Contorting into the cockpit of the Rosso Competizione, or Competition Red, Alfa Romeo 4C Spider, Freeman Thomas comes to mind. The automotive designer once spoke of his design vision as akin to storytelling, of the energy created by the dream as it morphs into an organic, seminal object. I wondered what narrative the architects of the 4C had in mind.
But I think I figured it out.
"This car has trouble written all over it."
The Italians do everything with panache, and the 4C embraces its lineage. Inspired by the 1967 33 Stradale, a masterpiece conceived by influential designer, Franco Scallion, the 4C Spider, and its Coupe sibling, assert an aura of visceral, lusty seduction.
Perhaps the 4C's tale follows the tried-and-true formula of a Bronte romance novel. A handsome, tortured hero transmitting an irresistible charisma interwoven with fierce, animal magnetism. Only the trusting nature and gentle independence of the innocent heroine will rescue this dashing fellow from his belligerent, despotic ways, freeing a mushy inner child in the process.
Dear reader, this is the idealistic vision for my limited dalliance with the 4C.
Oh, hell, scratch that, maybe my fixation with the car just comes down to Fifty Shades of Grey's Christian and Ana.
Gripping, Absolutely Ripping
Southern California has plenty of driving drawbacks, however, it is the land of the car, and, as such, presents an eclectic array of motoring opportunities. My get-acquainted date with the 4C will take place with participation in the 5th Annual New Year's "Orange de Tour" gathering.
The yearly get-together finds collectors and enthusiasts pursuing a swooping, ocean-view route along Pacific Coast Highway before leaving the main road. The group then snarls through the narrow streets of an upscale beachside enclave. Next, the rolling collective turns eastward to the rugged two-laners of Orange County's Silverado Canyon. Reins loosened, a leg-stretching rush ensues with a show of wheels that, for the most part, are definitely not daily drivers.
I am nervous. Will the 4C consider me just another conquest or will courtliness prevail?
Pulling into a parking lot along the Newport Coast of California, the staging area for the anno novo drive, I am greeted by an array of automotive rarity, including plenty of four-wheeled kin. How about a 1956 Giulietta Sprint, 1969 Alfa GTV, 1974 Alfa Spider, 1600 Junior Zagato, and 1974 Giulia Super Nuova?
Heading out, there are constant reminders that this little number is automotive eye candy. Heads snap. Driving the point home is the motorist in front of me videoing the 4C's approach over his shoulder. Talk about distracted driving.
So, first-date impressions:
First off, the short wheelbase and a lack of power steering make traversing twisty roads at good speed a bit like driving a shifter cart masquerading as a car.
Alfa Romeo describes the 4C as a "vehicle designed around the driver." That is, if said driver is seeking raw performance, sans bells, whistles, or the automotive creature comforts to which we have all become accustomed, this is the quintessential ride. For starters, and perhaps in a nod to the risks of distracted driving in a beastie-like vehicle, Alfa has skimped on digital goodies. Those expecting an automotive iPhone will be disappointed. The interior can best be described as "no frills." I do miss a real glove compartment, though.
That said, the very absence of difficult-to-discern technology is refreshing. The radio can be adjusted by tactile feel, and the heating and air system feature large, old-fashioned knobs. This is good, since the unassisted steering does forgo fiddling with unnecessary components. The simplicity just might double as a safety feature; in a car that is on the muscle by nature, prudence advises both hands on the flat-bottomed steering wheel.
A lack of inner goodies also keeps the weight, and the price, down. "My" Alfa clocked in at $73,795 with the few options available. Cruise control, sport tuned dual exhaust, and Brembo brake calipers in red. The seats may be leather, but they are also spartan, to say the least—and low. Crawling in with any sort of grace probably just takes practice.
Thanks to that featherweight monocoque tub, visible in the austere interior, the car weighs in at a little less than 2,500 pounds. The mid-engine layout offers a 1.7L, 237hp, turbocharged four-cylinder, just waiting to be abused.
When pulling out of a parking space, driveway, or maneuvering at slow speeds, the unassisted steering feels heavy. Visibility from the rear is nearly nonexistent, making backing up in tight parking a further challenge, although the side mirrors provide a wide rear view. This is not a "quick Saturday run to the market" ride. Not to mention a trunk compartment the size of a large purse. There's that.
Ground clearance borders on subterranean. In a crowded, speed bump-laden parking lot, I held up traffic in both directions while executing a crab-like crawl over what seemed an inordinately high elevation from the 4C vantage.
But this is all digression because as a "driver's car," accouterments and minor inconveniences should not matter. Turn the key and the dual-mode exhaust system resonates with a sound reminiscent of an aggressive Mongolian Throat singer. In open landscape, such Tuvan crooning travels long distances. Much as the Western Xia were aware of Genghis Khan and his troops, the overtones emitted from the 4C, with plenty of popping, spitting, and downshift blips, alerted a good portion of surrounding suburbia to its presence.
Heading to the Alfa website, once again, for some more trivial info-speak, I discover that the 4C is "equipped with an Alfa TCT five-speed automated manual transmission with a twin clutch and paddle shifters, combining the instant power of a sequential shift with the convenience of an automatic."
Call me retro-minded, but I miss a manual transmission in a sports car. Pressing "1" for forward, "A/M" for manual mode, "R," reverse, and "N" for neutral is uncomplicated, despite being reminiscent of the old Chrysler PowerFlite tranny. In reality, there is enough to concentrate on without throwing a clutch and gearshift into the mix, but, still...
The semi-automatic box is basically what we have come to expect. Four modes are available, to "tailor your driving experiences." I went through all modes and opted for the automatic. I'm in real-time traffic here, not turning in early at the corkscrew at Laguna Seca.
I did enjoy the launch mode, however. Danger, Will Robinson!
For the full orchestral experience of a bombastic low-brass section emanating from behind the seat, the Spider's soft-folding roof can be easily removed and stowed in the trunk behind the engine. Honestly, I never bothered because, in traffic, you can look up at the underside of a Freightliner. Back roads are the place for the 4C to be topless.
Technical information aside, if my ride could talk, this is where it might stifle a yawn and growl, "Just shut up and drive."
Upping the ante from the fairytale idyll of a beachside, canyon-land cruise, a descent into the Dante-like madness that is the Los Angeles freeway system proves a true test of our carbon-fiber hero's mettle.
Every romantic protagonist shares a few traits with fellow archetypes: nerves of steel, a sardonic sense of humor, and, often, expertise in the arts or culture.
So what better way to assess these attributes than a visit to Los Angeles Museum of Modern Art to visit the CARtoons: Art of America's Car exhibit.
Dedicated to automotive cartooning, with slapstick, Mad magazine-like commentary, the CARtoon rag was produced in Los Angeles between 1959 and 1991.
New Year's Day traffic is remarkably light, and choking back the last traces of regret over the lack of a manual transmission, it's time to see if the C4 can rocket from a stop to the promised 60 mph in single-digit seconds. It does.
This car is made for high speeds, fondling every road bump, groove and irregularity, and myriad other inconveniences unique to California's freeway system. The slightest correction in the unassisted steering is immediate, even to the point of feeling a bit squirrelly, and bringing on a little queasiness. From the passenger seat, attempting to consult the online owner's manual is ill advised. Moreover, should Caltrans decide to adopt a road-abnormality detection device, a small fleet of 4C's might be a taxpayer-friendly investment.
Exiting onto La Brea Boulevard, the entire Southern California populace appears to be heading to the museum. The 4C does not succumb to road rage, although creeping in stop-and-go traffic is a bit tiresome and jerky at each takeoff, as the clutch is slow to engage. Other than that, the car minds its manners throughout the crawl, and we arrive unscathed, worry free, and in good humor. Walking away from the museum parking lot, I look back to see the parking attendant giving my date more than a determined stare.
The CARtoons showing does not disappoint, a flippant wave of nostalgia for simpler times.
Our next stop is coffee with friends. Driving through the narrow residential streets of Los Angeles with the automatic is uncomplicated. However, lose your way and the low stance and heavy steering wreak havoc on the nerves, particularly when negotiating driveway turnarounds on tight, well-traveled streets. Throw sparse, OK, virtually nonexistent, street parking into the mix and I am jonesing for something a little stronger than espresso. Besides, an urban "coffee date" is a bit pedestrian for my debonair, four-wheeled companion.
Our arrival did, however, interrupt a monotonous Sunday evening for the barista, who literally tripped over himself hurtling out of the coffee house in an automotive swoon.
Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?
Color me seduced. In spite of a few shortcomings, I am in love with this bad boy and have developed a tentative trust. That said, the true test of faith arrives via date number three—the photo shoot.
Freeways, residential streets, and canyon roads seem like child's play when confronted with car-to-car photography. Snapper extraordinaire Bruce Benedict decides Trabuco Canyon's Cook's Corner is the perfect spot to begin this photo romp.
The infamous "biker bar" has been a mainstay in the canyon since 1926. Originally a restaurant for miners and local ranchers, the end of Prohibition in 1933 resulted in the establishment becoming a full-fledged bar, eventually evolving into a meeting place for two-wheeled enthusiasts. The place can be wild and crazy, and my Italian escort needs verve and aplomb to fit in with the pack.
The urbane 4C is unfazed by the leather-clad assemblage. They garner none of my attention. My angst is focused on the cameras being affixed to the lead photography car. Once we're off, two-way radio in hand, the star of the show must follow at a ridiculously close proximity and maintain an equally silly rate of speed on a two-lane canyon road. This is no "palm the steering wheel through the corner" affair—not that this type of driving is even remotely advisable or even possible in the 4C.
At this point, I'm grateful for the automatic transmission, Brembo brakes, and the very fact that this car maneuvers like a well-drilled warrior. My life, and driving record, rest in the hands of both car and photographer—whose constant assurances of no sudden stops bolsters my meager confidence. The results are stunning.
Too soon, we part. Was my partner Heathcliff, or Mr. Rochester, or is he really Christian Grey in his multi-toned high-rise? One of the pluses of a relationship ended on an early note is an unexpired infatuation stage, and I leave the Alfa Romeo 4C Spider with a full-on crush.
Ain't love grand?