If Dustin Hoffman’s character had received an Alfa Romeo 4C as a graduation present in the counterculture 1960s film, “The Graduate,” he wouldn’t have had free time for Mrs. Robinson. Ben would have been addicted to California’s twisty public roads and legendary racetracks in the gorgeous, insanely fast Italian machine.
Ms. Romeo, are you trying to seduce me?
Consider me smitten. Alfa is back in the U.S. after nearly three decades away and it’s well worth the wait. The 4C is a rolling video game console. Thank the wedding of Chrysler and Fiat for this child prodigy. You’ll find it at 86 Fiat-Alfa dealerships this fall. Just follow the squealing groupies.
“The Graduate” made Alfa an American cultural icon. But the 2015 4C is nothing like the cute, underpowered, convertible 1967 Alfa Duetto Spider of movie fame. The 4C is the direct descendent of another 1960s Alfa legend, the curvaceous 1967 33 Stradale. Like the Stradale, the 4C is a track-developed missile that brings race-car technology to the street.
Simon and Garfunkel, get me rewrite. The sound of silence has been shattered by the bedlam of 237 stampeding horses.
Where the Duetto was an affordable Italian sports car, the pricey Stradale was an exclusive rocket ship for the few (only 18 were made). The 4C splits the difference. Starting at $55,195, the Italian roller skate brings Ferrari technology at a Corvette price — though production capacity will initially be limited to 1,000 units a year. This is a raw, mid-engine driver’s car with manual steering, a howling 4-cylinder on turbo-roids, and a taut, 2,465-pound carbon fiber chassis.
Small though it may be, the 4C portends big things for Alfa in America. It leads an invasion of eight new vehicles in five years as Fiat-Chrysler positions Alfa as its premium luxury brand against sporty lux heavyweights like BMW, Audi and Cadillac. It’s an ambitious menu for Turin’s Italian kitchen. The 4C is just the appetizer.
But what a dish. This is one spicy meatball.
Designed by legendary Pininfarina designer Lorenzo Ramaciottie, the 4C’s shape bears the unmistable echo of the sexy Stradale with is tapered front end, narrow greenhouse, and rear air intakes for engine cooling. Beneath covered headlamps, the signature triangle on the nose is flanked by two gaping horizontal scoops — the legendary Alfa “Trilobo.” It’s the face of a bobcat ready to pounce. As I drove through San Francisco on a June test drive, locals flashed thumbs-up at the unmistakable visage. Welcome back, Alfa.
Catch up with a 4C (if you can) and the rear end recalls mid-engine Ferrari designs with its round taillights, aggressive stance and glass engine cover giving a glimpse of the epic power plant within.
Deeper within the Ferrari parallels get more interesting. The 4C employs a similar lightweight carbon fiber tub found in the Italian stallion’s Formula One cars. Carbon fiber’s expense means it’s usually found in half million-dollar supercars, but the 4C is the first under six figures. The diet come at a price, however. Alfa has sacrificed amenities for weight (600 pounds less than a Porsche Cayman).
The 4C may look like a junior Fezzaz on the outside, but inside it’s just junior. Its tight interior pales in comparison to the comfortable surroundings of a Corvette C7 or Cayman, much less a Ferrari. This hot rod makes a Subaru STI feel like a stretch limo. The narrow interior contains no glove box or door storage. Doors stuffed with sound-deadening material? Double-laminated glass? You want the Maserati dealer next door.
Mind the low roof, climb over the high, exposed carbon fiber sills, and the manually adjusted, bolstered seats are surprisingly roomy. A motorcycle-inspired instrument cluster hides behind the tiny, flat-bottomed steering wheel. The cramped passenger seat is an afterthought, like a motorcycle side pod. The narrow center console is a model of efficiency. A cluster of buttons determine shift modes (manual sticks are soooo 20th century) for the wheel-mounted paddles.
A tiny radio is angled 30 degrees to the driver. I never turned it on. The engine is all the music you need.
The 1750 cc, turbocharged four is an aural delight.
It has more percussion than a Jennifer Lopez concert. Lope through town and the turbo whistles under acceleration, the downshifts bark, the turbo’s wastegate spits.
Koo-koo-ka-choo crackle-pop-vrooooom, Mrs. Robinson.
Mash the pedal and the engine wails — its 258 pound feet of turbo torque arriving like a tea kettle blast after a moment of ... um ... turbo lag.
Isn’t that a relic of the 20th century? From blown BMW sixes to Subaru fours, modern turbos deliver their torque seamlessly. Not the 4C. Even with advanced scavenging (a control unit maximizes cylinder air flow), the lag means you have to anticipate acceleration as you depart turns. The delayed explosion doesn’t unsettle the 4C thanks to the carbon monocoque’s exquisite firmness, but it does retard the car’s fun factor.
California’s high speed Sonoma Raceway magnifies this personality tic. It’ll keep you as busy as a chainsaw juggler. Rotate the go kart-precise steering into a corner and the chassis won’t necessarily follow, sometimes showing oversteer. Hit the apex right and hang on for 1.1 g side loads — until the turbo’s hesitation forces you to thumb the paddle shifters to maintain momentum. I found myself longing for the instant power of a Cayman S’s normally-aspirated flat 6.
Once the boost arrives, however, the 4C’s acceleration is gelatto-smooth. The digital tac blurs — 90-100-110-120 mph — as the car accelerates in 4th gear down the Sonoma main straight. Peg the revs at 6 grand with launch control and the 4C will go 0-60 mph in the same 4.5 seconds as the Cayman — despite having half the displacement. Mama Mia, that’s a hot espresso.
Over 50 years, Porsche sports cars built a foundation for performance that launched a showroom-full of sporty SUVs and four-door coupes. The Alfa Romeo 4C will try to duplicate that narrative for 8 sedans and SUVs in just five years.
Crazy? Perhaps. But whether it succeeds or not, Alfa’s ambition will be entertaining to watch. Personally, I’m hoping for a sequel to “The Graduate” featuring the Alfa 4C. Scene: Party at parents’ home, Take One.
Mr. McGuire: Ben, I just want to say one word to you — just one word: Plastics.
Ben (wearing sunglasses, a leather jacket, and an Italian model on his arm): Way ahead of you, sir. Ever done 0-60 in a carbon fiber Alfa?
Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at firstname.lastname@example.org or Twitter @HenryEPayne.