Alfa Romeo 4C Spider v Porsche Boxster Spyder - Spider decider
The 981 Boxster Spyder is one of our favourite sports cars, but Alfa Romeo's 4C spider is a tough car to resist. Or is it?
My introduction to the Boxster Spyder could have gone better. It had been left with barely a dribble of fuel when I collected it late one evening from the office, so I had to feather it to the local filling station. Then, walking back across the forecourt after paying for the petrol and a hearty dinner of crisps and a Coke, I was collared by three youths with quite significant facial scarring. As they refuelled ‘their’ EP3 Civic Type R while it was still running(!), they insisted I revved the Boxster so they could find out ‘what that Porsche sounds like’.
When I suggested it was perhaps a bit late at night to be making that much noise, the look on their faces wasn’t one of disappointment, but sheer menace. I gave in and gave a quick blip of the throttle with the exhaust switched to its louder setting. They looked distinctly unimpressed. When I flatly refused to ‘do some drifting’ for them, their by-now-threatening demeanour told me it was time to leave. Immediately.
In pictures, the Spyder doesn’t look dramatically different from a regular 981 Boxster. The GT3-lite bumpers, lower ride height, higher rear deck and bigger rear spoiler make it look only slightly more aggressive. In the metal, however, they combine to give the Spyder a real junior-supercar vibe. It certainly commands a lot more attention than a regular Boxster, even if not all of it’s welcome.
The exhaust noise that failed to impress the Civic thieves has a bit more edge to it, too. Listening to it reverberate off the scenery as I approach our photography location, it’s almost enough by itself to cement this as an enjoyable driving experience. As I meet road test editor Dan Prosser and photographer Dean Smith, I can’t help but wear a big, cheesy grin.
Dean’s expression couldn’t be more different. I think he’d been anticipating weather more typical of Wales in March than the warm, sunny stuff we’ve got today. Watching Dan and me grumble as he insisted the roofs must be down despite bitter winds and heavy rain would have entertained him greatly. Instead, he’ll just have to make do with watching us battle with the recalcitrant manual roofs of these back-to-basics spiders.
The Boxster may have had presence in a grey Northamptonshire, but in this epic scenery and in the company of a bright yellow Alfa Romeo 4C Spider, some of its dazzle has been diluted. The Alfa might look like it has been made one or two scales too small, but it’s low and wide and has all the proportions of a proper supercar. It’s been designed to grab attention, and I reckon it would give some full-sized exotica a run for their money on the Côte d’Azur. It’s like a pygmy-Ferrari.
As soon as you start the 4C Spider, you begin to notice shortcomings. It erupts with a loud and tuneless bark that settles into a drone that’s just a few decibels on the wrong side of sociable. On the centre console, forward of an awkwardly affixed DNA switch (for Alfa’s switchable drive modes) borrowed from a Mito, are four nondescript buttons. One of these is for Drive. Press it and the ‘N’ in the games-console-style display changes to ‘1’ with an accompanying jolt from the drivetrain.
Pull away and you’re immediately reminded that the 4C does without power-assisted steering: it’s plain heavy at very low speeds. Of course, choosing to fit unassisted steering to a car in this day and age is a statement. It suggests an intent that it will be a hardcore car for enthusiasts who can appreciate the finer nuances of feedback that an uncorrupted unassisted steering rack can offer.
And the 4C’s steering certainly dominates the driving experience, though sadly not for its purity and delicacy. No, the Alfa’s steering wheel is constantly being pulled in your hands. It seeks out cambers in the road, follows ruts determinedly, and bump-steers at a mere change of wheel travel. On a motorway or dual-carriageway, even at 50mph, it needs constant adjustment as the car drags one way or the other. There are certain times where it pulls for such a long time you think you’ve got a flat tyre, until you pull yourself free of the imperfection in the road and you realise nothing’s actually broken.
At least when you start to explore the 4C it does feels quick. Once you’ve got the engine above 3200rpm there’s a huge boost and it really pulls. It might not be very sophisticated – it feels like old-school turbocharging – but it is fun. The soundtrack is dominated by the tuneless, droning exhaust, but there’s the occasional whoosh and chirp from the turbos and wastegates, which adds a touch of character. The six-speed dual-clutch gearbox helps keep the engine on boost – the ratios are nicely judged and the shifts are fast enough – But every upshift is accompanied by a flatulent grumble from the exhaust.