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HENRY PAYNE

Payne: Sexy Alfa 4C goes topless

Henry Payne
The Detroit News


Sure, the 2015 Alfa Romeo 4C doesn't have the landscape-swallowing horsepower of the Corvette C7 Stingray. It doesn't have a Porsche Boxster S's clinically perfect balance of turn-in handling and corner exit torque.

But the "Baby Ferrari" will make you a rock star.

It's a miniature diva with the body of Christina Aguilera and the outsize personality to match. And now it's going topless. Beginning this July, the 4C Coupe will be joined on dealer lots by the convertible 4C Spider.

Carmel-by-the-Sea south of San Francisco is a sandbox for the Bay Area's well-to-do. Folks here aren't easily impressed. But at a media test here, my red Alfa Spider stopped traffic. Rolling through the boutique-lined streets, women in $5,000 designer suits perched on Louboutin heels stopped and stared. At the corner of Seventh and Juniper a busload of tourists snapped pictures as if they had just spied Cher. The paparazzi treatment continued down the Pacific Coast. At a rest stop in Big Sur, the 4C was swarmed by kids. Can we sit in it? Sure. Can we take pictures? Yes. Can we take it home and feed it? Nope.

I haven't had a car get this kind of attention since a BMW i8. But the secret to the Alfa's celebrity is its accessibility. It has a supercar's mystique without the supercar price tag. It's a rare gem for less than six figures. There are 30,000 Corvettes sold a year. Some 7,000 Boxsters and Caymans.

Buy a 4C Spider or Coupe and you are a member of an exclusive club. Less than 300 4Cs have been sold in the U.S.

Alfa couldn't make more if it wanted. The mid-engine 4C's sturdy, lightweight tub is meticulously handcrafted over six months by elves in Lilliput who've handed down carbon fiber trade secrets for generations. They're the same gnomes that make Rolex watches (if I'm remembering the presentation correctly). Each one a piece of art.

Hounding a Cayman down the Pacific Highway, I was struck by the Spider's unabashed sex appeal compared to the handsome yet more conservatively-styled Porsche. The Spider is Mazda Miata-tiny, but Porsche-wide giving it an aggressive, ground-hugging, athletic stance. With its signature Alfa cat's face, raked windshield, and muscular haunches, it looks like an angry predator about to pounce. Step around the rear and it is classic Ferrari. Honey, I shrunk the 485!

The Alfa team took us to Laguna Seca Raceway to show off the car's track chops. But despite its lightweight, carbon tub (the Spider is just 22 pounds heavier than the Coupe), the Alfa pales on the track next to a Corvette or Cayman. I've had both out on Autobahn Raceway in Joliet, Illinois recently and they are worthy big track cars. Carrying 500 fewer pounds less than the Boxster S and a full grand less than Stingray, the 237-horsepower 4C's awesome power-to-weight ratio should — on paper — be a worthy a competitor to its similarly-priced competitors. But it's light on something else: Displacement. Even though the little car's 1.7-liter engine is turbocharged out of its mind, it's still just 1.7 liters.

Throw this cat into a corner and it ferociously claws its way to the apex at which point the combination of little pistons and big turbo lag conspire to mute its progress. The Corvette and Boxster S explode off a fast corner, the Spider merely pops.

Better to take it on the tight California hill roads around Laguna Seca where the 4C is really in its element.

Trails like the Pacific Coast Highway. Or Carmel Valley Road, which feels like Route 119 — aka, the Tunnel of Trees Road — north of Harbor Springs. Tight, leafy, narrow. Let the Alfa out of its cage here and it hunts like a wild animal. The short, 93.7-inch wheelbase rotates around tight curves, its hydraulic steering giving me feedback from every pore in the road.

Jump on the gas pedal and the turbo erupts with sounds never before met by human ears.

The gorgeous starlet is suddenly transformed into Linda Blair in "The Exorcist." It spits, growls and cackles. If it were human, its head would rotate 360 degrees. Get a priest. It's demonic and heavenly at the same time.

Every stomp unleashes a different manic note. Meanwhile, the car shoots forward like a scalded cat. Where the two-lane road straightens out, I gobbled SUVs stuffed with California tourists. A BMW M4 gamely kept up before more twisties arrived and it dropped from view. Buy a 4C and get a cottage up north to house the Alfa with quick access to twisty roads.

And because you and the missus won't be able to pack a bag and go back and forth for the weekend. There's simply no room.

This is the part where I tell you how quirkily inconvenient the Alfa is. Roll up the soft top into its bag and it occupies most of the trunk. Not that the tiny space could stow a small suitcase to begin with. Where the Boxster's roof automatically stows behind the front seats leaving ample storage in the trunk and frunk, the Alfa becomes trunkless when it goes topless.

Pack for a weekend getaway and you'd have to mail your suitcase ahead. Or tow a U-Haul trailer that would kill the whole handling thing. Not that you'd want to spend hours in the Alfa anyway. The ergonomics of a $30K Miata are like an Audi A6 by comparison. The spare console (just an Alpine radio is offered which I never turned on anyway because I was so enthralled with the engine demons) is so driver-centric that the passenger seat is a cramped torture chamber. The console cuts into passenger's knees already constrained by the low, glove boxless dash. At least Alfa thoughtfully included an "oh, crap!" handle for when those g-loaded country roads arrive.

A cruiser this is not. It's a speed toy. An afternoon getaway car. A Miata on 'roids. And it is something else: Alfa's alpha dog. The raucous 4C sets the tone for the sexy Alfa luxury sedans that are about to hit American shores.

Beginning with a BMW 3-series fighter to be introduced later his month, these sedans will also usher in more engine options for the Alfa lineup. Which means that someday there might be a 4C Spider with a proper, torquey 2.0-liter turbo. A rock star that can play the small country roads and the big stadium race tracks.

In the meantime you won't lack for attention.

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at hpayne@detroitnews.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne.

2015 Alfa Romeo 4C Spider

Vehicle type: Mid-engine, rear-wheel-drive, two-passenger sports car

Price: $65,495 base ($73,395 as tested)

Power plant: 1.7-liter, turbocharged 4-cylinder

Power: 237 horsepower, 258 pound-feet of torque

Transmission: Six-speed, dual-clutch automatic (with paddles)

Performance: 0-60 mph, 4.1 seconds (manufacturer)

Weight: 2,487 pounds

Fuel economy: EPA 24 mpg city/34 mpg highway/28 mpg combined

Report card

Highs: Hollywood gorgeous; razor-sharp handling

Lows: Cramped passenger seat; small displacement, big turbo lag

Overall: ★★★★

Grading scale

Excellent ★★★★

Good ★★★

Fair ★★

Poor ★