2015 Alfa Romeo 4C offers Italian flair for $55,000

Associated Press

After a 19-year absence, Italian carmaker Alfa Romeo is back in the United States and wowing Alfa enthusiasts with the sexy, fun-to-drive 2015 4C two seater.

Even young Americans who don't remember Alfas or realize that actor Dustin Hoffman drove one in the movie "The Graduate" can be attracted to this exotic-looking coupe.

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The 4C is curvaceous; its mid-engine, rear-wheel drive design, excellent power-to-weight ratio and low-to-the-pavement ride can create an adrenaline rush like that of a race car.

Yet the engine in the 4C is just a 1.7-liter, turbocharged four cylinder with 237 horsepower. Additionally, the 4C comes only with an automatic transmission, albeit a six speed, dual-clutch unit with paddle shifters on the steering wheel.

The 2015 4C carries a starting manufacturer's suggested retail price, including destination charge, of $55,195.

Admirers who were drawn to the test car all guessed that pricing was much higher. After all, other Italian exotics, such as Lamborghini and Ferrari, start in the six figures. But they also come with much bigger and more powerful engines.

The 4C's price is in line with the starting retail price tags of other two-seat sport coupes. Germany's rear-wheel drive, 2015 Porsche Cayman two-seat coupe with 275-horsepower, 2.7-liter six cylinder has a starting MSRP, including destination charge, of $53,595. Another sports coupe, the rear-wheel drive, 2015 Chevrolet Corvette, has a starting price of $54,995 with 455-horsepower V-8.

Intriguingly, admirers of the 4C didn't flinch when told this car had only four cylinders. The test car, painted Rosso Competizione red, was that impressive.

They acknowledged, however, some concern over how low the car sits. It's not even 4 feet tall, and there are wide door sills to get over as driver and passenger drop way down into sculpted seats. Frankly, it can be a bit of a struggle to get in and out.

Plus, in the test car, riders felt like they were sitting directly on the floor. They had unique views into the exhaust pipes of sport utility vehicles ahead of them. 4C riders even look up at the trunks of sedans.

But the 4C handling and sensory inputs are something to behold.

This 13.1-foot-long car is built of lightweight materials such as carbon fiber, which is put into the moncoque body in layers, and aluminum, which is in the subframes.

Weighing just 2,465 pounds — hundreds of pounds lighter than a Corvette and even Porsche's Cayman — the 4C feels incredibly lively.

The peak 237 horses is akin to what some six-cylinder engines generate, and the 4C peak torque of 258 foot-pounds starts at a low 2,200 rpm and carries to 4,250 rpm.

There could be a bit of turbo lag in the "Normal" driving mode, but the power would then engage with gusto and send the little 4C rushing forward in a whoosh. Shifts could be sharp.

Riding so closely to the pavement and with smallish side windows and a barely usable rear window, a driver can feel both excitement and a bit of danger, particularly on rain-slicked roads, as the 4C roars forward. (Electronic stability control is standard equipment.)

The test car had the optional-for-$500 racing exhaust, which basically does away with the muffler. As a result, the 4C was loud, and neighbors later said they knew each morning when the car left the driveway because it sounded like a race car pulling away.

The racket, which included turbo whooshes and "brap" sounds, made the driving both pleasurable and fatiguing, at least if the trip was lengthy.

The 4C is not a car for audio. The audio system, though upgraded in the test car, needed constant adjustments to volume to compensate for the noise from the exhaust and road noise that readily came into the cabin from road surfaces.

And the audio display screen is small, as are tuning buttons on the dashboard.

The unassisted steering was a surprise. Trying to turn the 4C steering wheel when the car was not moving required major arm and upper body strength. A driver soon learns that letting the car move even slightly, say, from a parallel parking spot, makes it much easier to turn the steering wheel. Steering at speed was comfortably responsive in the test car, and the small, D-shaped steering wheel felt perfect. The turning circle of more than 40 feet, however, is more like that of an SUV.

With mid-engine design, the 4C's handling is wonderfully neutral.

The test coupe stuck stubbornly to its line on curves and effortlessly carved through mountain twisties.

The tester had staggered, 17-inch tires in front and 18-inchers in back. All were Pirelli's P Zero all-season performance tires and displayed great grip.

As you'd expect from a race-experience car, passenger and driver feel road bumps. There were times when the test car, with double wishbone up front and rear MacPherson struts, felt like it had no suspension management of bumps. When the test car struck a pothole, the driver got out to make sure a wheel rim wasn't damaged.

Doors on the 4C don't have armrests, and storage is limited.

In essence, the 4C is not quite as amenable to everyday driving as some other sport two seaters.

But it's definitely a car that's ready for weekend track days.