They’re both yellow, RWD, have engines nestled between the seats and the rear wheels, come in at around $100,000 and exist purely for your driving pleasure. That, however, is where the similarities end.
Indeed, the 2016 Porsche Cayman GT4 and Alfa Romeo 4C Spider are both perfectly capable of putting a stupid grin on your face. But one grin is more relaxed than the other – the latter possibly involving clenched teeth and a similarly contracted sphincter.
Pick your poison, folks. The limited edition Porsche GT4 is a Cayman brought down from the heavens (or up from hell, if you wish) that answers the prayers of those who felt this poetic Porsche could use more poke. Conversely, the Alfa 4C Spider is a diabolical little Italian hornet’s nest that just begs to be prodded with a big stick at all times. And with no lid, it’s a fantastic sensory overload of sun, wind and heroically rude exhaust noises. We’re not here to judge.
And so we set out in this pair to the hills, dales and bendy roads of pastoral Halton Hills to see what these German and Italian engineers hath wrought. There’s enough heritage in these two marques to fill a library, but Alfa Romeo is the elder statesman, dating back to 1910. Ferdinand Porsche formed his engineering firm in 1931, but most consider the 356 of 1948 to be the first production Porsche automobile.
Elder statesman or not, out here the featherweight Alfa 4C is an absolute brat when compared to the Porsche GT4. With its exotic carbon-fibre monocoque, the Italian weighs a paltry 1,128 kg (to the Porsche’s 1,340 kg). There’s no graceful way to get in or out of the 4C thanks to its wide carbon sill and narrow footwell. Once ensconced, the racing shell seats are a snug fit if you’re slim. Not so good if you’re larger of frame, however.
Twist the key and the 1.7 L turbo-four barks to life and settles into a noisy idle. Taking a cue from big brother Ferrari, the 4C is not available with a manual transmission – just a six-speed twin-clutch with steering-wheel-mounted paddles. There is a quartet of round buttons on the console: 1 (puts it in gear), R (reverse), N (neutral) and A/M (cycles between automatic and manual modes).
So I push “1” and turn the small diameter wheel. Wait… what? It doesn’t turn. Oh yeah, no power steering. That’s one way to do away with the electric- vs hydraulic-assist debate. When not rolling, much upper body strength is needed here. It’s a helluva workout, and since the 4C has a big turning circle, maneuvering the car for our photos on the narrow road was a lengthy and comical process.
Once free, I point the Alfa down the road and give it some welly. This car is bloody quick. The 1.7 L turbo kicks out 237 horsepower at 6,000 rpm and 258 lb-ft from only 2,200 rpm, barking like a wild dog while sending forth a volley of atomic farts on upshifts. FCA head honcho Sergio Marchionne famously termed this scrappy four a “wop engine”. It has bags of character and a surprisingly long and linear power delivery for a turbo. It bolts off the line and screams to the redline with equal verve.
By the Numbers: Porsche Cayman GT4 vs Alfa Romeo 4C
Equally impressive is the six-speed dual-clutch gearbox. It responds immediately to paddle requests and bangs off lightning-fast shifts.
For those who bemoan the fact that cars just aren’t involving anymore, a few moments behind the wheel of this little tinderbox will be the cure. “Involving” probably understates the case. More like demanding, as in “Look what I can do, mangiacake. And if you stop paying attention to what I can do, I’ll put both of us in the rhubarb before you can say mamma mia.”
On these less-than-perfectly-surfaced roads, the Alfa calls up a veritable menagerie of similes. The nose hunts all over the place like my dog on a chipmunk’s scent and you feel and hear every bump in the road. The steering gets spookily light over whoop-de-do rises and hard braking has the 4C going all squirrelly. Yes, the Spider grips like a bull dog in the corners (up to 1.1 g) yet it never feels truly settled. It reminds me of the Fiat 500 Abarth, turned up to eleven.
While you can’t relax in the 4C Spider, by gawd you’ll never be bored. And it sure looks and sounds the part of a real Italian exotic. If you already have a garage full of cars, this surely would be a refreshing addition. It’s a car you’d take out for an afternoon blast to clear out the cobwebs.
Time to jump into the GT4, which by Porsche standards is a raw, track-focused special edition that only the most hardcore enthusiast will embrace. Nonetheless, after the 4C, the GT4 feels like a freakin’ limo. Powering steering. OMG. A hint of suspension compliance. Thank you. What, you’re not heading for the the ditch when I take my eyes off the road? Such opulence.
Then it all starts to sink in. The Porsche Cayman GT4 is spectacular. Its 3.8 L naturally aspirated flat-six engine, pulled from last year’s 911 Carrera S and turned 180-degrees, delivers its 385 horsepower and 310 lb-ft in an escalating rush, each peaking respectively at 7,400 rpm and 4,750. And it spits out the kind of soundtrack that brings Porsche-philes to their knees. As one of the last naturally aspirated Porsches, this one carries the banner high.
The GT4 is only available with a six-speed manual, and like the engine, this is a fab transmission. The shifter has been shortened 20 mm for quicker throws, and each gear slots home with a weight and precision perfectly paired to the clutch. Pedals are placed for heel- and-toe action, but with the Sport button pushed, auto rev-matching does it for you.
It’s above 4,000 rpm where the GT4 asserts itself as being a true GT-level Porsche. The uber-Cayman screams forward in a linear rush while remaining securely planted to the road. The electric steering is completely natural, conveying plenty of feedback, and small inputs have this mid-engine marvel slicing effortlessly through the corners.
The GT4 gets its front suspension largely intact from the 911 GT3, and it rides 30 mm lower than standard. It runs on 20-inch forged alloys, 8.5-inch wide in the front and 11-inch out back. As would be expected, the tires are staggered – P245/35ZR20 front and P295/30ZR20 rear. PASM adaptive damping is standard.
Official max lateral grip is pegged at a face-distorting 1.4 g. Didn’t get there of course, but running these lovely roads at a brisk-ish pace showed the GT4 to have the poetic balance of the Cayman while offering a greater turn of speed, crazy grip and unflappable poise. So engaging, so thrilling yet so confidence-inspiring. I never turned off the electronic nannies, but even the normal setting allows for just enough tail wagging if you provoke it enough.
The big adjustable rear wing along with the plethora of extra air intakes and 20-inch centre-lock wheels leave no doubt about the GT4’s mission. I could drive this car all day, every day until I croak.
Official factory zero-to-100 km/h times put the Porsche GT4 and Alfa Romeo 4C Spider neck-and-neck at 4.4 seconds and 4.5 seconds respectively. And indeed, out on our test loop the two felt equally quick. But different. The Alfa powertrain delivers a more modern, high-tech experience with its low-down turbo shove and twin-clutch tranny banging off lighting shifts. In contrast, the Porsche GT4 is wonderfully old-school. The non-turbo flat-six that needs to sing for its supper, and the slick-shifting six-speed manual requires real human interaction. While the Alfa is down by 148 horses, its 212 kg weight advantage plus more low-end torque make up the difference.
But in reality, this rare pair are like chalk and cheese. The Alfa 4C Spider feels like it came out of the oven half-baked (just look at that afterthought radio), but its rawness and unfiltered Italian passione are what make this sexy carbon-fibre pipsqueak so alluring.
But in our hearts and minds the Porsche GT4 gets the decisive win. It is a polished, fully resolved high-performance weapon with a quality interior and a pervading sense it will still run like this when your grandkids inherit it. Natural aspiration and a manual gearbox. What better car to carry the flame?
4 years/80,000 km; 4 years/80,000 km powertrain; 12 years/unlimited distance corrosion perforation; 4 years/80,000 km roadside assistance
Pricing: 2016 Porsche Cayman GT4
Base price: $96,500
Optional equipment: full bucket seats $5,400; Porsche Communication Management (PCM) with navigation $3,390
A/C tax: $100
Destination charge: $1,085
Price as tested: $106,475
4 years/80,000 km; 4 years/80,000 km powertrain; 3 years/unlimited distance corrosion perforation; 4 years/80,000 km roadside assistance
Pricing: 2016 Alfa Romeo 4C Spider
Base price: $78,495
Optional equipment: Giallo Prototypo $1,500; racing leather bucket seats with microfiber inserts $500; Convenience Group (cruise control, park sense, rear park assist) $1,100; carbon-fibre interior trim $2,000; Spider Track Package (carbon-fibre ext. mirrors, race-tuned suspension) $2,300; red car cover $400; bi-xenon headlights $1,000; 19×8.5 & 18×7 alloys $1,800; battery charger $150; yellow brake calipers $300; sport-tuned dual exhaust $500
A/C tax: $100
Destination charge: $2,495
Price as tested: $92,140