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Car review: Caught in the 4C Spider’s web of thrills

There is a moment while driving Alfa Romeo’s little sports car that you may suffer serious flashbacks. Not to the time when you drove in comfort. Or when you could get in and out of such a low slung vehicle without having to literally cling on to the roof sill. It’s that time when you were seven, hurtling down what felt like an Alp of a hill, your go-cart on the brink of going out of control. And this was when go-carts didn’t have air bags.

If that sounds worrying to any would-be buyer, then you’re not a buyer of the 4C Spider, the name part class form, part nod to 1966 Alfa Romeo Spider to which this car pays tribute: just 50 of these will be made, one for each year that’s passed since that iconic sports car took to the road. In an age in which sports cars can’t decide where luxury should stop and thrills start – as though the aniline leather was more important than adrenaline loving – worry is precisely what you want.

Certainly the 4C is not for everyone. Its designers seemed to have got carried away with trivialities the likes of “special edition badging” at the expense of those things some would consider necessities. It is, for instance, hard enough to get a solitary human into the 4C, let alone a passenger – if you do, make sure you’re on intimate terms – or anything much akin to luggage.

The irony, indeed, is that for buyers of the 4C its makers are throwing in a travel bag that matches the upholstery. It’s a sweetener you’ll just have to leave at home.

The interior design isn’t much better, if gloss, sophistication or smarts are what you’re after. Forget the gearbox for a moment – here everything seems to be manual. You want the air vent open? Stick your finger in it. You’ll wonder where to put your coffee, until you knock it over with your elbow – for, mysteriously, this is precisely where the cup-holder has been placed.

The entertainment system common to other top-end cars – high definition screens, sub-woofers, satellite connectivity, dancing girls – is here demoted to something called a radio. There’s plenty of carbon fibre, fashionably exposed to signal the car’s hi-techery – an idea taken to its logical conclusion in also exposing the screws and bolts that one supposes holds the whole thing together. But otherwise the fascia is basic and black. Despite the £67,505 (HK$638,700) price tag, expect no wood. At least, not of the kind that comes from trees.

For that, surely, is the point of the 4C: the rush.

Sure, from the interior perspective, if the Spider to which it pays homage was made famous by Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate, the 4C feels more like Dustin Hoffmann in Tootsie – it’s all a bit plastic. Even from the exterior perspective it’s certainly cute – compact enough to suggest perhaps a Lamborghini that’s gone through a hot wash – and has some lovely touches – notably the indicator lights shaped to follow the curve of the wheel arches and the carbon fibre windscreen frame. But it doesn’t set the heart aflutter, or turn heads – either in admiration or mockery – in the way that another supercar might. And that’s even in “giallo prototipo” – what the marketing department has here renamed the colour formerly known as yellow.

Yet to drive it … It is only when the accelerator is depressed that everything that at first seems wrong about the 4C suddenly seems right. Any more than the very little polish it has would be to distract from what this car is really about: and that’s what people used to do with cars – not pose in them, not luxuriate in them, not cruise or “tour”, grand or otherwise, but drive them.

In this the 4C is hugely exciting. Cliche alert, but this is a driver’s car. It is the kind of car that does not forgive mistakes. Its little steering wheel is straight-bottomed seemingly to give the additional leverage required to keep the car going at least roughly in the direction you intended. Pay attention now. Be ready to wrangle.

This perhaps explains why all of its luxuries are more to do with performance than panache: the racing tyres, the 19-inch alloy wheels, the eight-speed semi-automatic gearbox, the lightweight monocoque structure, the Bi-Xenon headlights. And why much of the artificial intelligence-type gadgetry that other sports cars throw in to make the driving safer – aka less exciting – here never made the final cut.

Thankfully so. The look of the car won’t date – in some respects it’s already dated, though the designers missed a trick in not following through in employing good old-fashioned mechanical gauges rather than the aesthetically unrefined digital ones here used. But that is just as well. It is hard to imagine that any of the owners of a 4C would ever part with it, not even if it was just one of a fleet of much flashier vehicles in their garage.

With the 240hp rear-mounted engine placed as it is, popping, whining and clearing its throat seemingly right inside your tympanic cavities – exceptional perhaps in sounding better in braking than in acceleration – and with this whole pocket rocket of a car so neatly wrapped around you to the point that it feels to have almost dematerialised, the 4C is an elemental, frill-free thrill ride.