The narrow blacktop twists and turns, rises and falls. It plunges into dense, dark stands of redwood, only to burst back out into fields of straw drying to gold in the bright California sun. The back stretch of Carmel Valley Road can stretch the limits for most drivers, and most automobiles – which makes it the perfect place to take the new 2016 Alfa Romeo 4C Spider for its first drive.
It’s been barely a year since the Italian automaker returned to the U.S., after a two decade absence, with the 4C Coupe. The little sports car is an eye-catcher, with the over-the-top curves of its SMC body enveloping an ultra-light carbon fiber platform.
Now, the 4C is going topless, and we jumped at the opportunity to test it out during a long drive along the awe-inspiring Big Sur coastline, on the challenging Laguna Seca race track, and then onto the back roads of Monterey County.
Like the hardtop, the 4C Spider is not for everyone. It’s a challenge to simply get into the little beast. It’s loud, cramped and offers little space for even the barest amenities. On the other hand, that’s all part of the appeal for someone looking for a back-to-basics sports car designed to do one thing well: deliver a thrilling ride by melding man and machine.
Standing side-by-side, you might almost miss the visual differences between the Alfa Romeo 4C Coupe and Spider. Both share the same basic curves and creases, both elegant and excessive. But the convertible’s SMC roof has been replaced by a removable canvas top that one rolls up, stuffs in a sack and stows in what laughingly passes for a trunk. With it removed, you’ll find no room for groceries, perhaps just a small take-out lunch.
The other change is the loss of the transparent cover over the mid-rear-mounted engine, a minor revision that, nonetheless, might disappoint some fans of the 4C Coupe.
The removable top is but one of the ways that the 4C stands in sharp contrast to roadster alternatives like the Porsche Boxster. The electronically operated top on the German offering requires but one touch of a button to operate, folding away or raising back up in a mere 11 seconds. The Boxster also features functional, if modest, storage capacity, even a glovebox. The Alfa’s concession to modern life are unique – and functional – pockets next to both driver and passenger that hold your smartphones tight even under the most aggressive cornering.
Speaking of passengers, it’s the person in the right seat who has to sacrifice. The 4C’s driver-focused cockpit intrudes in the passenger’s space leaving little legroom for anyone over 5’6”.
That cockpit, meanwhile, offers a trick, reconfigurable display that manages to squeeze in all manner of essential information, changing colors as you shift from Normal to Dynamic to Track driving modes. Unfortunately, tall drivers will likely find it difficult to see the upper part of the screen where the tech bar resides.
One of the more pleasant surprises is the fact that the 4C Spider gains barely 22 pounds compared to the original Coupe, still coming in at less than 2,500 pounds.
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As with the hardtop, it’s powered by a hard-working, 1.75-liter inline-four mated to a 6-speed DSG gearbox. This turbocharged powertrain manages to make 237-horsepower and 258 pound-feet of torque. That might not sound especially impressive compared to the likes of the Boxster S, which makes 315-hp. But in the super-light Alfa, you’re getting a power-to-weight ratio of over 10-to-1.
According to the maker, that’s enough to launch from 0 to 60 in 4.1 seconds, about 0.3 seconds faster than the Porsche Cayman. At the same time, the 4C Spider is rated at 34 mpg Highway. In practice, after an incredibly aggressive day of driving we saw just short of 20 mpg.
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On the torturous Carmel Valley Road, the Spider delivers all the power you could ask for, blasting out of corners and racing towards triple-digit numbers on the occasional flat, straight stretch. Where it falls a wee bit short is on Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca. Even with its turbo, the small-displacement I-4 struggles to deliver the low-end grunt you’d like coming out of some of the corners.
But it’s a minor complaint. Overall, the car is lightning quick and the Alfa 4C Spider more than makes up for any low-end torque lag with its incredible handling. The combination of light weight, mid-rear engine layout and short wheelbase give it a nimbleness and agility few other vehicles can match – certainly at anywhere near this price point.
Take it around a tight corner and the Spider rotates instantly, with no push. It redefines the phrase, “on rails.”
While few owners will likely ever get the chance to log track time, the 4C Spider will encourage them to go hunting down the tightest, curviest roads they can find. And it won’t disappoint.
Sadly, Alfa didn’t have any cars available to test with the new active exhaust system. With a touch of a button, they explained, you’ll be able to amp up the little engine’s burbles and roars.
The good news is that Alfa will be ready at launch with a new infotainment head unit that, they promise, will not just sound better but address some of the complaints about the original Parrot radio. We’d found it virtually impossible to pair our iPhone to the old audio package.
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By the numbers, the 2015 Alfa Romeo 4C Spider rates a solid 9.5 on the Fun Factor scale. Practicality, well, there you’re running a 2. This is not a daily driver, not unless you’ve got someone else to run errands and take care of practical tasks. If you’re going away for the weekend with a partner or friend, don’t expect to squeeze much more than a change of shirts and shorts, along with two toothbrushes, in the trunk.
Sometimes, fun requires a little sacrifice.
Look for the 2015 Alfa Romeo 4C Spider to arrive in U.S. showrooms in August. The base price will be $63,900 – destination charges. Company planners anticipate that the typical buyers will spend somewhere in the mid to high-$70,000 range.