Wednesday, 13 February 2013

Alfa Romeo 4C: Witness The Fitness

2013 Alfa Romeo 4C (Production version)
This gorgeous shape may seem familiar to you. In fact, you're probably sighing and thinking that I'm nearly two years late to that party by showing you pictures of the Alfa Romeo 4C Concept from the 2011 Geneva Motor Show. Well, swap that sigh for a gasp, because this, despite looking 99% identical to the show-stopping concept, this is the production 4C, so called to reference the legendary 6C and 8C racing cars of old, as well as the number of cylinders. OK, I am now a day late in showing you this, but in my defence I spent much of yesterday gazing at it. It's still gorgeous all right, glitzy new headlights aside. The wheels have been updated with rings that are now more like painted swirls with a thick start and thinning end. The skinny mirrors have been replaced with normal ones, which is perfectly normal in the journey from concept to reality. Those details are the only changes to the outside.

Inside? Well, the original concept had an amazing weight of just 850kg, which would've narrowly undercut a Lotus Elise despite the car having a turbo engine and, sadly, a DCT. The target price two years ago was also £35,000, which would've also been mightily impressive for an all-new flyweight sports car on a carbon fibre chassis. They won't deliver on either of these come production time near the end of the year, but they're not miles off - Alfa Romeo say the weight-to-power ratio of the finished car is under 4kg/bhp, which is the same as a power-to-weight ratio of over 250bhp/tonne. That makes it quicker than any four-cylinder Lotus bar the 2-Eleven track car.

The best designs even look sexy from above.
That's important, because this is also a four-cylinder MR-layout car measuring in at under four metres - with a wheelbase of "under 2.4m" - and made of lightweight materials. In the case of the big-budget Alfa, a carbon fibre monocoque chassis and aluminium subframes are the main reasons for the lightness. Power, however much of it there is, comes from the 1750cc turbo four from the Giulietta Quadrifoglio Verde, which in the hot hatch is making 235bhp. The same power here would mean just 940kg or less. Any more than 250-260bhp and it weighs more than 1000kg (2200lbs), which would be disappointing to say the least. The power is exclusively transferred through Alfa's "TCT" dual-dry-clutch flappy-paddle transmission to the rear wheels. The lack of a manual gearbox is disappointing for such a driver-centric car (but Alfa will make up for that with the MX-5 based "Nuova Spider" they're currently co-developing, which will cost less too). Perhaps this is meant as a poor man's 458 Italia with its super-fast, super-smooth DCT?

This is actually part of Alfa Romeo's big push to stay alive and finally re-enter the US market after much beating around the bush. At the moment they only have two models left in their range, the Grande Punto-based MiTo and the bigger Giulietta, both of which are exclusively front-wheel-drive hatchbacks. To avoid fading into obsolescence, they're launching their first mainstream rear-wheel-drive car in 20 years (the limited-run 8C Competizione and Spider came a couple of years before this, of course), and will soon bring out a Giulia mid-size saloon to compete with Jaguar, Infiniti, Lexus, Cadillac and Volvo for the title of Best Interesting Alternative To A German Saloon. Once it finally reaches the US, Alfa actually wants to outsell parent company Fiat, which sounds like optimism until you look over the pond and see that the only cars Fiat are selling over there are 500-based cars (there's a fat-looking 500L and soon there'll be a 500X crossover, because monies). With a more diverse range, Alfa Romeo could just compete if it gets it all right.

But first, the 4C has to be right, and considering the basic ingredients you have to assume that even if it does miss the mark, it will be far less disappointing than the beautiful-but-blunt Brera and other models in recent years whose bodies have written cheques their chassis and suspension can't cash. Helping the handling is further employment of Alfa Romeo's "DNA" system, which has three drive modes that tune stuff like throttle response and steering, and probably damper rates as well. D is for Dynamic, which is the sharpest one, N is for Normal, which I don't need to explain, and A is for All-weather, which again is self-explanatory. However, the press release reveals that in the 4C, this system incorporates "an unprecedented Race mode". Good lord! A Race mode in an Italian sports car? How unprecedented! Continuing the mini-458 feel, Race mode turns all the settings up to 11 to improve handling and response on a track. It will also be the least comfortable setting everywhere else.

One area unlike the 458 is the turbocharger, but to eliminate lag, it features what Alfa call a "revolutionary scavenging system". How that works, I have no idea. Maybe they'll tell us more when they reveal it in the flesh at the Geneva Motor Show next month. Until then, continue to gaze.

UPDATE: More pictures and stats here.