ALFA ROMEO 4C SPIDER

Targa-style Spider is a mid-engine delight on the right road

BY CHRIS THOMPSON + PICS ALASTAR BROOK

FIRST IMPRESSIONS gleaned from reading a carís specifications can sometimes leave you expecting to be underwhelmed. The Alfa Romeo 4C Spider suffered this preconception prior to its arrival at MOTOR HQ. Its 177kW/350Nm turbocharged 1.75-litre four-cylinder engine is outgunned by that of a Golf GTI, and the Alfa costs more than twice as much while lacking power steering and infotainment.

Itís also been around for a few years now, revealed at the 2014 Geneva Show, but hasnít passed through our garage yet. We wanted to see if we were right in our judgements of the Spider. We were not.

Sitting in its driver-focused (read: ĎSpartaní) cabin it becomes clear the 4C wasnít designed with weekday commutes in mind. Of course, on a sunny day youíd be sitting in the cabin without the roof on after having detached it, something thatís incredibly hard to do from inside, then stowed it either in the small rear luggage compartment behind the engine, or in the passenger footwell. Useable interior storage is limited to two cupholders, which if used for drinks puts liquids in the path of reckless elbows.

The Alpine stereo system has no navigation, in fact it has no proper screen, and attempting to use its phonebook function is an exercise in masochism. Its function is limited to a Bluetooth speaker for audio.

But then you turn the key. You donít push a button to start the 4C, but turn a key. And itís glorious. That little four-pot comes to life and, if youíve got a pulse, you begin to warm to the Spider. Suddenly, youíre no longer sitting in an inconvenient Italian sports car, youíre sitting in Supercar Junior. Itíll take just 4.5 seconds to reach 100km/h, according to Alfaís claim, and the $99,000 price tag is very un-supercar. Thatís not a complaint, mind you.

At low speeds on city roads, the 4C draws a lot of attention, but leaves its driver dealing with rough surfaces - our test car had stiffer suspension optioned as part of the $12,000 Racing Package - and heavy, unassisted steering. Visibility is also rather low towards the rear quarters, and thatís not ideal in a city busy with cyclists.

Taking the obvious course of action and heading out of the city is the best way to find the rewards hidden in the 4Cís chassis. Just make sure you avoid wet days. Testing the Spider on two different occasions in different weather revealed that it can be a nervous thing on a twisty, damp road, with its otherwise grippy Pirelli P Zeroes finding excuses to let go without a whole lot of warning. The stiff suspension damping and rigid carbon tub chassis donít provide much communication in the way of body roll, but attacking a corner too hard will usually result in understeer warning you to tone it down.

In drier, warmer weather, the 4C comes alive, and its wallet-friendly supercar characteristics begin to make a lot more sense. The steering is still hard work on rough surfaces, where a bump can catch you by surprise if your grip on the wheel isnít steadfast, and that leads to the thought that some assistance would make this car much better. Thereís just not enough feeling to justify the lack of power steering.

On a smooth road, the 4C will make you feel like a driving hero if you comply with its requirements for smooth driving, even at moderate speeds. Away from damp surfaces, the amount of grip available to the 1035kg (tare, that is) Spider is reassuring, and inspires a little more pressure on the fast pedal. The rear end also needs less Ďmanagementí on grippy surfaces, allowing you to concentrate on whatís coming up after you launch from the corner exit.

AN ADDICTIVE TURBO WHOOSH FILLS YOUR EARS, AND THEREíS NO ESCAPING THAT SIREN SONG

An addictive turbo whoosh engulfs your ears, and thereís no escaping that siren song as its source is right behind the driverís seat. That sound, and the rorty exhaust snaps on upshifts, beckon you to go faster.

Its engine provides ample low-range torque, while power peaks up at 6000rpm. By that point, however, the engine begins to run out of breath. Its low-to-mid range is where the action happens. Even outside of this, the 4C feels fast, and itís far more gratifying to drive a car that feels faster than it is, than a fast car that feels slow.

Itís cliche, but buying a 4C Spider is an emotional purchase, rather than one made logically. But the 4C proved that logic, or the specs sheet, isnít always the best way to make a decision.