Alfa Romeo 4C Spider Says ‘Ciao, America

Posted on Jul 27 2015 - 7:06am by Mary Mohler
It was afternoon getting on evening at the Bernardus Lodge, a resort 10 miles inland from the northern California idyll of Carmel-by-the-Sea.
Alfa Romeo 4C Spider
A guitarist was plucking Somewhere Over the Rainbow, the notes lilting on a jasmine-charged breeze. A waiter arrived with a dish of pickled vegetables and a beverage. The drink was tall and I was grateful. It had been a long day, and there was a lot to reflect on, not least of which a certain dream that, thanks to a daring corporate calculation and the exertions of a small assembly line in Modena, Italy, was assuming the colour of reality.Alfa Romeo is back in the United States after a protracted absence. The car marking this return, the 4C – a small mid-engine sports coupe hand-built around a carbon-fibre tub – began arriving in US dealerships in November 2014. This June, Alfa hosted a California coming-out party for a convertible version of the 4C, the Spider.

I exercised the 4C coupe last winter not far from here. Looking back, it’s difficult to say which was more striking: the 4C’s dynamics or the giddy reactions elicited from nearly everyone whose path the car crossed.

In terms of driving purity, the closest thing to a 4C may be another Alfa, the Giulietta SZ, an aluminium-bodied 1960s racer I drove in a rally last fall. Though the two cars were born half a century apart, the genetic link is unmistakable: the Spartan cockpit designed not to cosset, but to engage; the twin impressions of lightness and robustness; and the small high-output engine – unencumbered by the weight of creature comforts – whose accelerative force conveys eagerness rather than brute strength overcoming obesity. This, in marked contrast to the experience of pinning the accelerator on so many of today’s luxurious, high-horsepower behemoths, is one of the 4C’s greatest pleasures.

The 4C Spider drives, handles and otherwise feels just like the coupe, albeit with the additional degree of tanning and ventilation afforded by a removable roof, available in standard cloth or optional carbon fibre. Fabio Migliavacca, Alfa Romeo’s European senior product manager for the 4C and 4C Spider, deftly demonstrated the installation of the soft top at the roadside, which took on the order of 30 seconds.

Driving back up the coast to Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, I spotted a lemon-yellow convertible darting around the curves far ahead. It was vintage, Italian and fast. Narrowing the gap required considerable effort, the yellow dot disappearing round the bends just before I could draw a bead. Ultimately, traffic got the better of it, and as it slowed to a crawl I made out the swooping Alfa Romeo script on the tail of a well-preserved mid-’70s Spider not unlike the Duetto immortalised by Dustin Hoffman in 1967’s The Graduate, whose design would remain more or less intact until Alfa’s exit from the US in 1994.

Many in the motoring press, and a far greater number of casual misanthropes, attribute Alfa Romeo’s departure to quality problems. I subscribe to a view posited by the late Pat Braden, a founding member of the Alfa Romeo Owners Club USA and author of three well-regarded books on the marque. Braden observed that Alfa Romeo sold 8,201 cars in the US in 1986, its best year ever, and that sales began to plummet in 1988, when the brand entered into what Braden described as an ill-conceived distribution agreement with Chrysler, whose dealers never adequately understood Alfa Romeo or its customer base.

In any case, the Fiat Chrysler Automobiles conglomerate of today seems highly attuned to the 4C’s prospective drivers. European consumers are laying down deposits for cars that may take more than a year for delivery. Though the US market is not quite as hot, it is far from tepid. Stateside 4Cs spend an average of just 17 days in the showroom before being snapped up at an average price of $72,000, whether by long-pining alfisti, total newcomers or perhaps analytical sorts titillated by the thought of purchasing a carbon-tubbed exotic at a fraction of the global going rate.

Testing the Spider on track was an exciting prospect, though a daunting one after an orientation lap in a minivan, piloted at throat-parching speed by a Laguna Seca instructor. A few minutes on a couch, focusing on the notion that fear is merely an affirmation of life, I rallied.

On track, the Spider more than fulfills the promise hinted at on the road, Pirellis gripping the asphalt like nails. Its Brembo brake calipers and almost comically small rotors – the latter a fringe benefit of the 4C’s ultralight carbon-fibre construction – provide surprisingly massive stopping force. Digging into the throttle on the straights unspools a gleeful rush only accentuated by the sun, wind, and whoosh and whomp of a turbocharged engine with less displacement than a family-size bottle of soda pop.

The effect is electric – so much so that, as I approach what feels like 100mph (161km/h), the speedometer displays a mere 67. How curious: a supercar that feels super even at legal highway speeds. Then again, Alfa Romeo has always understood that the joy of driving derives not from any ordinary sort of velocity, but the kind that dreams are made of.