Like car enthusiasts everywhere, the editors of AUTOMOBILE get into really dumb arguments. There was the time, for instance, when we couldn’t agree whether the Isuzu VehiCROSS was a freak of nature or stroke of genius. Here’s another office tussle: Would we rather own a 2014 BMW M235i or a 2015 Alfa Romeo 4C? They both cost around $50,000 and both were All-Stars in 2015. Other than that, well, they have absolutely nothing in common.
With most of our quarrels, we agree to disagree. But we happen to have the tools at hand to explore this one. The 2014 BMW M235i has been in our Michigan office for 10 months and has earned our affection over some 26,000 miles and on several racetracks. Our long term 2015 Alfa Romeo 4C now lives in California, and, I assume from senior editor Chris Nelson’s report of his cross-country drive, still smells like cow dung. But we Michiganders did take delivery of a 2015 Alfa Romeo 4C Spider, which costs a bit more than the coupe but is functionally the same and smells just fine. We fold up the Spider’s removable softtop, slide back the M235i’s sunroof, and head for some of our favorite local back roads.
The Alfa Romeo 4C Spider never lets you forget you’re driving something special. The turbo four-cylinder is constantly expressing itself through both the polished exhaust outlets and a loud blow-off valve. The unassisted steering requires strong arms and a firm grip even if you think you’re going straight. And, of course, the Alfa looks amazing. As we cruise a two-lane that winds along the Huron River, little boys and grown men alike gawk and wonder. When we park, a motorcyclist turns off for a better look.
Though the BMW M235i is hanging right behind the Alfa the whole time, it might as well be invisible. The styling clearly says it’s a BMW, which is all anyone cares to know. Its smooth inline-six engine struggles to make itself heard over the noisy Italian. At one point, I hit the ignition button and realize the engine is already running.
“Park these cars side by side, and I guarantee that every single person would guess that the 4C costs at least twice as much as the BMW,” notes Capparella.
On the other hand, the BMW M235i is hanging right behind a purpose-built, carbon-fiber sports car. The M235i feels as big as a crossover compared to the Alfa and weighs some 1,000 pounds more, yet it makes up for all that in corners with extraordinary balance and finesse. With its optional limited-slip rear differential, the back end responds playfully to throttle inputs. It’s so easy to rotate in a corner that I bet I could sign my name with the rear tires.
The Alfa Romeo 4C corners flatter, brakes harder, and has more grip. Yet, strangely, it doesn’t feel as engaging out here as the BMW 2 Series. Part of the problem may be that these roads aren’t fast enough to tap into the Alfa’s capabilities. The Alfa is a quicker car on paper, with its 237 hp moving only 2,487 pounds, but the BMW is able to deliver its 330 lb-ft of torque earlier out of these slow corners. And, call us old timers, but we find it easier and more rewarding to select the right gear with the M235i’s precise shift lever than with the Alfa’s paddles.
The Alfa’s unassisted steering should be a distinct advantage. But the steering provides so much feedback that it can be hard for your hands to decipher which information is really important. The BMW’s wheel, in contrast, feels pretty light but always tells us what the tires are up to. It’s sort of like the difference between the loudspeakers at a sports stadium and the monitors in a concert hall. The former are certainly louder, but the latter are better for picking out individual instruments.
“The Alfa Romeo 4C Spider is a more visceral car,” says daily news editor Eric Weiner, “but the BMW M235i is more involving.”
Which tells us what, exactly? “It’s hard to compare two cars so different in mission and execution,” quips Capparella. Of course, we knew that already. But the 2015 Alfa Romeo 4C Spider and 2014 BMW M235i do serve as reliefs against which to judge one another. BMW fans can be justifiably proud that the M235i is at least as fun to drive as the Alfa and much more usable, and for less money besides. Alfa enthusiasts can just as easily point out that the 4C offers the style, prestige, and flavor of an exotic car for not much more money than an anodyne-looking BMW.
Each perspective is correct and perfectly suits its brand. The bang-for-the-buck driving experience is what has made BMW so successful, and an Alfa Romeo should look and feel like a poor man’s Ferrari. Which leads to our conclusion: You really should buy both.
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