Alfa Romeo finally returns to U.S. with 4C

  • 10-Oct-2014 01:42 EDT
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Alfa Romeo's 4C marks the company's real return to the U.S.

After twenty years of absence and many delays, Alfa Romeo is finally coming back to the U.S., and the company is packing for the long haul. After the very-low-volume and very-high-end 8C, the Italian automotive manufacturer is officially returning with a two-seat, mid-engine sports car that can only be called a raw, untainted performance machine—or the 4C, depending on how poetic you want to be.

Alfa Romeo’s return has been nothing but poetic, with a series of broken promises and broken hearts for the brand-loyal fans here in the U.S. This time its official, as Alfa has signed with 82 dealerships across the U.S. to sell the new sports car. Three of the dealerships will be sharing showroom space with Maserati (in California, Maryland, and Wisconsin), while the rest of the 79 will be run alongside Fiat dealerships.

For those who have worked on bringing the car to the U.S. market, it means a lot. Michael Berube, Head of Product Planning for Alfa Romeo, is excited about the manufacturer’s return. “It’s not just any brand,” Berube said proudly. “Alfa Romeo is one of the oldest brands still in existence in the world today.” The iconic symbol has a storied history in racing and performance vehicles, earning a dedicated fan base in the U.S. and global markets. 

The U.S. market, however, does not open its doors simply on nostalgia; it demands a car with unique performance to distinguish itself from the competition. With a renewed interest in the American muscle car and other luxury mid-engine sports cars, including a comparable Lotus, the 4C has its work cut out for it in the sports car arena.

According to Berube: “There really is no other car like it in the market, with this type of technology, with this price point, with this type of style.” At an initial price of $68,400, and with a $53,900 version quickly on its heels, Alfa Romeo has succeeded in the pricing promise, but what about the performance?

Performance and build 

Labeling the 4C as an “uncompromised supercar,” Berube is confident that it will not disappoint. The turbocharged 1750-cm³ aluminum and direct-injected inline four-cylinder engine churns out 237 hp (177 kW) and 258 lb·ft (350 N·m).  With a curb weight of only 2465 lb (1118 kg), the 4C makes for an "extremely rare and fun driving feel."

From just 1.75 liters, the 4C engine uses some noteworthy technology to churn out 258 lb·ft (350 N·m) of torque. The main goal of the powertrain’s design was to maximize the turbo’s effectiveness at all speeds. For instance, the turbocharger is equipped with a pulse converter exhaust manifold shaped to create a pulse that optimizes the torque out of the turbo. Additionally, Alfa uses scavenging technology, maximizing torque at low engine speeds, which is crucial for a small displacement engine. Powertrain engineers also made it a priority to put continuous variable valve technology on both the intake and exhaust valves.

At an impressive 10.4 lb/hp (6.3 kg/kW) weight/power ratio, we’re starting to see why Berube is calling it the “accessible supercar” and the “entrée” of the returning brand.  One of the biggest reasons for this superb ratio is the car’s monocoque. Weighing only 236 lb (107 kg) and constructed entirely from hand-laid carbon fiber, the 4C’s tub represents the core of Alfa’s innovation.

The monocoque’s carbon-fiber design begins with a pre-impregnated epoxy formed in unilateral strands, creating strong tensile strength. By layering the approximately 15 x 15 ft (4.5 x 4.5 m) carbon-fiber pieces, the monocoque retains the needed lateral strength as well as crash and bend strength. Functioning as one solid piece, the tub envelopes everything from the engine wall to the front of the cockpit.

The Alfa Romeo team continued with their lightweight mindset, structuring the front and rear subframes with aluminum. The body is primarily made of SMC (sheet molding compound), which enabled a 20% weight reduction in comparison to traditional sheet steel. According to the company, the 4C is the first standard production car to achieve such a high percentage of low-density SMC. This, along with the carbon-fiber monocoque, aluminum for the roof reinforcement cage and the front and rear frameworks, and PUR-RIM injected polyurethane on the bumpers and wings, the 4C uses a variety of different materials to help cut weight.

As much as the structure has been designed around the car’s ability to carve the road, an equal amount of design has been put into the electronic technology.The 4C is equipped with a mode selector that allows the driver to change the car’s level of performance according to the environment that he or she finds themselves. The four modes—Dynamic, Natural, All-Weather, and Race—allow adjustment of throttle calibrations and stability control. All-Weather mode, for instance, softens the throttle calibrations and increases the stability control intervention. Race mode completely disables the stability control and stiffens the throttle, allowing for a responsive driving experience. The 4C’s full-color instrument cluster is also in tune with these driving modes, signaling a change in performance with different colors and read-outs. In Race mode, the cluster changes altogether, reflecting the power and advanced technology with a "g-force" map.

Alfa Romeo’s return to U.S. not without concerns

One of the biggest concerns with the 4C’s transition from European to U.S. markets was the 342-lb (155-kg) weight gain. Much of the increase is due to U.S. safety regulations that are significantly steeper than those in Europe and includes the addition of side door-mounted airbags, an adjustable passenger seat, and a slightly thicker carbon-fiber tub. Not to mention that European OEMs weigh their cars without a radio or A/C, which accounts for 45 lb (20 kg) extra on the U.S. version.

Another big question for Alfa enthusiasts is how the cars will be serviced. With most supercar service shops sparsely littered across the U.S., it can be difficult to get a high end sports car in a shop. Thankfully for U.S. consumers, the 4C can not only be serviced in one of the 82 dealerships across the nation, but also if the carbon fiber is damaged, Alfa Romeo enlisted the help of specialists from Abiris, a world leader in advanced composite training, to make repairs.

According to Berube, “this isn’t just the return of Alfa Romeo, it’s the beginning.” The company has announced that a range of future models will be coming soon. The 4C is serving as the “calling card” of Alfa’s planned return, with a class-leading weight to power ratio, near 50-50 weight distribution, advanced technology, and an iconic Italian design.

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