The Clarkson review: Alfa Romeo 4C (2013)

Grab her lead and forget all about the mess on the floor

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My coffee machine is a complete and utter pain in the backside. It’s a wall-mounted Gaggia and I cannot recall a single occasion when, after pushing the button, I have taken delivery of a cup of actual coffee.

It always wants water, and after you’ve filled up its bowl, it says: “Empty trays.” So you empty them, and then it says they aren’t emptied properly. So you empty them again and then again, and then you scrub them until they shine like a furnace worker’s face. And then you put them back and it says: “Trays missing.” So you put them in again more firmly, several times, until it says: “Empty trays.”

Eventually, of course, you resort to extreme brute force, whereupon it becomes Italian and changes tack. “Add beans,” it says. So you open another tin of £900 Illy coffee beans and, being careful not to upset the trays in any way, you pour them into — as I write, I can hear it doing things in the kitchen, but I don’t know what — the bean drawer. And then it says: “Clean unit.” So you have to go against every male instinct and find the instruction book, which tells you to hold clamp A while squeezing nozzle B for about a couple of hours, and then when you put it all back together it says it wants decalcifying.

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Usually I don’t get my morning coffee until it’s time for afternoon tea. But, of course, it’s worth persevering, because when the moment finally arrives the result tastes a whole lot nicer than the instant alternative.

It’s the same story with your choice of pet. A dog requires almost constant attention. It raids your bin, gets the bones it’s nicked stuck in its throat, bites the postman, eats the milk lady, poos on the carpet, wants a walk when it’s raining, barks in the night for no reason and gets ill on Christmas Day, when the vet is too drunk to come over. But despite all this it’s so much more satisfying than a feed-and-forget cat.

Which naturally brings me on to Alfa Romeo, an experience that’s subtly different. I had one once, a GTV6, and it was like a coffee machine — that had been designed by a dog. At night it would let all the air escape from its tyres, its clutch would weld itself to the flywheel and once it dropped its gear linkage onto the prop shaft, causing an extremely loud noise to happen, followed by the rear wheels locking up. It was a constant nightmare.

But here’s the thing: even when it was a sunny day, and it wasn’t being premenstrual, it was a pretty horrible car to drive. The steering was too heavy, the driving position was tailored for an ape, second gear was impossible to find and it handled as though it was running on heroin.

It’s not alone, either. At present, the Giulietta is ho-hum and the MiTo is ghastly. And if we plunge into the pages of recent history, we find the 8C, which wasn’t quite as good as it looked, and the SZ, which was the other way round. But only because it looked as if it had been designed by a madman. The 33, the 75, the 156, the 159 and the 164? There’s not a great car there. Just many puddles of oil on your garage floor.

And yet Alfa Romeo is still my favourite car maker. I still believe you can’t really call yourself a petrolhead until you’ve owned one. So why is this?

It’s no good going back to the Sixties and saying: “It’s because of the GTA.” Yes, it was fabulous, but it was one car in a torrent of rubbish. Judging Alfa on this one achievement would be the same as ignoring all of Mussolini’s crimes simply because he once bought his mother some flowers.

I’ve had a good, long think and reckon that in all its history Alfa has made only four or five really good cars. Memorable cars. And that in the past 30 years it hasn’t made one.

Yet the love remains and I think it’s because we all sort of know what Alfa could and should be making. We have in our minds a mini Ferrari. A supercar on a shoestring. Pretty as hell, lithe as a greyhound, cheap as chips and built for fun. We have in our minds the car you see here this morning. The 4C. Sadly, pictures do not do this little car justice. In the flesh it is utterly gorgeous. Spoilt, some say, by the headlamps. Yes, maybe, in the way Cindy Crawford is spoilt by her mole — that is, not spoilt at all.

But it’s not the looks that impress most with the 4C. It’s how it’s made. Before this, if you wanted a car with an all-carbon-fibre tub, you had a choice: you bought a machine such as a McLaren MP4-12C or you bought a Formula One racer. It’s expensive to make a car this way, but that’s what Alfa has done.

The benefit is lightness, and that’s a theme it has continued throughout. So, if you’re after luxury and soundproofing and lots of standard equipment, forget it. There’s no satellite navigation. You don’t even get power steering.

The result is a car that tips the scales, fat with fluids, at well under a ton. Which means it doesn’t need a big engine. Instead, mounted in the middle of the car, is a 1742cc turbo unit that itself is made to be so light it has to be bolted in place to stop it floating away.

Disappointed that it only has the four-cylinder engine from a motorised pencil sharpener? Well, don’t be. Because, thanks to the lightness, you can get to 62mph in 4.5 seconds and onwards past 160mph. Way past, I found. Oh, and 40mpg-plus is on the cards as well.

I shall make no bones about it. I loved this car. It’s like being at the controls of a housefly. You can brake later than you think possible into corners, knowing that there’s barely any weight to transfer. And it has so much grip. Then there’s the noise. Or rather noises. It makes thousands. All loud. All mad.

Yes, the interior trim is shocking, but if you want that lightness, it’s the price you pay. And you do want it. Because lightness is coming. It has to. It makes both the polar bear and the petrolhead happy. And in the Alfa it made me very happy indeed. I drove the car round Lake Como on a sunny evening and there was almost a tear in my eye. I kept thinking that life didn’t really get any better.

Now the boring stuff. I fitted easily. The boot is big. The dash readout is clever and clear so you don’t need spectacles to see how fast you’re going. And you can choose how you want your car to feel. Really. Just put it in Dynamic mode. And leave it there.

There are only a couple of drawbacks. The gearbox is a bit dim-witted and the steering isn’t quite as sharp as I had been expecting. Also, it’s wider than a Mercedes SLS AMG, which means it’s wider than Utah. And it costs around £45,000. That, for a carbon fibre-tubbed mini-supercar, is not bad at all. But it does put it in the same price bracket as a  Porsche Cayman.

Of course, the Cayman is more in tune with where we are now. It feels sturdy, and well made and luxurious. But that sort of thing will have to stop. We will have to go down Alfa’s route, which means, in fact, the 4C feels like the future.

It also feels like the Alfa that the company made only in your dreams. It feels wonderful. I’m sure, naturally, that it will be like my coffee machine to own. But, unlike with any other Alfa in living memory, the rewards will make all the effort worth it.


Alfa, it’s good to have you back


Alfa Romeo 4C

£45,000 (Correct at time of publication)
1742cc, 4 cylinders
237bhp @ 6000rpm
258 lb ft @ 2200rpm
6-speed dual clutch
0-62mph in 4.5sec
Top speed:
41.5mpg (combined)
Road tax band: