Road Test: The New Alfa Romeo Spider

By Jim Hayes, Summer, 1995

I began driving in American "iron" - real iron. Giant cars of the mid to late '50s with big V8s. Got into sports cars when my brother bought a MGA coupe. I remember my puzzlement the first time I drove a Giulietta Spider. How could such a little car - a "sports car" - handle so well yet ride so smooth ? In spite of not looking bigger than a MG, how could it have so much room inside ? And wind-up windows - how civilized ! A dual overhead cam engine, just like all the fancy racecars no less ! All this because Alfa had taken a fresh look at car design and techonolgy available at the time.
When you first drive the new Alfa Spider, you'll be equally puzzled. It's the first real update of an Alfa sports car in 30 years. To paraphrase one of GM's ad campaigns: this is not your father's Alfa Spider. Few of us go back beyond the Giuliettas; many don't even remember the Duetto introduction and its improvements over the earlier Spider. But the cars we've been driving have designs over 30 years old (except for you 164 drivers out there.) This car is light years ahead of anything you have ever driven from Alfa and most anybody else.
OK, let's get the big point out of the way. It is front wheel drive with power steering and somewhere down underneath it all is a Fiat Punto floor pan. However, it has about as much in common with any FWD sedan as a Fiat 850 does with a Abarth Zagato - they're both rear-engine, RWD but you have to admit there's been some improvements in the product along the way.
The new Spider has a very un-sedan like weight distribution (55/45 F/R loaded), with the passengers moved aft considerably and a heavy top mechanism. Plus it uses a multilink rear suspension technology (with an enormous aluminum sibframe made using the latest aerospace casting technology) to passively steer the rear and compensate for FWD characteristics. This rear suspension will find its way into other Alfas in the future.
A little counter-steer makes the turn-in crisper with no sign of understeer. After the car settles into a turn, the rear wheels transition to in-phase steering to track the rear nicely around the corner. The steering is faster than you might expect from an Alfa, the power assist is unnoticeable except when parking, and it goes where you aim it. Including straight down the road, no matter what the speed.
Stops too. Vented disks on the front, solid on the rear, perfectly weighted. Powerful enough that I almost always overestimated braking distances at speed. Tires are not all that big. The car I tried had 205/50X16 Michelins on it. They looked big enough, but not "fat". The wheels are reminiscent of GTA designs and fit the car wekk.
Does it work ? Well I drove the car over 1000 Km throughout northern Italy. I tried it on every kind of corner you can imagine. Fast sweepers between Ferrara and Mantova. Mountain switchbacks in the foothills of the Alps near Lake Maggiore. I tried every trick to fool it, including drop throttle, braking and accellerating hard in a mountain hairpin turns that required FIRST gear. It goes around corners much faster than you can imagine or probably want to. I did a few marked at 40 km at over 120 and the car just tracks on through. It has no vices I can find and it's limits are way beyond what I'm interested in testing on public roads.
You can tell it has FWD, though. At the urging of an enthusiastic crowd at a historic car show and swap meet in Ferrara, I dumped the clutch and applied full throttle on damp pavement and screamed off. For about 50 m, I got wheelspin and some tramping, but then it went to all acceleration. I also tried doing donuts in a gravel parking lot. Yep, it's got FWD. Big deal.
If you think a "sports car" has to be RWD, I'll never convince you otherwise. If you believe modern technology can make changes in "common knowledge" by analyzing vehicle dynamics and making compensation for the effects of vehicle movement, you'll love showing off how well this car handles. You might even play "tag" with a Ferrari 348ts at dusk on mountian roads near the Alps and keep up - even passing slower cars at - ahem - very substantial speeds - like I did!
You'll appreciate the ride too. Taut. Well damped. But comfortable. Equally at home on smooth or rough surfaces. I only got one "chirp" of complaint on a really rough corner indicating one wheel had finally lost it. Milano's cobblestone streets were more uncomfortable from the noise than the ride, since I had the top down.
The second point that will turn off the old-timers, is the engine is a new design based on a Fiat corporate modular engine. Unlike the old 750/101/105/116 etc. 4 cylinder aluminum block, this engine uses a new design Alfa head on a new Fiat steel block. The fact that the old block lasted so long and through over a 50% increase in displacement is a tribute to the strength of the bottom end. When others gave you a tiny crank with 3 main bearings, Alfa used a crank that had five mains and almost as much bearing area as a Chevy V8.
But the new design is made with new technology that offers weight savings on really strong iron blocks. Plus, a big plus, I might add, is two balance shafts running at 2X engine speed to smooth out all the 4 cylinder roughness. And it's a long stroke engine (83X91mm) that helps make it torquey. Modern metallurgy makes everything strong enough to give it a 7000 readline and the balance shafts make it smooth as a turbine or a good 60 deg. V6.
The head is a all new twin spark 4 valve per cylinder design done by Alfa. It uses variable intake valve timing to help the torque at low revs and two spark plugs (a normal 14mm and a tiny 10 mm one with one coil per plug under the cast aluminum panel on the head) to help emissions and promote complete burning in the cylinder.
And it goes. Run it to the redline and it makes great Alfa noises, accellerates like mad and will pull to over 200 km/h in 5th where I decided the traffic on the autostrada was going backwards fast enough. Around town, it's viceless, hard to believe for those of us reared on Webers and Solexes. It will pull under 2000 rpm in 5th and accellerate away (vigorously) with no complaints. Around town you can choose second, third or fourth as you like.
The best time is 4th on Italian backroads like between Ferrara and Mantova on a Sunday AM when most everybody is in church. Let up a little going in to the corners, accellerate out at full throttle and listen to it - I can't fit a word to this - roar is too strong and hum is too -well- ho-hum - but it sounds great. Not thirsty either. I used 76 liters in 744 KM of hard driving, about 23 mpg!
The V6 from the GTV-6, Milano and 164 will be available, as is a 2.0 L V6 turbo, the hottest option. The V6s are heavier and less well balanced, according to some reports, but the T-Spark seems to have such a nice balance of power and handling, so why bother ?
You need a nice gearbox and shifter and you got it. Ratios are well matched to the engine characteristics. There's no "overdrive" here, just 5 ratios designed to allow extracting maximum performance out of the engine. Shifting is almost like a sequential box, it's so well gated. First to second requires a little pressure to the left as you pull back, but second-third is push forward and third forth is pull back. Even fifth requires only the slightest pressure to the right as you push forward. The shifting is aided by very short throws, about 5 cm from N to each gear, and synchros are so good you never notice them.
The clutch is very progressive, but grips hard. The brake and accellerator are well placed for heel-and-toeing. Somebody who liked driving designed the controls. Only the shift knob feels a bit strange until you figure out how the designer meant it to be held, then it works.
No need for a simian physique to drive it either. The steering is adjustable for both rake and reach with one simple lever. You can make it like a GTV 2000 or a MG or anything in between. The seats are leather covered in the Recaro style. You sit higher than in a 2000 Spider but still very low. Make yourself confortable.
The interior design is straightforward, taking a bit of the design of the older Spider dash. Tach and speedp are behind the wheel, minor gages to the right above the radio. But I was put off by the gages: gas, clock, and temperature - no oil pressure or temperature, judged unnecessary I suppose with microcomputers checking everything thousands of times per second.
All the other controls are easy to figure out, handy since I got the car without a manual. I wondered if they always do that to see what's not obvious! Only the wipers befuddled me for a while, in the rain on the autostrada of course, until I found the lever pulls down for intermittent, slow wiping and fast.
And the top is a bit more complicated than the old Spider, since it has a power option and is neatly lined. Unhook the top front locks, push two buttons behind the drivers seat and the top is released at the rear. Pull it up and the rear cover pops up, revealing a big space into which the top folds. After it's in, the top snaps down, forming a clean profile. Going up is the reverse, but you have to work to get the top clips in place before securing them. Let's hear it for American technology- the top is sourced from Detroit !
With the top down, the windshield effectively keeps the draft off you, even at high speeds (I swear I never exceeded 215 with the top down). When up, the top is quiet and doesn't leak at all. I can vouch for that, especially on the run to Maranello. And at a steady 180 km/h, it held secure and doesn't flap. At American speeds, you might even want to listen to the radio. I never bothered; there's too many other good sounds. I did use the A/C with the top up. I really works, really cold air and well directed.
As for the body design, well style is subjective. However, my sample of the public reaction in Italy says its a winner. This ain't no retro design like a Miata, it's straight off the Pininfarina Proteo show car. It's projector beam front lights are the most distinctive of any car today and the molded plastic/carbon fiber hood is a work of art inside and out. Only the rear looks odd from some angles, but my biggest gripe with the rear is the lack of useable trunk space.
So is it a true successor to the line of Alfa Spiders we all have loved/hated for all these years ? At the risk of offending all you diehards, I say absolutely. It's modern technology interpreted into the practical sports car idiom. It goes, handles, and stops with a verve unmatched by any sedan. It's a blast to drive. At the same time, modern technology removes many of the vices we've lived with and makes it more user and environmental friendly. It is Italian modern stlye personified. As my teenage sons always say " Welcome to the 90's, Dad!


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