In many respects, the Alfa Romeo 4C Spider is a world apart from the other cars in the Italian manufacturer’s line-up. Despite a massive investment and marketing push, Alfa Romeo is still defined by its hatchback and saloon cars – the kind of affordable small open-topped sports car that defined the brand in the 1960s and 70s are notably absent. Instead, we have the 4C, a halo car that does more than merely buff its image, but introduces a whole new upper echelon to the brand.

The 4C takes voluptuous inspiration from the Alfa Romeo 33 Stradale, a late 60s masterpiece hand-built in a tiny edition of 18 cars. The 4C – in both coupe and Spider form – is constructed around a carbon fibre tub, making it ultra-light and a formidable performer. A small four-cylinder turbo-charged engine is placed amidships, with the necessary pipework to make it sound ferocious, and the steering has no power assistance to preserve the purity of its feel.

That all adds to a pretty intense and involved driving experience, heightened all the more by the removable roof panel (it concertinas up and can be stored in the modest rear boot – the front panel doesn’t open). The Spider gets the clear glass headlights denied its coupe sibling – and looks much better as a result – but the rear deck is an awkward landscape of curves and scoops. That fabric roof gives the driver a surprising insight into the sound experienced by passers-by, and therefore less of an excuse for not understanding the filthy looks they throw you (or the occasional thumbs-up). This is not a car for the quiet life.

The 4C’s steering occasionally seems to think you around the right series of sweeping bends. Throw in an undulating or uneven road surface, however, and the steering bucks and shimmers as if it'd like to tip you into a hedge. It's lucky that the compact steering wheel is a beautifully tactile piece of design, because you'll be clinging onto it for dear life when the road gets rough.

Alfa seems to struggle between the lairy and classy elements of its heritage, with the latter usually losing out the minute a surfeit of power is deployed. Nevertheless, the company knows the former still has a substantial draw. For example, there’s a 50th Anniversary Limited Edition version of the 4C to commemorate its predecessor's decisive starring role alongside Dustin Hoffman and Katherine Ross in The Graduate, the car that cemented the marque’s status in North America. The company left the US market in its fallow years, only to return triumphant with the 4C, with the new 2017 Giulia not far behind. Just like the original 33 Stradale – a racer for the road – the 4C is a car without compromise. Just don’t expect the love affair to be an easy ride.