“You want to do what? Have you driven a Lotus Elise? Trust me, doing an interstate drive from Los Angeles to Texas won’t be fun.” So began the warnings to the buyer of my Lotus Elise.
“The hardtop will be bolted in—no wind-in-hair driving—there’s no cruise control or spare tire. The radio sounds awful when it manages to find a station. There’s hardly any of the following: sound deadening, suspension compliance, or seat adjustments. What? You’re bringing your wife? Are you aware that the passenger seat is fixed in place, no adjustments? You’ll be fighting by Palm Springs. She’ll fly home from Phoenix, if she doesn’t divorce you. Please consider shipping the car to Texas.”
Owning an Elise for two years makes you intimately aware of the car’s shortcomings and limitations. But, on the right road, on the right day, it’ll trigger a dopamine storm in your head so intense that you’ll become awfully forgiving. You’ll forget that on less-perfect roads the Elise sounds like a shopping cart stacked with panes of glass.
There’s no car currently on the market more like the dearly departed Elise than theAlfa Romeo 4C Spider, and nearly all of the same warnings apply. It is our duty to make you aware of what you’re getting into before you hand over $65,495 to the dealership for a 4C Spider—or decide to drive one halfway across the country with your spouse. We realize that you’ll go ahead and get one anyway, and we applaud you.
Like the Elise, the 4C Spider is a sports car obsessed with weight loss, an automotive anorexic. In a Puritanical fury, designers and engineers have removed every bit of fat with the goal of boosting performance and enhancing the feel of the primary controls. The result is a 2504-pound two-seater. Granted, the Alfa is 195 pounds heavier than the new Mazda MX-5 Miata, a car that costs much less and doesn’t have even a strand of carbon fiber in it. If you buy a 4C, we suggest deflecting all comments about the Miata’s weight by pointing out the 4C’s carbon-fiber tub. “Just like a LaFerrari,” you’ll say. Stick to your talking points.
Sitting behind the carbon-fiber hot tub for two is a transversely mounted 1.7-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine and a dual-clutch automatic. Acceleration is commensurate with the Alfa’s shrunken-exotic looks. A blast to 60 mph takes 4.2 seconds and the quarter-mile passes in 12.9 seconds at 107 mph. Without the dual-clutch doing its high-revving launch-control dance, the rolling 5-to-60 start adds a second. This is a joyfully quick car, as swift to 60 as a Ferrari F40. But in the stop-and-go traffic of the real world, the 4C Spider’s gearbox doesn’t engage the clutch very smoothly. Taking off from a stop is often a jerky process as the clutch is slow to engage. Once rolling, shifts snap off with the tug of a paddle, or you can let the gearbox shift for itself in Auto mode. There’s no manual transmission, which is surprising considering the interaction of driver and car is placed above all else.
Shout It Out Loud
Our test car arrived with the Sport exhaust, a $500 option that removes the muffler. That’s as stupid as it sounds—first, you’re paying for something that’s not there and, second, a muffler isn’t a bad thing. In fact, Alfa will soon offer an optional Akrapovič exhaust that we’ve yet to hear, but since it includes a muffler we have to assume it’s quieter than no muffler. With the Sport exhaust, the Alfa is seriously loud. Can you ignore unwanted noise like a deposed dictator holed up in a Swiss embassy? Good. You’ll need those skills.
Upshifts cause a loud fart-snort that sounds like a UPS truck with a head cold. Without a muffler, the Alfa’s four-cylinder drones and moans to the tune of 85 decibels at full throttle, the racket occasionally broken up by the whoosh and whine of the turbocharger. None of these noises are particularly pleasant and it only brings to light the rough, gritty nature of the 4C’s four-cylinder engine. Set the cruise control to 70 mph—it does have cruise control—and you’ll hear 79 decibels of harshness. Suffering through the tiresome din will make you want to fill your ears with cotton wadding; you’ll be begging for mercy, wishing for deafness. Sound insulation and a muffler would help. Bring earplugs for the transit stages of life.
In most driving, looking past these shortcomings isn’t easy. The 4C Spider is a sadist, but like the Elise, on an empty canyon road or out in the country with the easily folded fabric top tucked in the trunk, the abuse is forgotten. Unassisted steering sends through unfiltered messages from the road. The rich texture of the pavement, every seam, and every break in the road is broadcast to your palms. There is so much sensitivity that big breaks in the surface will jerk the flat-bottomed wheel alarmingly. Hang on tight. Steering this car requires strength, especially when the Alfa Romeo–spec Pirelli P Zeros are hammered to their 0.96-g limit.
Handling is spectacularly neutral and the chassis responds predictably and reliably to inputs from the brakes, steering, and engine. The hard brake pedal takes getting used to, but there is the perfect amount of bite and it’s easy to modulate. Stops from 70 mph take only 150 feet. Like a race car, the Spider is a delight on track. Why else would you put up with it? Compared with the Elise, the 4C Spider comes across as larger, because it is larger. It’s longer, more than 500 pounds heavier, and nearly six inches wider. Width adds stability, but it also erodes playfulness and agility. Relatively speaking, anyway.
Huh, What’s This?
Considering the track-ready prowess and the cold comfort of the 4C, the ride is surprisingly civil. Our test car arrived with the $2200 Spider Track Package 2 and the 18-inch front and 19-inch rear wheels ($2500). Aside from kicking the steering wheel, bumps are taken in stride. The windshield frame does quiver slightly, but the Alfa is tight and free of creaks and rattles. Build quality on this particular 4C Spider was superior to the 4C coupe we drove last fall. Paint quality was excellent, the panel gaps were consistent, and the instrument panel didn’t have any wires dangling under it. But upon closer examination, we noticed that the shocks had stickers on them that said, “PRESS CAR.” So our car appears to have been prepped for car reviewers; we asked a Fiat-Chrysler spokesperson what exactly this means and were told that our early preproduction example had its parts marked during assembly and that there was no difference between the parts on our test car and the parts on cars sent to dealerships. Well, except for the “PRESS CAR” stickers. Without a saleable 4C Spider for side-by-side comparison, we can’t be sure of that, however.
We also don’t know what the Spider would be like with a better seating position. Alfa’s lightweight seats are comfortable and supportive, but the backrest is too upright and the seat bottom is too flat. You’re forced over the steering wheel, legs nearly flat on the floor. There are six Torx bolts that adjust the seat for height, but they only move the seat up and down and cannot be made to affect the rake of the seat unless you leave the middle bolts out. You’re not supposed to leave the middle bolts out—we asked. At least the passenger seat isn’t bolted in place like the Elise’s. In the lowest setting, you sit deep in the Spider, the beltline is high, but with the top removed, most of the claustrophobia you experience in the hardtop version melts away. Getting in and out is tough, but at least the doors can be closed without having to worry about the glass unintentionally disappearing into the door, a charismatic foible of the Elise.
Is the Porsche Boxster a better sports car? Yes. But if you really want the unfiltered sports-car experience, less weight, and hypersensitive controls, be prepared to tolerate the commotion of an unmuffled four-cylinder engine, a dual-clutch automatic, a barely adjustable seat, and a twitching steering wheel. Still want one? We understand completely. An Elise passed through these hands, after all. But consider yourself warned.