang of hopping in and out of the vehicle due to its extremely low stance. Some days I would try and slide in. On others I would attempt a high jump like manoeuvre. Either way, it was never pretty and at best it was like squeezing a giraffe in to a cardboard box. Mind you, this is probably due to my elongated shape, as when colleague Brenwin Naidu hopped in, he kind of slipped in like he was rubbed down with oil. The interior is a bit of a mixed bag. The carbon fibre instrument panel looks the part as does the leather clad, flat bottomed steering wheel and cast aluminium pedals. There’s also cruise control and electric windows, but the fitted radio looks an after thought. Now for the drive. Turn the key to the 4C and the engine is manic. It burps,splutters and coughs like an octogenarian Italian after a heavy night on the vino. It’s an angry wake up and it doesn’t get much prettier as the 1 750cc turbo engine reaches its ideal operating temperature.
Sure it’s fun in the beginning when the cockpit is filled with a cacophony of rumbling sounds, but when the novelty wears off it can be an irritant with any form of conversation largely reduced to sign language. Gear changes from the six speed twin dry clutch transmission can also be an irritant. Often the 4C would hold a gear for an inordinate amount of time before necessitating a flick on the paddle shifts just to restore some form of normalcy. Visibility is also compromised thanks to large C pillars, while a glance in the rear view mirror and your vision is dominated by the bopping engine. When the 4C was launched locally last July, it was at the Kyalami Race Track in Midrand, and there was an obvious reason for this, because if ever there is a track car, then this is it. It will be happiest when navigating tight hair bends, stretching its legs down mile long straights, putting into action the perforated brakes as they bite hard as you slam anchors. But do the usual daily commute through Joburg’s potholed scarred roads and it ends up being a nightmare of Elm Street proportions. With its low road hugging position, every stone, crack and pothole is transferred to the occupants. Drive for anything over an hour and it left my vertebrae feeling like it had been re-aligned. As if that wasn’t enough, stay in the car any longer and I could feel my lower kidney region getting a good drilling.
On the plus side, the 4C is quick. Actually make that very quick. It has a claimed 0-100km/h time of 4.5 seconds and a top whack of 258km/h speeds that I never got close to, nor even attempted. The reason I stayed in my comfort zone when behind the wheel of the 4C is I don’t think I’ve ever driven a car apart from the F1 experience, that demands so much concentration. Not for a moment can one relax. There’s no downtime when driving the 4C, the engagement is that full on. Perhaps it has something to do with the lack of power steering. Maybe it’s the fact your butt is millimetres from the tar. Or maybe it’s that incessant burble behind your ear. Whatever it is, it left me with a feeling that if I didn’t give the 4C 100% attention, then things could end up nasty and very quickly. Shortly after returning the 4C, I had a chat about the car with a respected motoring writer and expressed my reservations about the vehicle noise, rough ride, total engagement etc. And his response was very simple: “But isn’t that what it’s all about.” He had a point. Maybe your chances of ever seeing a 4C on the roads of Gauteng are practically nil, because the 20 that were per-sold to the Alfistis before they even arrived in the country, only come out at weekends at racetracks. And taking into consideration our road conditions, that’s the only suitable place for this vehicle.
Engine: 1 742cc 4-cylinder turbocharged
Power: 177kW at 6 000rpm
Torque: 350Nm at 2 100rpm
0-10km/h: 4.5 seconds
Top speed: 258km/h
Fuel consumption: 6.8l/100km (claimed/combined)
Price: R870 000 (at launch)