The Alfa Romeo 4C passed its first test with flying colors.
That’s the one where you take it to a garage in Manhattan, the valets make you park it yourself because they think it’s too nice, and yet somehow still expect a tip. Believe me, there’s no higher praise. Unfortunately, in the three days that I had it, the 4C took this test three times.
The thing about it is, despite its sexy, head-twisting body and raspy voice, the 4C has a starting price of just $55,195. Not exactly cheap, but those jaded attendants don’t even look twice at a six-figure Porsche or BMW, and it can hold its own next to one of its corporate cousins from Ferrari, too.
The 4C marks Alfa Romeo’s first serious return to the United States since it closed up shop here in 1995. A key player now in the Fiat Chrysler Automobiles expansion plan, it’s been tasked with filling the gap between Chrysler and Maserati in the family hierarchy. Eight new models are on the way by 2018, including sedans and SUVs, but the 4C was chosen to set the tone for the marque: accessible Italian exotica.
The two-seat, mid-engine coupe is assembled for Alfa Romeo by Maserati at its factory in Modena, Italy, deep in the heart of supercar country. It has a racing car-style carbon fiber tub with aluminum subframes front and rear, and composite bodywork to keep the weight as low as its roof.
At about 2,500 pounds and 47 inches, they’re both very low, and the 4C’s engine is proportionately petite. It’s an all-new 1,742 cc turbocharged four-cylinder with 237 hp and 248 lb-ft of torque; enough to get you to 60 mph in 4.5 seconds and on to a top speed of 160 mph.
There are no mufflers, because that’s very awesome, and no power steering for the same reason – at least until that parking thing comes up. A lack of rear visibility doesn’t make the latter any easier, but the view over the shapely hood and fenders is a panorama, and you should be heading in that direction as much as possible in this car.
The cabin offers plenty of room for six-footers, and is broad enough that two don’t feel cramped. The style is intentionally Spartan, with exposed carbon fiber down low and a lightweight plastic dash that can, and should, be dressed in snazzy stitched leather for $2,750.
The flat-bottomed steering wheel is simple, with no buttons, but the instrument cluster is a high-tech configurable TFT screen. Sadly, many of the other controls appear to be from Fiat’s bargain bin and the stereo looks like it was installed at Best Buy with a hammer -- in Europe it’s an option, as is the air conditioning that’s standard here.
An old-fashioned key gets things started, and the engine is gloriously loud inside. No surprise, it sits just inches from your head and is visible through the rear window, capped with a plastic cover that’s the most glaring fault of the car as it’s so prominently displayed. (OK, the 3.7 cubic foot trunk behind it isn't exactly impressive, either, and there's no glove compartment, but they did manage to squeeze two cupholders onto the center console behind your elbow, so there's that.)
You can’t get a stick, but the six-speed dual clutch automatic transmission swaps cogs with the best of them. A launch control system that you’ll never use rockets the 4C away with the sound of an unholy alliance of a chainsaw and a dentist drill, the turbo whistling away over your left shoulder like a little devil coaxing you to keep your foot on the gas.
Resist, and the 4C delivers up to 34 mpg on the highway, but good luck with that. Every blip of the throttle delivers a better kick than a double espresso and is much more addictive.
This is not a car you’ll be in a hurry to get out of, and not only because doing that is a bit difficult. The ride on rough roads is much better than its ground-hugging stance would suggest, it cruises down the freeway with ease, and if you’re fortunate enough to take it to a track like the Monticello Motor Club Nirvana is your reward.
I was, and there it simply amazed. Not just me, but the guy that owns the place; a Ford GT-driving Lotus fan who had a grin so wide after a few laps that I think his cheek bumped into mine.
Even on its relatively skinny tires, the grip is tenacious. The 4C has an electronic limited slip differential and an adjustable stability control system, but it remains perfectly neutral even if you turn it off. Short wheelbase, mid-engine cars can be treacherous, but the Alfa never threatens and you really have to work hard to break the tail loose.
Did I mention it rained?
Throttle response is fantastic for a small displacement turbo as long as you don’t let it come off boil, and the unassisted steering could tell you if you drove over a pea. Push the 4C hard enough and you sense the front tires losing grip before they actually do.
Through the turns, it’s as fast as anything and only gets left behind on the straights by much more powerful cars. A stiffer performance suspension is available, but the stock setup makes for a real all-around star.
Sure, for the same money you could buy a bigger, heavier Porsche Cayman that’s neverthless perfect in its own kind of way, or a Chevrolet Corvette Stingray that might leave it in the dust, but the 4C’s flavor is decidedly unique and a real treat at any speed, even standing still.
Unfortunately, Alfa Romeo is planning to build only 3,500 4Cs a year, with just 1,000 of them earmarked for the USA. That kind of rarity definitely makes it an exotic, but not for the masses, even at the attainable price.
Personally, I think they’re leaving money on the table, because if Alfa can’t sell these like piping hot pizza, it might as well pack up and go home again.
Then those valets will be sorry, because they'll have to go back to work.
2015 Alfa Romeo 4C
Base price: $55,195
As tested: $66,545
Type: 2-passenger, 2-door mid-engine coupe
Engine: 1.75L turbocharged 4-cylinder
Power: 237 hp, 248 lb-ft
Transmission: 6-speed automatic
MPG: 24 city/34 hwy
Gary Gastelu is FoxNews.com's Automotive Editor.