Since Alfa Romeo stopped selling its wares in America some 20 years ago, Italian performance cars – which once included unassuming roadsters – have become about as accessible to the common man as a Venetian palazzo or Monica Bellucci. (We've yet to see an ad for a Labor Day Ferrari-thon.)
Now with a home in the global Fiat Chrysler family, Alfa is mounting a comeback in the U.S. Its ambassador is the 4C: a tiny corpuscle of pure sports-car energy that looks best in blood red. It's the kind of uncompromising machine that's largely gone missing in a world of luxury flab – a $68,400, two-seat, mid-engine screamer that corners like a go-kart and looks like a 1960s Ferrari Dino.
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But once the drooling stops, remember there's strength beneath the 4C's alluring skin – in the form of the wonder fabric known as carbon fiber. Its cooked black strands are the secret to performance in everything from NASA's new deep-space Orion capsule – the most advanced spacecraft yet – to the Boeing 787, America's Cup yachts, and sports gear.
And it's what makes the 4C's chassis exceedingly strong while weighing half as much as steel and 30 percent less than aluminum. The Alfa puts the glossy material on naked display inside its minimalist cabin. Carbon-composite seats envelop passengers like a pair of exotic seashells.
Once you've folded yourself inside, it's all about function: There are no armrests, only a pair of leather door pulls. The audio unit looks like a 1980s afterthought. There's no manual transmission, though the six-speed, dual-clutch automated unit paddles through gears with finger-snap efficiency.
Built in Maserati's plant in Modena, the 4C weighs only 2,465 pounds, and that's girded for U.S. safety standards – about 500 fewer pounds than a two-seat rival, Porsche's Cayman. The result is a sports car that howls – most forcefully in the optional no-muffler guise – to 60 mph in 4.4 seconds and past 160 mph, despite a mere 237 horsepower from a 1.75-liter turbo four. With the engine cradled behind your head, its turbo whistles like a mechanical monkey on your shoulder.
Eschewing power assist, the old-school, he-man steering transmits a thrilling 1.1 G's of cornering force straight to its pilot's hands. The 4C's racing-style construction and minimalist approach provide a thrillingly unfiltered feel for the road.
If the Alfa is a dream to drive, its affordable high-tech materials seem pure fantasy. Until recently, the world's leading automotive minds scoffed at the idea of carbon fiber trickling down to the masses. History's first carbon-fiber-intensive car, the storied McLaren F1, cost $1 million back in 1992. Crafting its structure took 3,000 hours in a ridiculously labor-intensive process. But manufacturers (BMW, actually) have cracked the code, perfecting a mass-production process. Suddenly, carmakers are popping out finished composite parts in minutes.
All of which amounts to a car that's found a purely heart-skipping way to bring carbon fiber to the rest of us.
[from $68,400; 4c.alfaromeo.com]