It's a long time since a regular production Alfa Romeo has been genuinely exciting.
Yes, there have been some impressive models – the 156 sedan from the 1990s stands out as a superb piece of design, likewise the Brera of the noughties.
But excitement? Not a lot. And quite a few clangers.
Now there's a reason for some rejoicing among the Alfisti – as Alfa Romeo aficionados call themselves – and for those selling the brand.
It's this, the 4C, a low-volume "hero" car added to the Australian range after many delays. Introduced in Europe in 2013, the 4C is unlike anything we've seen from Alfa before.
The stubby coupe is built around an F1-style carbon-fibre monocoque and has composite body panels. Mid-engined, it puts 177kW of turbocharged power through the rear wheels, yet the all-up weight is just over one tonne.
It has been completed with quite a bit of help from stablemate Maserati, which builds the 4C in its plant in Modena, Italy.
'A downsized Ferrari'
Looking at the styling, the exotic materials, the engine placement, and the power-weight ratio, it's easy to think of the 4C as a downsized Ferrari. At $89,000 (plus on road costs), it is about one-fifth the price, too.
That comparison is not carried through when you are behind the wheel. The 4C is a very different beast indeed. Ferraris in recent years have become remarkably refined and comfortable without giving up their monumental performance.
There is nothing refined about the little Alfa. It is a hard-edged, bare-bones sports car more in the Lotus tradition (though with an in-house engine and materials Lotus can't afford).
The cockpit can be cacophonous, the steering kicks back, and some of the interior finishing is, well, not very finished.
Our version was the so-called Launch Edition with firmer suspension and a louder exhaust.
A track car for the road
It feels like a track car for the road. On a nice, flowing piece of bitumen it is a wonderfully engaging proposition: super-quick, raucous, well-balanced and demanding the fullest attention.
The engine is a 1750cc four-pot, a very familiar Alfa configuration. It is a newly fettled version of the Giulietta engine: a direct-injection aluminium unit with turbocharging, intercooler, variable valve timing, and a swag of other race-engine style technology.
It screams and splutters, howls and whooshes, and kicks along the tiny 4C (just four metres long and 1.18 metres high) with fire in its tail.
The top speed is given as 257km/h. Rest to 100km/h takes 4.5 seconds if you use the built-in launch control.
The unboosted steering is sharp and direct, but also slightly vintage. It loads up quite a bit and doesn't do much in the way of self-centring. Unless regularly corrected, the car tends to follow corrugations in the road, particularly under braking.
The ride is firm and, to continue the Lotus comparison, there are thumps and clunks, plus the occasional bullet-like crack when a stone hits the undercarriage.
Don't expect to hear too much of your music selection over the mechanical screaming. Soundproofing was clearly considered too much of a weight imposition.
The gearbox is the familiar Alfa TCT. This is the paddle-shift controlled, twin-clutch automated manual found in the Mito and other models. It is rough around town, though better at speed.
The TCT has six speeds and four modes selected through a "DNA" button on the centre console. These are All Weather, Natural, Dynamic and Race.
Automatic driving is possible in every mode except Race, which turns off the traction and stability control systems, and also allows use of the launch control system.
Unless driving hard, you'll want to select All Weather or Natural, or things get pretty jumpy.
Duck and weave
Climbing in behind the flat-bottom steering wheel requires a bit of a duck and a weave, though it's a great deal easier than getting into a Lotus Elise.
It's a tight and attractive cabin. The interior plastic is designed to look a bit like the black "crackled" metal in old Ferraris.
The driver is surrounded by the exposed carbon fibre of the tub. The well-shaped seats provide plenty of lateral grip, though not a lot of padding.
A close look around confirms the car's hand-built nature; things such as exposed fuseboxes between the pedals give a slightly kit-car appearance.
The rearward view is minuscule through a tiny, badly angled windscreen, while rear three-quarter visibility is non-existent. Yet there is no rear camera on offer.
Interior storage is restricted to a tiny little box between the seats. It's difficult to access and heats up due its proximity to the engine.
The rear boot is tiny, so it would be hard to get away for more than a minimalist weekend.
Keeping it pure
Purists would say: bad luck, that's price of keeping it a pure sports car. They'd applaud the weight-saving lack of armrests, too.
However, such people would prefer the Euro version of this car. With no air-conditioning and not much of anything else, it has a dry weight below 900 kilograms. That's 125 kilograms less than our more luxurious version.
As well as the standard 4C, squeezed in under $90,000, there is the "Launch Edition" at $109,000.
This includes exclusive paint treatment, Bi-xenon headlights with LED daytime running lights, a body kit with carbon-fibre rear spoiler, what Alfa calls racing suspension and a racing exhaust, exclusive wheels (18s up front and 19s at the rear) and other, mostly cosmetic, enhancements.
A convertible, or Spider, version of the 4C will be on sale from very early next year.
There's probably no profit in the 4C. The labour intensive carbon-fibre process means a maximum of just 3500 per year can be made. And, with such a specialised and extreme vehicle, that might be about as much as the market will take, anyway.
The main game is about turning around public perception, so the company can remake its image and embark on a massive expansion drive.
Fiat Chrysler Automobiles supremo Sergio Marchionne says Alfa Romeo will soon be building 400,000 cars a year, and taking on BMW with a range of all-new rear-wheel drive cars.
The future will be interesting. In the meantime the 4C, though far from perfect, provides the most driving fun in a new Alfa in years. Perhaps even decades.
Alfa Romeo 4C
Price (excluding on road costs) From $89,000 (as tested $109,000)
Engine 1.75-litre turbocharged four-cylinder (petrol)
Fuel economy (combined cycle) 6.8L/100km
C02 157 grams per kilometre
This article first appeared in .