Alfa Romeo stunned the automotive world, delighted its admirers, defended its proud-but ancient reputation for building lightweight performance cars – and staved off a determined Volkswagen takeover effort – all by launching an all-new sports car coupe called the 4C at the recent Geneva Motor Show. The mid-engined, Lotus Elise-sized two-seater is tipped to be in European showrooms in 18 months' time – and could bolster hopes for the brand's long-awaited return to the North American market.
"Never before has there been an Alfa built for the road with the combination of a mid-mounted engine and rear-wheel drive, although we have built many of them for the track," says Alfa chief executive Harold Wester. "But we are getting back to our roots. We could have built a new Alfa Romeo performance car simply by fitting a Giulietta with a 350-horsepower engine; that would have been the easy way. But Alfa's history is for lightweight sports cars, like the GTA, which is why the 4C is the way it is."
The car, whose 13ft overall length and 94.5in. wheelbase recall the short, petite Lancia Stratos of the 1970s, uses styling cues pioneered on the 8C Competizione supercar. The exterior styling is claimed by Alfa design chief Marco Tencone to be "very close" to the production shape planned for the car's showroom launch in 2012.
"We designed the car entirely in-house," says Tencone, "and our intention was to add to the style we began with the 8C, rather than trying to do anything different."
The 8C, which first appeared five years ago, was so much admired that Fiat Group Chairman and CEO Sergio Marchionne decreed that it should be the basis for a new Alfa design language that would subsequently be used on the Punto-based Mito and the more recent Giulietta. Both cars have been well received, especially on styling grounds.
The most eye-catching technical feature is the 4C's carbon fiber central chassis – unique in such a low-cost car – to which steel-aluminum structures connect at each end. Only the KTM X-Bow offers a carbon fiber chassis at anything like the 4C's proposed price of around $65,000; most models at this level use either a steel monocoque or aluminum box-section structures. The chassis is a Fiat Group design, produced by a local Italian supplier.
The 4C's front assembly carries the double-wishbone, coil-spring front suspension and provides the crash structure, while the rear consists both of crush-sections and mountings for the rear MacPherson strut suspension and the transversely mounted, turbocharged 1.7-liter engine. At the curb, the car weighs just 1,874lbs, about the same as a contemporary Elise, with a Stratos-like weight distribution of 40 percent front and 60 percent rear. The front wheels are 18-inchers, wearing 225/40 Z-rated tires. The rears are 235/35 ZR19s.
The engine is a version of the 1750 TBi turbo unit already installed in the Giulietta and 159, producing "around 200hp" and driving the rear wheels through a 6-speed dual-clutch gearbox. It is equipped with direct fuel injection, MultiAir dual continuous variable valve timing and a revolutionary scavenging control system that virtually eliminates turbo lag. The company claims sparkling performance for the 4C – 0-62mph in less than 5sec and a top speed of around 155mph – which it claims would normally be expected of a 3.0-liter car, but with much better fuel economy.
Although the 4C concept's exterior is very similar to that of the coming production car, its motorcycle-inspired interior will not be so faithfully repeated in production. The cabin uses many metal parts, including an eye-catching (but probably light-catching, too) metal "eyebrow" over the instruments, a skeletal center console and an elegant set of metal pedals. The production version will be more like that of current Alfa models, Tencone says.
Entry to the cabin is rather restricted through small, low doors, without being as difficult to get in and out of as an Elise. "I would not pretend that this is an entirely practical car," says Wester. "It is not meant to be. Alfa Romeo has two sides to its character: the super-sporting side, closely related to racing and high-performance driving, and the more refined, grand touring side. The 4C definitely comes from the former. We do not think buyers will have any doubts about that."
Wester says production will begin in the first half of 2012 and will be continuous, rather than in batches, at about 1,500 units a year. He won't say where the car will be built, but is positive that a new factory will not be needed. "This is the modern motor industry," he says wryly. "We do not need extra capacity."
The 4C, confidently expected by Alfa's European dealers to find eager buyers, is tipped by Wester to "reinforce Alfa Romeo's global growth." So far, the surprise arrival of the 4C looks a shrewd move that has every chance of working – and it had better. VW, and especially its ambitious chairman, Ferdinand Piech, are watching...