The 2014 Alfa Romeo 4C owes its existence to the 8C, a simple, beautiful coupe that came to life purely to remind Americans that a mythical company called Alfa Romeo still existed.
It mattered not that the 8C was little more than a cut-down Maserati GranTurismo with carbon-fiber skin. The 8C invoked passion and it left unmoved no eye that surveyed its skin and left unshaken no soul that had heard its V8 bellow.
And that is why Alfa Romeo built the 4C, a follow-up car that was built from scratch as a pure sports car. The 4C concept wowed at the 2011 Geneva Auto Show and drowned Alfa in demands that it be built. And now, at last, comes the 4C production car.
Alfa Romeo in the U.S.
This car will spearhead Alfa's much-delayed return to the U.S. At least that's what Alfa keeps telling us. Where 4Cs will be sold and for how much is still unknown.
With that in mind, we asked for a closer look at what is available, at least in Europe. We not only got up close and personal with a 4C, we spent some time talking to Domenico Bagnosco, Alfa Romeo's development boss, and Alessandro Maccolini, Alfa's head of exterior design.
Listening to the two men talk about their latest creation offered good insight into how Alfa thinks these days. On one hand it still wants to make passionate cars that are true drivers' machines. On the other hand, it needs to be practical about entering the American market, as there is little room for error.
Light Chassis and Modest Power
Where others try to satisfy extremes of both comfort and performance, Alfa has hunted weight at every turn. Instead of using new kinds of steel or aluminum, Alfa went all out with a carbon-fiber chassis. That should put to rest any ideas that the 4C is anything but a thoroughbred designed for mountain roads and racetracks.
The payoff is a car that weighs just 1,973 pounds. Credit all that carbon fiber and the complete absence of luxury. Alfa not only ditched power steering in the 4C, it went without armrests, too.
Finding the right engine was the easy part. Alfa already had a solid 1.8-liter, turbocharged four-cylinder engine with direct injection and variable valve timing. All it needed was an aluminum bottom end and a few tweaks to bump its output to 237 horsepower and 258 pound-feet of torque.
"It's enough power," Bagnosco insisted. "I do not think people will use this car for the motorway. It's not that kind of car. It's light and it has 60 percent of its weight over the rear axle because it's for the winding roads."
Focus on Handling
The rest of the main mechanical package wasn't difficult to piece together either, especially as both the engine and the six-speed, dual-clutch transmission (with a lighter dry-clutch setup) were already engineered for Alfa's Giulietta.
A four-piston Brembo brake caliper up front completes the core package, along with unassisted hydraulic steering and tweaks to the DNA system (which alters the throttle, exhaust and stability programs) to include a Race mode.
The 2014 Alfa Romeo 4C doesn't have a mechanical limited-slip but instead relies on an "electronic" limited slip. On "Launch Edition" models, the 4C is fitted with 205/40ZR18 Pirelli P Zero tires on the front and 235/35ZR19s on the back. The normal production 4C will have 17-inch front wheels and 18-inch rear wheels.
Not an Easy Build
But while the mechanical package was relatively simple, the rest of the ground-up project took all the time.
"The tolerance for every part of the monocoque is 0.1mm [0.0039 inch]," Bagnosco insisted. "This was one of the key points for our autoclave machines: to guarantee the manufacturing accuracy. To mount the double-wishbone front suspension, we have at least eight holes to guarantee the geometry. The castor angle and the king pin all depend on this being right in manufacturing."
That is the heart of the 4C from the engineer's point of view. Everything about the car is there to support the handling package, with the unusual layout of a multilink front suspension and a rear end with inboard-mounted MacPherson struts.
Inboard rear MacPherson struts?
"Our goal was to offer the best performance and we obtain that with weight-to-power ratio, so we tried to save weight without compromising the handling performance," Bagnosco explained.
"We could do something more complex or conventional, but it adds weight and at the end, the goal of the suspension is only to maintain the four wheels in the correct direction.
Must Look the Part
If there are risks and rewards in the engineering, then the risks in the body design are enormous, at least in its headlights that seem drawn directly from The Matrix's Sentinels.
"Well, the only real brief was that it was to be no more than 4 meters long," design boss Alessandro Maccolini said. "Other than that, the width was defined by the suspension and the aerodynamics, so there is nothing artificial about any of it."
Even if there is all-new chassis engineering and suspension architecture, there are enough familiar Alfa elements to make it fit right into the family.
"Compared to the 8C, that car was a little oversized so if you shrank it, it was perfect. This has a midengine lightweight feeling and that's perfect for design," Maccolini said.
Alfa also tried to respect the concept car, which drew rave reviews when it debuted in Geneva in 2011.
"You need to bear in mind that when we design a concept car we try to express the maximum for design and we don't have many restraints. It's not real," Maccolini explained.
"The challenge was how to change the general structure of the car but maintain the same style. Every millimeter is different and every angle and radius is different but, you know, it looks the same as the concept car."
Designing for the U.S.
Another thing his team had to respect was a raft of global (and U.S.) crash standards that it hadn't dealt with before, all while remaining true to the concept car's crisp balance.
"So, even if you do the same car for the road, you have to do it totally differently. We made the car for the U.S. and Europe and it's the first time we've done that and sometimes the rules are very, very different," Maccolini continued.
Besides the crash rules of the world, aerodynamics for cooling and high-speed balance ruled the pencils more than any other factor.
"The air outlets were not present in the concept but it was necessary for the production car and it works perfectly with the style.
"The concept car's diffuser was lovely, but this production unit is designed purely around aero, where the other one was just style."
It would have been easy to fall into the trap of loading up the 2014 Alfa Romeo 4C with too much horsepower. After all, it's the one thing that Americans never seem to get enough of. But Alfa remained focused on the 4C's power-to-weight ratio.
"If you look at Ferrari and other brands in that range, there is an escalation in power and we don't want that. We tried to keep the weight low rather than making the power high, so everything in design had to be part of it, not added on," said Maccolini.
Smart move. The sheer number of high-powered sports cars already littering the U.S. market would make an upstart from Italy a tough sell. Better to offer something a little different, like a Lotus in an Italian wrapper. Who could resist that?