The exotic 4C was a bold choice for Alfa to build; it's a bold choice to buy, as well
By Tony Middlehurst / Wednesday, February 3, 2021 / Loading comments
- Available for £35,000
- 1.7 turbo, rear wheel drive
- Rawer and more beautiful than a Cayman
- Handling foibles are all sortable
- Mechanically strong
- Slow depreciators
Search for a used Alfa Romeo 4C here
After various glitzy Euro show unveils and more than one 'wow, that's the best concept we've ever seen' awards, Alfa Romeo must have had sky-high hopes for its 4C when it was released to the press in 2013. Imagine the pencil-chewing frustration in Modena then when their exotically crafted junior supercar received a decidedly lukewarm reception from filthy UK-based scribblers.
We’ll get onto why that happened a bit later. First though let’s establish one thing. If a car is interesting or glamorous enough, negative press comments about how it drives won’t necessarily damage the esteem in which the public holds it. There’s no better example of that than the 2007 8C Competizione from which the 4C took quite a few of its tech and material cues. The 8C was more than good to drive but it had no chance of meeting the high expectations set by its fabulous bodyshape. Because it didn't go like a nitrous-injected version of Apollo’s golden chariot, pressers damned it with faint praise.
Today, however, the prices of £230,000-plus that 8Cs routinely command – more than double the starting showroom sticker price in the UK – surely demonstrate that the killer combination of flowing beauty and an Alfa badge will always override a slightly disappointing dynamic experience. An 8C looks gorgeous and it always will, and for many that will be more than enough. The 4C falls into the same category.
The 8C and the 4C were very different cars in both looks and concept, but the differences that arguably knocked the 4C back most in the credibility stakes were its apparently unexciting 1.7 turbo four engine, and pretty much as a direct consequence of that the £50,000+ price being asked for it. Against the 444hp of the Ferrari/Maserati/Alfa 4.7 V8, the 237hp of the 4C’s all-aluminium motor did look a little puny. There was no bragging value.
In reality there was no issue either thanks to the 4C’s saving grace of extreme lightness. At somewhere between 895kg and 950kg, depending on which of the many different claims you cared to believe, the 4C weighed a whacking 550kg less than the 8C at the very least. So, although it was more than 20mph down on the 8C on top speed, the 4C’s 160mph was plenty for most people and it was only 0.3sec slower than its big brother over the more relevant 0-62mph run. A combined fuel consumption figure of 41mpg was a nifty (and for this level of performance, unexpected) bonus.
So, what went wrong? It would be hard to come up with a better recipe. You had a carbon tub weighing just 65kg, a composite body, a mid-engine layout with 60 percent of the weight over the driven rear wheels, independent suspension all round, specially coated Brembo brake discs for more bite and feel, and plenty of power for the weight. Its four-metre footprint was very Exige, its wraparound windscreen and 'invisible' A-pillars very Stratos. If the standard exhaust crack and wastegate chatter weren't razzy enough for you, a switchable Akrapovic system was on the options list (which not many Brits went for – it was over £3k), or you could get a Racing Pack with a sports exhaust, race suspension (re-rated springs and dampers and thicker anti-roll bars) and 18 + 19 wheels in place of the standard 17 + 18 arrangement.
The ingredients were all there, and sure enough, the 4C was a hoot to drive – but only if you were on the right roads. A 4C on Pirelli P Zero Trofeos went around the Nordschleife in 8 minutes 4 seconds in 2013 and Alfa’s European sales boss said that the 4C would probably dust a Veyron on a tight Alpine route, but British cart tracks have been humbling the mighty since Roman times, and on first acquaintance with those roads the early 4Cs displayed a fidgetiness bordering on the frenetic, a tendency to tramline, and a strong aversion to road cambers.
In an attempt to make things right, early UK cars were effectively recalled to Alfa HQ in Slough for geometry changes, rear wing strengthening by aluminium straps, ECU/transmission software reflashes and the fitment of a larger battery. Other issues were the 4C's sound, which some thought was better on the outside than it was on the inside. Another hiccup for many old-school Alfisti was Alfa's admission that the 4C would never feature a manual gearbox. The 4C's TCT six-speed twin-clutcher was praised by some for its super-fast changes, great rev-matching and launch control, but others found it stuttery and/or obstructive and some owners would go on to have problems with it, which we'll talk about later.
Anyway, 500 Launch Edition 4Cs were produced for all markets outside the US. Compare that to the 500 8Cs that were built over its entire three-year run. These 4C LEs came in two shades of red and two of white. They had 18 + 19in forged Teledial wheels in grey (all the 18 + 19 wheelsets were forged, whereas the standard 17 + 18 setup were cast), carbon-surround bi-LED headlights, recalibrated suspension, 'race' exhaust, plus a nice range of cosmetic additions. They were only £1,000 or so dearer than the standard cars when new, and they don't seem to attract that much of a price premium now.
Used Spiders do generally cost a little more than coupes though. The open-top went on sale in 2015, a year after the coupe, with both cars getting further revisions to the geometry and to the front damping in that same year in another attempt to de-twitch the drive. A rear roll bar was brought in for all 4Cs at this time. The Spider had a rollaway cloth soft top, but the carbon tub meant there were no rigidity worries. The projector Xenon lights that were an option on the coupe were standard on the Spider, which also got an improved audio system and better transmission cooling.
In 2016, ostensibly to commemorate the passage of half a century since the launch of the classic 'Graduate' Duetto but also to inject some more life into 4C sales, Alfa Romeo UK released fifty examples of a UK-only 50th Anniversary Spider. Like the LE, the price wasn't penal for a spec which included the race exhaust, dark 18 + 19 alloys, seats in black or red leather with contrast stitching and a raft of carbon bits (rollover bar, side intake, dash pod etc). The colour choices were Competizione Rosso, Madreperla White or Giallo Prototipo – not blue, though.
In 2018 there was a worldwide run of 108 Competizione cars in matte Vesuvio Grey with carbon accents, mirrored by an equal-sized run of Spider Italias in Misano Blue with piano black accents. Production of the 4C coupe finished in 2019, the Spider carrying on for another year.
SPECIFICATION – ALFA ROMEO (2014-on)
Engine: 1,742cc inline four 16v turbocharged
Transmission: 6-speed automatic, rear-wheel drive
Power (hp): [email protected],000rpm
Torque (lb ft): [email protected],100-3,750rpm
0-62mph: 4.5 secs
Top speed: 160mph
MPG (official combined): 41.5
Wheels: 7 x 17in (f), 8 x 18 (r)
Tyres: 255/45 (f), 235/40 (r)
On sale: 2014-2019 (Spider 2015-2020)
Price new: £51,265
Price now: from £35,000
Note for reference: car weight and power data is hard to pin down with absolute certainty. For consistency, we use the same source for all our guides. We hope the data we use is right more often than it’s wrong. Our advice is to treat it as relative rather than definitive.
ENGINE & GEARBOX
The 4C's engine began life under the bonnet of the Giulietta Quadrifoglio, where it had an iron block. The aluminium block that replaced it in the 4C was eventually retrofitted to the GQ.
There’s a fairly hefty gap between the top of the 4C’s torque curve at 3,750rpm and the arrival of maximum power at 6,000rpm, and there's no huge top-end rush to speak of, but the featherweight Alfa makes light work of everything, whizzing from 0-60 in 4.5sec and never feeling anything other than fast.
That torque peak began at 2,100rpm so you could drive lazily if that suited and the engine would easily handle the high gearing. How high? Well, the option of cruise control may have seemed slightly at odds with the perception of cars like the 4C, but with nearly 30mph per thousand revs in top it was actually a useful feature for anyone trying to put away the boring miles en route to their favourite twisties. The drone of the race exhaust could reduce the value of cruise though. With no solid glass panel or hard roof to pen in the noise, a race-piped Spider was less droney than a similarly-equipped coupe and could therefore be a better bet for anyone planning to do long trips.
The 4C came with Alfa's DNA system, which had four modes: Dynamic (probably the most commonly used) where the driving aid systems allowed a good bit of slip angle before interfering; Normal, which was a softer version of Dynamic and OK for daily driving; All Weather, which in wet conditions usefully softened the throttle and boost (and any jerkiness in the TCT gearbox); and Race, which fully disabled the ASR while allowing the stability control to butt in for extra stability under heavy braking.
General servicing is every 12k/12 months. At a good specialist it should cost under £400 for a minor and £600 or so for a major. Alfa Romeo recommends regular tightening up of bolts around the car after the first year and again every two years after that. Cambelt and water pump replacement is every five years or 60,000 miles. It's not a quick job because the belt is hard to get to. Tensioners can get noisy over time and hard-driven cars might eventually need replacement turbos. A stage one remap will quickly liberate 40hp and 50lb ft.
The engine and transmission have a good track record for reliability. Having said that, more than one 4C gearbox has had difficulties with gear selection until the engine was switched off and on again. Most of the car's transmission issues have been solved by dealer software patches, but driveshaft spider joints can go on cars with higher mileages.
The specialised nature of the carbon tub means that new 4C buyers had to agree to send their cars back to Alfa in Italy if they were ever in need of major chassis repairs. You won't be held to those rules as a used 4C buyer, but even so you'd be well advised to have an expert check the straightness of any car you're thinking of buying. Mid-engined sports cars are great handlers and everything but when they do go they can be tough to get back, so crash damage can very much be a thing. You'd be needing a really massive shunt to bend the tub, at which point your car will be scrap, but the aluminium subframes at either end of that are clearly not going to be as sturdy as the CF in a collision.
Controversially the high-geared steering wasn't power assisted, presumably to trumpet the car's light weight. That was a conceit not everyone agreed with. The coated brakes didn't always feel as responsive as they were supposed to either, especially in cold/non-tracky conditions, but a pad upgrade will help. Brake calipers (four-piston up front, twin at the back) came in grey as standard with the option of red, yellow or black.
For ultimate handling delicacy most rate the 17 + 18 wheelset over the 18 + 19 setup. The standard Pirelli P Zero tyres could be switched to AR Racings for track use but again you probably wouldn't want to be on them while negotiating the South Circular on a frosty day. Fitting Michelin Pilot Super Sports is reported to bring tangible improvements in all areas.
The suspension could be operated in race or normal settings. Front lower wishbone ball joints wear out, which is a pain when it happens as it's all one assembly. 8C specialists will happily introduce you to the joy of geometry tricks and redesigned wishbones that will tighten up the steering and make a big difference to the car's stability at speed and through corners.
By design, standard cabin trim is not plush, but it is durable. Nude carbonfibre works well inside a car when it's functional, so the racey CF of the 4C's tub gives it a great interior look, but not everyone will be such a fan of the cheap-looking screw heads on view. To complete the industrial sparseness, new buyers could delete the aircon and the generally useless audio. Post-2015 cars benefited from the very desirable stitched leather dash option that became available from that point, although some of these optioned cars did suffer from leather lift around the airbag panel.
You have to vault over the sills to get in, so scratches can develop there despite the slivers of paint protection film provided by the factory, and the seat bolsters will wear for the same reason. The thinly padded carbon-shelled seats are height adjustable but you'll need a Torx bit and half an hour per seat to do it. When you put the seat all the way to the top position at the front, more or less all of the space behind the seat disappears, which isn't ideal given the titchiness of the boot. Some early coupes suffered from dampness in the boot as a result of water invasion past the seals.
Body panels made from composite are handy in one way because they'll deform and spring back on light hits, but 4C paints aren't so forgiving (especially the red ones) and even gentle touch parking will soon ping off the pigment to reveal the primer beneath. For this reason paint protection film (PPF) is practically essential, especially on the low-slung nose section. PPF moved from the options list to standard equipment on later cars (2018 on), at which point we think that a carbon roof may have been added to the coupe's options. Not many of them about though.
The rear parking sensors that became a free option from late 2015 will help you with reversing. The 4C's awkward rear visibility makes these well worth having even they're aftermarket. The LEDs in the central brake light can conk out and that's potentially annoying because they might not be easy to source in the UK and fitment is twiddly.
The 4C faced something of an identity crisis when it came onto the streets in 2014. Was it an Italian Elise or an Italian Cayman?
It was neither. The Elise was a lot cheaper than the Alfa, and the Cayman that was nearer to it price-wise seemed to offer so much more 'car-ness' (and perceived quality) for your £50k plus.
These comparisons were unlucky for the Alfa because the 4C was a lot more exotic in its design and manufacture than the Porsche and it didn’t have the Lotus advantage of being set up in the UK by some of the world's smartest chassis engineers. In retrospect you could perhaps say that Alfa should have developed the 4C on British roads, on the grounds that if it worked here it would have worked anywhere, but even if that idea had been mooted it's doubtful that Italian national pride would have allowed it to happen.
In the end the driving improvement duties were happily taken on by equally clever folk in the aftermarket. Chassis 'fixes' from the likes of the Alfa Workshop in Royston, Herts will quickly resolve any bumpy B-road blues and give the 4C the handling ammo it needs to take on and very likely beat all-comers on all roads.
The funny thing is that the less than fulsome reviews filed by British-based motoring writers appear to have had no negative effect on the 4C's standing in the UK used car market. Although it hasn't actually started to appreciate yet, its very slow rate of depreciation combined with the very limited number of cars on the used market (there are only a little over 400 cars registered in the UK) suggest that an upward value curve is a matter of when, not if. The few cars that do pop up for sale rarely come in below the £35,000 mark, with £38,000-£40,000 being the more typical sort of price for sub-20,000 mile cars. In terms of depreciation that's good going for a mainstream manufacturer's coupe that cost only £10,000 or so more than that when it was new over seven years ago.
What's available on the 4C shelf at the moment then? Not much, is the answer. You're more likely to find good 4Cs on PH Classifieds than on any of the other big-name selling platforms, but even PH only had two cars for sale at the time of writing. Luckily both coupe and Spider variants are represented in our two-car 'selection' and they're both in classic Alfa red.
First there's this 2014 Launch Edition in Rosso Alfa with the race pack, carbon bits and just 18,000 miles on the clock, pretty as anything at £38,900. And here's an equally delectable Spider, a 2017 11,000-miler also in Rosso Alfa with a good list of useful extras at £39,990. Very tasty.
Search for a used Alfa Romeo 4C here
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