I’ve been around Alfas for a long time.
When I was at Ron Tonkin Grand Turismo in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, the Alfas we were selling were the Milano, the 164 and the beloved-but-aged Spider.
At that time, corporate Alfa had, in its infinite wisdom, decided that since Americans bought a lot of four-door sedans equipped with automatics, they would send four-door automatic sedans to the U.S. They were sure buyers would snap them up in droves.
We all know how well that played out. Alfa enthusiasts wanted convertibles and two-door coupes. Four-doors with slushboxes just didn’t cut it. With the demise of the GTV-6, Alfisti in the U.S. really didn’t have a modern sports car to buy. Alfa withdrew from the U.S. market in 1995.
Leading the Chant
Every year since then, I have led the assembled crowd of true believers at Concorso Italiano in the chant, “Alfa Come Back!”
But at the same time that I anticipated an official Alfa presence in the U.S., I was cognizant that the automotive world has become an extremely competitive place, especially in the $60,000-and-above segment that Alfa was projected to enter.
After much hemming and hawing, the Alfa 4C is now officially being imported into the U.S. Before ever having driven one, I found the car visually quite exciting. The mechanical specs were intriguing as well, with a 6-speed paddle-shifted transmission and a turbo-charged, mid-mounted 4-cylinder engine.
So it was with excitement as well as some trepidation that I approached the white test car that was delivered to our offices. I don’t claim to be fluent in modern day Alfas, so I can’t evaluate the 4C as it relates to the late-model Alfas that have preceded it. But I can evaluate it as an entrant in the above-$60k sports car market.
The 4C carries many burdens: it has to satisfy the old-line Alfisti as being a “pure Alfa,” it has to be a good introduction to the those unfamiliar to the marque, and it has to be a competitive player in its market segment. The MSRP is $62,195.
This is not meant to be a technical analysis or a road test. There have been plenty of those written. Rather, it is a reaction to this car as one of many choices available in this price range.
I found the 4C to be lacking in many ways. Yes, it’s a real sports car. It has blistering performance. It makes the right sounds. If you really hammer the car, you can have the ride of a lifetime.
But there are many details on the 4C that simply aren’t well thought out. They may each seem small, but together they give the feel of a car that was cobbled together for the U.S. market with no concern about the overall experience.
The Hateful Buzzer
Let’s quickly run down the list. There is keyless entry, but the key itself is a throwback to the 1990s. The long metal key pops out of the fob, and you then put that into the slot in the dashboard. No keyless ignition, and no pushbutton start. All of these “user-friendly” attributes are nearly the norm in a $60k+ car today.
The 4C is very difficult to get in an out of, which has not been true of any Alfa I have driven in the past. If you are young and limber, this car will be fine. Otherwise, it is a struggle, similar to a Lotus Evora. This isn’t exactly what you are looking for in a car designed to attract newcomers to the marque.
Once inside, the “put your seatbelt on” buzzer is perhaps the loudest and most obnoxious I have ever encountered. Everyone who rode with me immediately commented on it. Wouldn’t you think the engineers at Alfa would care enough about first impressions that they would install a more mellifluous warning system? If I owned a 4C, the first thing I would do is clip the wires to the buzzer – although with the interconnected electronic systems of today’s car, that would probably simultaneously disable the windshield wipers and the anti-lock brakes.
The driver’s seat has no height adjustment, which meant that my daughter Alex, at 5-foot-2, could not find a way to comfortably see out of the car. By contrast, she could find a way to see out of our Viper, as well as the Lotus Elise we once owned. At $63k, not having a height adjustment represents ergonomic thoughtlessness.
The vision out of the rear is poor, but I can live with that. However, when $25,000 Hyundais have backup cameras and touch-screen nav systems, along with temperature-regulated heat and a/c systems, the center stack in the 4C is sorely lacking. There is no backup camera and no navigation, and the cockpit temperature does not have an automatically-controlled system.
The clock/radio display is in an over-sized, ponderous font, and the device is not particularly user-friendly.
The road noise in this car is the loudest I have ever experienced. Not the exhaust noise, but the actual rumble from the pavement. The Elise was much quieter. When driving on the freeway, conversation in the cockpit is nearly impossible due to this intrusive rumbling.
The rear hatch lid is very heavy and has to be propped up with a support rod, as there are no pressurized struts to hold it open. This means that just lifting the lid to get something out of the tiny trunk is a two-handed operation: one to lift and support the lid and another to locate the metal rod and put it into place.
I was surprised at the number of times I had something in one hand and went to pop the trunk open to fetch an article from the trunk – and had to balance the hatchlid on my head rather than go to the trouble of locating the support rod.
It’s just not what you expect from a car in this price range.
None of the above things make the 4C a bad car. It squirts when you press the throttle, the automatic makes reasonably good shifting decisions, and the brakes and handling are excellent.
Sexy But Hard to Love
For die-hard Alfa enthusiasts, this car will be a dream come true. It has striking looks and makes the right sounds.
But that’s not the market that Alfa needs to attract if it is going to have reasonable market penetration in the U.S.
Between the difficult entrance and egress, the user-cruel ergonomics and the overwhelming road noise, this Alfa will appeal primarily to hard-core sports car purists, and that market segment is not a large one. Certainly not large enough to support a full-scale re-entry into the U.S. market.
While I am thrilled to have this sexy Alfa Romeo being officially sold in our country, I don’t think it will be an easy sell. And I don’t think it will be an effective agent to introduce non-Alfisti to the brand.
I hope the next car Alfa brings in will be equally quirkly, but at the same time more user-friendly and contemporary in its presentation.