Alfa Romeo Exotica The 4C meets its 8C big brother Alfa Romeo 4C and 8C Hooray! The first customer 4C right-hookers are finally with their lucky owners. That’s cause to celebrate, and what better way than to run one back-to-back with its 8C big brother. Test by Chris Rees. Photography by Michael Ward.
Alfa Romeo 4C vs. 8C Halo Alfas back to back
First things first: here we have two of the greatest sportscars built in recent years. And – at the risk of sounding Clarkson-like – that’s a fact. While not everyone has been totally positive about the 4C, I have to admit I’m pretty darned convinced by it. A mid-engined Alfa with a carbon chassis that weighs a mere 895kg – what’s not to like about that?
And now the 4C is available with the steering wheel on the correct side. Yes; I can confidently say ‘correct’, not because I’ve come down with a bout of Clarkson-jingoism, but because (perhaps for the first time ever for an Alfa) the 4C is actually better in RHD than LHD.
It’s been a consistent Alfa bugbear that right-hand drive is very much an afterthought, and I’ve lost count of the times I’ve driven an Alfa only to discover that (a) there’s no rest for your left foot, and (b) the steering wheel is cocked so far over from the pedals that it feels like it’s making a run back to Italy. It’s a delight to report that this is very much not the case with the UK-spec 4C. Not only does it have a footrest but – shock, horror – its pedal box is actually less offset than it is on the LHD 4C. It’s even better to sit at the helm of a right-hook 4C. Although no easier to get into, as the scuff marks on the sills of our near-zero- mile test car readily attest.
So what do we have here? It’s a regular 4C (i.e. not the ‘launch edition’) with a Racing Pack (beefier suspension, loud exhaust and bigger wheels and tyres), painted in the same spectacular Rosso Competizione shade as the 8C. And if you think this is a pricey option at £2100, it’s nothing compared to how much exactly the same colour was on the 8C – no less than £20,000! Compared to the 8C’s original price of over £130,000, the 4C’s base price of £45k seems excellent value – even if, Alfa tells me, owners are in fact typically spending £55k on theirs. After all 60 ‘launch edition’ cars are delivered to UK customers this year, a total of 200 UK 4Cs will be imported in the first 12 months. That’s a tiny number; but you might get lucky and score a nearly-new one, because it’s now been confirmed that there will definitely be a 4C Spider – and already many existing UK 4C owners have expressed an interest to upgrade.
Being so low and short, the 4C looks dinky, but I’m surprised when we line it up alongside the 8C to discover that it looks every bit as wide. Turns out the 8C is in fact wider, but only by one mere inch. But there’s no escaping that the 8C is a substantially bigger car, some 391mm (15 inches) longer and much taller. That begins to explain – along with the far higher proportion of metal in its construction, and the meaty V8 up front – why it’s such a heavyweight in comparison, at fully 1585kg – or 77% heavier than the 4C’s featherweight 895kg.
Light weight is the key to the 4C’s character. Very few cars tip the scales as low as 895kg these days, so the word ‘feisty’ is often in my head as I’m piloting the 4C. The word ‘extreme’ is also there – but not outrageously extreme, even with the Racing Pack fitted. The firmer suspension has a rear anti-roll bar added, plus a beefed-up front ARB, and in this form it really bucks and weaves – like a thoroughbred horse barely containing its adrenaline.
On its optional Racing five-hole ‘telephone dial’ alloys and 205/40 ZR18 front tyres and 235/35 ZR19 rears, the 4C is extremely pointy and grippy. The 4C has an ‘evolved’ version of Alfa’s DNA (Dynamic, Normal, All Weather) system. Set in ‘D’ mode, I have a stab at making the rear end come round, but to no avail. Go into a corner too quickly and you just get (benign) understeer. Come out of a corner too quickly and it feels like the back end is about to start coming round, but then… nothing happens, as the diff and traction control system very much rein the beast in.
I was beginning to feel a bit short-changed, but then there’s always Race mode (engaged by pressing the DNA toggle forwards in ‘D’ mode for around 10 seconds). However, on the two occasions when I’ve driven the 4C on a track, I’ve been stalked by a ‘minder’ from Alfa. On both occasions, said minders have emphasised the, er, marginal nature of the handling in ‘Race’ mode. On the first occasion, I was told not to engage ‘Race’ at all on health and safety grounds. On the second, I was allowed to enter ‘Race’ after some persuasion, and then only with a stern warning: with such a short wheelbase and the on/off pivoting nature of the mid-engined chassis, it’s prone to catching out the unwary. The electronic Q2 diff remains switched on, but the ESP and ABS are deactivated, and a neat g-meter comes up on the dashboard.
One other thing about the ‘Racing’ spec is that the exhaust is Really Very Loud. The sound is a high-decibel farty thrum at tickover, but that quickly turns into a something much more visceral as you raise the revs. If you’re a hardcore trackday fan, it’s great. If you’re not, it can frankly get a bit wearing. Luckily, the pipework is interchangeable with the standard set-up, which is far more liveable with on a daily basis. And here’s something interesting: Alfa Romeo UK wants to spec up its 4C demo fleet to the standard, non-Racing spec (smaller wheel size, standard suspension, quiet exhaust), because it thinks it’s actually much better suited to UK roads.
In raw terms, the 4C is a quick car, of that there’s no doubt. The Giulietta-based 1742cc four-pot has an aluminium block to cut weight, and delivers its power with the character of a much larger engine. The turbo is tuned to deliver 80% of peak torque at just 1800rpm, so you don’t even need to change gears very often. Ah, yes, the gears. A lot of people don’t like Alfa’s TCT transmission, but just about every performance car these days has switched over to something similar, from Renault Sport Clios to Ferraris. Personally, I think Alfa’s six-speed dual-dry-clutch, automated/paddleshift system works very well, and even offers a launch control function. And the brakes – perforated, ventilated, 305 x 28 discs, grabbed by Brembo four-pot calipers – go about their work with great efficacy.
And so to the 8C. Ironically for a test involving the right-hook 4C, the 8C was only ever built with its steering wheel on the left. Alfa never bothered with RHD because it’s such a rarefied beast: just 40 of the 500 Coupes ever built came to the UK.
There are more similarities between the two cars than I was expecting, beyond their identically lustrous paint scheme. Much of the 8C’s structure (and bodywork) is carbonfibre, although the 8C’s steel central floorpan and steel subframes front and rear are less exotic. Carbon and aluminium adorn the cabin (including the delightful carbon seats) – again, very similar to the 4C.
This is my first time behind the wheel of an 8C, and I have to thank owner Mario Pavli for the privilege of driving his superb example. He was the first person to place an order at his local Alfa dealer, but he didn’t end up getting allocated a car (hmm, distinct echoes of what’s happened with the 4C, I ponder). All 8Cs in fact went to existing Ferrari owners, not Alfa ones like Mario. He was understandably a little miffed at this, and wasn’t mollified when Alfa offered him the olive branch of an 8C Spider instead; when he saw it he reckoned it looked “too bulbous” and turned it down. So he started searching for a used coupe, with a very particular idea of the ‘correct’ spec. Many 8Cs were ordered in basic spec with standard calipers, straight leather trim, no sat nav and no fitted luggage, but he wanted a fuller spec sheet: fitted luggage, diamond-cut ten-spoke alloys, yellow calipers and Quadrifloglio badges on the wings. He eventually found this car at Romans, with just 1500 miles on the clock (now 9k). So what is the ‘ideal-spec’ 8C like to drive? In a word: fantastico! The V8 engine – with its heritage firmly rooted in the Maserati Gran Turismo (and thence Ferrari) – has a capacity of 4.7 litres. With 450bhp at 7000rpm, it’s certainly no slouch. Interestingly, the 8C’s power-to-weight ratio isn’t that much better than the 4C (284bhp per tonne, versus 268bhp/tonne), so the two cars’ acceleration figures are remarkably close (at lower speeds, at least).
But the way the power is delivered is like calcium and Caerphilly. The 8C has a brutality to its power, and yet also a relaxed feeling that there’s plenty in reserve.
The sound of the V8 is gorgeous, especially if you punch the ‘Sport’ button which opens up the baffles in the exhaust (and also sharpens up the throttle response and prevents the auto ’box shifting up a gear when you hit the rev limiter).
Ah yes, the gearbox: like the 4C, it’s a six-speed paddleshift transaxle with the gearbox just ahead of the rear axle. And like the 4C, I reckon it works very well indeed. Alfa even measured how fast-acting it was – and at 175 milliseconds, it’s faster than anyone can change a manual lever.
Chassis-wise, the 8C is peachy. The double-wishbone suspension shares much in common with the Quattroporte but has unique bushes, geometry, springs and dampers – with no sign of Maserati’s controversial Skyhook system. It’s set up stiffer than the later 8C convertible’s, and despite the presence of a limited-slip differential, it’s distinctly possible to get the rear end to skip out of line, as I discover at 70mph on a fast left-hander: on hitting a bump, the tail fires itself into a ‘moment’ that is easy to deal with by an intuitive flick of the wheel. That’s what you want in a sportscar, though: a car with handling that’s predictable and intuitive – which is where the 8C does, I think, score over the 4C.
Having these two cars here together really hammers it home that Alfa Romeo can – and does – still build great sportscars. But, colour scheme apart, it’s hard to imagine a more contrasting pair of interpretations of the sportscar theme. The 8C remains one of the most beautiful cars ever designed: sultry, lithe, with not a line out of place. In contrast, the 4C – like so many mid-engined cars – is forced to adopt a look that’s a little more generic. If we said it was Elise-like, I don’t think we’d be doing it a disservice. It even feels quite a lot like an Elise to drive. And that’s in stark contrast to the way the 8C goes about its business. These two cars are utterly different animals. The 4C is the skin-stretched-tight cheetah to the 8C’s more lion-like character. The 4C is the light, taut, nervous young blood; the 8C is the accomplished, magnificent king of the pride by comparison. But they’re both undeniably still wildcats in their own way.
I leave my test with some fantastic memories of both cars, but just one regret: I never did get the 4C’s back end to break loose. But maybe that’s a good thing. Just before I tested the 4C, I’d had a drive of the Vauxhall VXR220 – another mid-engined car, but one lacking any form of traction control or limited-slip diff. The man at Vauxhall told me that 25% of VXR220s have now been written off in, ahem, ‘oversteer incidents’ – all too easy to experience, as I discovered myself (in total safety, naturally…). At least with the 4C you can be sure this kind of thing is very unlikely happen – at least, not without a lot of provocation. Now, all I need to do is shake those Alfa minders, switch the 4C into ‘R’ mode and get truly provocative.
|CAR:||2014 Alfa Romeo 4C Type 960||2007 Alfa Romeo 8C Competizione|
|ENGINE:||4cyl in-line, turbo, dohc||V8, dohc per bank|
|BORE X STROKE:||83mm x 80.5mm||92mm x 79.8mm|
|POWER:||240bhp @ 6000rpm||450bhp @ 7000rpm|
|TORQUE:||258lb ft @ 2200-4250rpm||350lb ft @ 4750rpm|
|TRANSMISSION:||Six-speed, semi-automatic, rear-wheel drive||Six-speed, semi-automatic, rear-wheel drive|
|BRAKES:||305mm ventilated discs (front), 292mm ventilated discs (rear)||380mm ventilated discs (front), 330mm ventilated discs (rear)|
|SUSPENSION:||Independent with double wishbones, anti-roll bar (front), MacPherson struts,||Independent with double wishbones, optional anti-roll bar (rear) anti-roll bar (front & rear)|
|TYRES:||205/45 R17 front, 235/40 R18 rear (optional: 205/40 ZR18 front, 235/35 ZR19 rear)||245/35 ZR20 front, 285/35 ZR20 rear|
|DIMENSIONS:||3989mm (L), 1864mm (W), 1183mm (H)||4381mm (L), 1894mm (W), 1341mm (H)|
|FUEL CONSUMPTION:||41.5mpg||17.9mpg (combined)|
|TOP SPEED:||160mph||181mph (claimed)|
|PRICE:||£45,000||£133,200 (in 2007)|
RIGHT: The Alfa Romeo 4C in this feature was one of the very first right-hand drive cars to be delivered LEFT CENTRE: Another technological innovation for the 4C is the fully digitised instrument display. BELOW: The 8C is built on a shortened Maserati GranTurismo chassis and inherits the 4.7-litre V8.