Good Vibrations

Buzzing down the Pacific Coast Highway in the new Alfa Romeo 4C Spider.
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Buzzing down the Pacific Coast Highway in the new Alfa Romeo 4C Spider.

The morning began with a big drink.

Standing in a high-ceilinged space in Carmel, California, with the fortifying Central Valley sun illuminating every nook, I gazed at Alfa Romeo’s new 4C Spider, pertly presented in the center of the room like a gleaming suckling pig in Rosso Competizione. ​I slurped up its carbon-fiber rear diffuser, shapely flanks, staggered gunmetal wheels and aggressive nose capped with the unmistakable triangular Alfa grill. My eyes sparkled and digital shutters clicked, gulping down the most compactly beautiful car on sale today.

The Alfa Romeo 4C Spider is more than a morsel, though.  For the money, it’s one of the most advanced cars you can buy. While most autos—even sporty ones—make do with a steel frame, the 4C has a trick carbon-fiber tub like the one McLaren uses in its million-dollar P1. That space-age undergirding means that, unlike other droptops, the 4C Spider’s structure required no reinforcements after losing its top. As such, the decapitated sportster weighs only 22 pounds more than the coupe, a bird-boned 2,487. Because of the negligible weight gain, the coupe’s suspension tuning was carried over unchanged, so the Spider drives just as tidy; the roof on the coupe, as it turns out, was pure veneer.

Looking at this bare chassis, it's actually not hard to see how it becomes a fully realized car—with some soft contouring and paint, that carbon fiber tub resolves into a finished 4C Spider. In essence, the chassis is the car.

Outside of the presentation hall in Carmel was a row of Alfas in all the colors of the condiments (red, yellow, white), plus grey (foie gras?). One by one, journalists sidled over to their cars of choice and fired up the tiny, but very angry, 1.75-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engines. Let no one tell you otherwise: the quality of an engine’s voice isn’t determined by its cylinder count (there are several droning V12’s), but by the intentions of its engineers. This buzzing little beast was tuned to race, and sounds like a GT2 car in training, with fits of hissing, burbling, and whiz-bang crackles on the overrun. Though it makes a less-than-Accord 237 horsepower, the 4C Spider hasn’t much mass to push, and scoots to sixty in 4.1 seconds. (The more powerful Porsche Boxster takes a lumbering 5.6.) If the chassis is a sly construction, the engine is a mad little machine with an intent to sling.

After wrestling with the unassisted steering through a parking lot, we gargled our way out of town towards the famous (infamous, regarding speeding tickets) Pacific Coast Highway. That tortured seaside route is often lost in fog and, during our outing, dotted with caravans of SUVs. No matter: those obstacles asked no more of the 4C Spider than it could give. The engine in second gear seems to rival a Porsche 911 Turbo in passing gusto; hit the gas, and the wee Italian leaps forward with manic glee. The manual steering, light front-end and super-stiff frame mean the car is constantly hunting and shifting like a bloodhound, nose following every camber and crack in the road, while the thinly padded seats allow you to discern just exactly how ragged the pavement is on the PCH. (Quite.) It was an autocross, run by the California DOT.

After several hours zooming past redwoods, overtaking minivans, and gratuitously pulling the paddle-shifter in order to hear the engine yelp, I’m forced into cultural stereotypes: this Italian convertible is beguiling. Besides do-it-yourself outliers like the Ariel Atom or Caterham 7, the Alfa Romeo 4C Spider is truly the most special driving experience available to the 10%.

As a  $63,900 car (a hearty $10K more than the coupe), the Spider got as many looks as the $250K Ferrari 458. Its construction and race-ready demeanor make for a scintillating drive that leaves hands buzzing with excitement and, honestly, a bit numb from the car’s vibrations. The hilariously bare dashboard, grabbed-from-Best Buy Alpine stereo and oddly-shaped, mysteriously labeled (to go forward, press the “1” button) interior mean that only folks who love driving will put down money, and put up with the 4C’s inability to comfortably drive long distances.

This is not cruiser, bruiser, or jack-of-all trades. The Alfa Romeo 4C is a bare-bones import that deserves to be driven always in anger by people for whom driving is an ultimate pleasure. For a dollop more visceral thrill, get the Spider, and let the locals hear you cackling in tandem with the exhaust on your ridiculous, impractical Italian sports car.  

Photos by FCA