Buon, giorno

Itís the car everybodyís got big wraps on, and weíre first in Australia to rip them off to find out if the Alfa Romeo 4C has been worth the wait.

WORDS ALEX INWOOD PHOTOS CRISTIAN BRUNELLI

IíM GENUINELY afraid this is going to be an anticlimax. Sitting in front of me on a lonely, deserted dock in Altona is the first Alfa Romeo 4C to hit the country. Itís so new itís literally just rolled off the boat and is still wrapped in its protective shipping covers like a gigantic, white Christmas present.

Now itís time to rip the wrappers off, screw the number plates on and turn the key, Iím suddenly apprehensive. What if the 4C isnít any good? What if the most anticipated Alfa Romeo in years doesnít live up to the hype, or fails to translate the track-honed dynamics and giant-killing performance that Wheels experienced at its European launch in November, 2013, to Australian roads?

Alfa has been teasing Aussie enthusiasts with the 4C for more than a year, but time and time again its arrival has been delayed. Why? Alfa Romeo drastically overestimated the number of 4Cs it could build Ė by hand, remember Ė in Italy. Production began at Maserati's Modena plant in May 2013, the goal: 20 cars a day. Now, 18 months on, and the real volume is closer to seven a day.

Still, good things are worth waiting for, right? And now the wait is over. Wheels is about to become the first media outlet in the country to drive a road-registered Alfa Romeo 4C, many weeks ahead of the coupeís official Australian launch. That's why, despite the fact itís 5am, dark and pouring with rain, Iíve come to this bleak dock in Altona.

I'm not complaining, though; even hidden beneath its white shipping wrapping, the 4C is a seductive shape.

Low, wide and short, and with a muscular stance and footprint so squat itís almost square. Think Lotus Elise with better bone structure and a nicer suit.

Driving such a car comes with rules because, after Wheels is finished with it, this oneís going to a real, paying customer (base 4Cs start at $89,000, this limitedrun ĎLaunch Editioní is $109,000). I canít rev its highboost turbocharged 1.7-litre four past 4000rpm, can only drive it 200km, and if the steely glare of Alfaís PR boss is anything to go by, oversteer slides for photography purposes are out of the question.

Still, a wet 4C with restrictions is better than no 4C at all, and this car's ability to perform under pressure is only part of what will determine its true success Down Under. The 4C needs to be more than just a competent sports car; it needs to rekindle Australiaís love affair with Alfa Romeo, which has waned after decades of disappointing product and unfulfilled promise.

So what better place to gauge the 4Cís impact than

The 4C needs to be more than just a great sports car; it needs to rekindle our love affair with Alfa Romeo

Melbourneís own Little Italy goes into

Topless model Top To m

IF YOU thought the 4C coupe looked good, wait till you meet its topless sister, the 4C Spider. Revealed at this yearís Detroit motor show, the Spider ditches the coupeís fussy, blowfly headlights for a cleaner, more conventional design and comes with the choice of an exposed carbonfibre targa-style hardtop or removable cloth roof. Dynamics should be just as sharp thanks to the 4Cís ultrastiff carbonfibre tub, with the Spider weighing just 10kg more than the coupe. The Spider will arrive early in 2016 and will command a small premium over the base $89,000 coupe.

meltdown within minutes of our arrival

Melbourneís own Little Italy, Lygon Street, which goes into meltdown within minutes of our arrival.

The first sign of chaos comes from an Italian chef at the popular restaurant Tiamo who, fresh produce in hand from the morning delivery, screams ďShut up!

Thatís sick!Ē Drawn by his shouts, the street is suddenly full of loud, coffee-wielding Italians, spearheaded by a rampaging member of Victoriaís Alfa Romeo club who runs to park his pristine Giulietta Spider nose-to-nose with the 4C like a long-lost Italian cousin.

Itís a scene of enormous hand gestures, smiles and, suddenly, music when an older man produces a small lute-style guitar and another starts to serenade the 4Cís finely chiselled nose. Itís bedlam, peppered by a constant barrage of questions from the swelling crowd: ďWhatís it sound like? Howís it drive? Can I sit in it?

Can I drive it?Ē

First objective achieved: the 4C is a car Melbourne's Italian community clearly love. Itís also one they want to buy. Alfa has presold almost every one of the 120 4Cs to hit Aussie docks this year; 75 will be this more expensive Launch Edition spec that, as well as cosmetic additions (extra carbonfibre trim and red brake calipers), boasts a louder sports exhaust, Alfaís racing suspension tune and stickier rubber (205/40R18 front, 235/35R19 rear) on bigger wheels for a tougher stance.

As good as it looks, though, the question remains: how does the Alfa 4C drive? First impressions are positive. Slide behind the wheel Ė getting in isnít easy; you slither over the thick, exposed carbonfibre tub and have to reef your right leg in Ė and the 4C immediately screams its intent. You sit low, grip a thick, small sports wheel, and settle into a cabin that feels sparse and purposeful, but certainly not uncomfortable. Again, comparisons with Lotus are hard to avoid, but thereís none of the English carís thrown-together kit-car feel.

The emphasis on lightness is obvious in the thin, utilitarian dash plastics and lack of storage bins (a one-piece swimsuit has more places to put things), but the 4Cís interior does have some beautiful touches. The exposed carbonfibre tub is a highlight, as is a pedal box hewn from aluminium.

Turn the key and things only improve. Even with just five kilometres on the clock, our 4Cís engine kicks instantly into life before settling into a smooth purr just above 1000rpm. Thereís very little soundproofing, so you feel like youíre hardwired to the engine, which vibrates and wizzes over your left shoulder. Itís loud, too; even in city traffic the twin exhausts emit a deep, guttural sound. Just donít expect the 4C to have the spine-tingling wail of a Porsche Cayman's flat six.

The Alfa is more brutal, with more of a bark, but the exhaust note is only part of the 4Cís aural charm Ė the more exciting noises come from the turbo.

Hit the throttle hard and you hear the air rushing through the turbo as it spools up. Snap the throttle shut and thereís enough turbo flutter to make the director of Fast and the Furious blush. Is it a beautiful sound? No, but itís certainly futuristic and engaging.

Thereís less uncertainty about the performance. Alfa

are words we havenít used to describe an Alfa in a long time Involving and exciting

Computer says no!

LIKE all new Alfas, the 4C is fitted with the companyís DNA toggle switch, which allows the driver to choose one of three options: Natural Mode (N), Dynamic Mode (D) and All-Weather (A). Unlike other Alfas, though, the 4C has a fourth option Ė Race Mode.

Activated by holding the toggle in the Dynamic position, Race Mode cuts out the 4Cís tractionand stability-control systems, as well as the ABS, giving the driver full responsibility.

What does this feel like? We have no idea. Our test carís computer refused to offer any mode except Natural until the vehicle was properly run in.

claims 0-100km/h in 4.5 seconds and on slick roads it feels every bit that quick. The 1.7-litre turbo pulls hard down low, but monsoonal conditions, the 4000rpm limit and the fact the traction control cannot be disengaged until the car is properly run in mean it's not possible to seriously assess the balance.

What I do like is the steering. Totally unassisted, thanks to the 4Cís bantamweight 1025kg mass, the rack-and-pinion steering set-up is uncorrupted and communicative. The brakes, with a firm, confidenceinspiring pedal, are another masterstroke.

Itís not all high-fives and champagne for the 4C, though. I joked earlier about the lack of storage, but there really isn't anywhere to put anything. The glovebox is a leather sack slapped under the dash, there are no door pockets (or anywhere to rest your right arm), and the only storage bin is a tiny leather compartment at the rear of the centre console, big enough for a wallet. As for the boot, itís 105 litres so forget taking two bags away for a weekend.

Thereís also plenty of tyre noise on the freeway, and at 100km/h the exhaust note drones at 2000rpm. Rear visibility is an issue, too Ė all you can see in the mirror is the engine moving on its mounts, which, while cool, becomes an issue when you try and park. The lack of a standard, or even optional, reversing camera in this day and age is not acceptable.

Then thereís the way the 4C follows the road's camber. On bigger Pirelli P Zeros, this Launch Edition tram-tracks all over the place, so your hands are constantly busy, even in a straight line. Some will call this involving, and in the heat of battle it may well be.

In town it's tiresome.

Are these foibles tolerable? Or do they undermine the 4Cís dynamics and make the sexiest Alfa Romeo in years a disappointing anticlimax? The short answer is the 4C lives up to the hype. This restricted first taste was enough to tantalise, to suggest that it has all the right ingredients, but until we can glut ourselves on the 4C's dynamic menu, we won't know for sure.

I tasted enough to know it is involving and exciting, words Wheels hasn't used to describe an Alfa Romeo in a very long time. After our short time together, it feels like a car that slots neatly between the rawness of a Lotus and the refinement of a Cayman, which is a good place for an exotic Italian sports car to be.