BY STEVE WALKER
If they're honest, most people would quite like the idea of an Italian sportscar. Blasting through the Tuscan hills or cruising the Amalfi coast road with a significant other in the passenger's berth, what could be better than something stylish, charismatic and, most likely, red? The problem is that the reality of Italian sportscar ownership doesn't always tally with the dream. With its 2007 Spider, Alfa Romeo was intent on building a roadster that was captivating without an ownership experience that felt like a period of prolonged captivity.
The Alfa Spider has quite an illustrious history. It was built in four series between 1966 and 1993. Only the series four cars briefly made it to these shores between 1990 and 1993 but the Series 1 Spider might be just as familiar to UK residents as the dinky red sportscar that a fresh-faced Dustin Hoffman drove in The Graduate.
From 1995 to 2005, the two-seater sportscar-shaped void in the Alfa Romeo range was filled by the GTV and Spider models, the Spider being the open-topped version of the GTV coupe. When sales of these ended, there was a two year leave of absence when Italian sportscar fans were forced to save somewhat harder for models bearing Maserati, Ferrari or Lamborghini badges but in early 2006, Alfa returned with the Brera coupe, a car that was soon followed by the inevitable Spider roadster in early 2007.
The classic Alfa Romeo Spiders were rear-wheel-drive but this model, like the GTV-based car that preceded it, sends power to the front wheels. The only exceptions are the range-topping 3.2-litre V6 engined cars that were available with the Q4 four-wheel-drive system. The more prosaic engines are a 2.2-litre four-cylinder unit and a 2.4-litre diesel which seemed almost scandalous in an Italian sportscar but has a pleasing effect on running costs.
Two new engines arrived in 2010. The 1750 TBi is a 1.7-litre turbocharged petrol and the 2.0-litre JTDm was a more economical option to supplement the 2.4 JTDm already offered.
What You Get
People thought the Brera coupe looked good when it was launched but the Alfa Spider has to be even easier on the eye - especially with the fabric roof folded. That front end with the chrome bars across the raised triangular grille and those headlamps like jewels gleaming out of the dark void behind are particularly evocative. At the back, the Brera's rather bulbous rear disappears with the Spider's hood folded, thus illuminating the fixed roof car's only major aesthetic Achilles heel. Actually folding the roof takes some 25 seconds, not quick by modern standards but it means more passers by will be able to witness the spectacle.
Alfa chose not to include the ludicrously-tiny rear seats that are so popular in modern convertibles and do feature on the Brera Coupe. Instead, you have a pair of lockable storage bins built into the area behind the front seats. These supplement the 200-litre capacity of the boot with a further 100-litres of oddment space and are a far more practical solution.
The amount of usable storage as a whole is on a par with the likes of Audi's TT Roadster and the Nissan 350Z or 370Z Roadster but you'll still need to travel light. The interior can't quite live up to the standards set but the Audi, despite some high quality materials and attractive aluminium detailing. The centre console is actually angled towards the driver, making its controls and displays that bit easier to use, while the overall feel is suitably special for a car of this type in this price bracket.
What to Look For
Alfa Romeo hasn't always a great reputation for its performance in the lengthy period after the customer has signed on the dotted line. Lots of this was due to a shoddy dealer network though and issues of build quality and reliability were being addressed successfully by the time the Spider hit the showroom. When buying, pay particular attention to that roof, checking for a smooth action and fabric that's in good condition. Any sign of water ingress in the cabin should set alarm bells ringing. The Spider is more at home cruising the coast road than setting fast laps on track days but beware of cars that may have been put through their paces a little too vigorously.
(approx based on a 2007 Spider 2.2 JTS, excl. VAT) Front brake pads will be around £40 and you'll be looking at nearer £150 for a set of front discs. An air filter is around £14 and an oil filter £8.
On the Road
The front-wheel-drive layout of the entry-level Spiders doesn't lead you to expect a serious driver's car and certified performance nuts would be better with the four-wheel-drive V6 model if they pick an Alfa Spider at all. The car handles sharply enough with inputs through the over-large steering wheel prompting quick responses with tight body control. The ride is firm and the absence of the extra bracing that a fixed roof would afford results in poor surfaces sending shudders through the car. If you give the Spider some pristine asphalt and some clement weather, it definitely qualifies as an entertaining drive. It's not particularly at home on the UK's rutted B-roads but do you really want to stick to the backwaters in a car that looks like this?
It's an Italian sportscar, so you want the Alfa Spider to display a bit of character or, preferably, a lot. The 2.2-litre JTS engine might be the entry-point in the range put it still comes up with a fizzy 185bhp at 6,500rpm. There are faster roadsters out there - not least the 260bhp 3.2-litre V6 version of the Spider itself - but the 2.2 will still scuttle up to 60mph in 8.8s before topping out at 138mph. The engine thrives on revs, so it stays quite placid at cruising speeds then screams into life when you keep your foot down to bring real drama to the driving experience.
The 2.4-litre JTDM common-rail diesel engine produces a 200bhp power output and torque of 400Nm at 2,000rpm. That's more low-down grunt than the Spider's 3.2-litre V6 petrol engine but 0-60mph performance is over a second down at 8.4s. Regardless of the engine installation, the Alfa Spider isn't as fast as its exotic styling suggests, so the diesel's languid style suits the car. A mild rumble gives the oil-burning game away and there's none of the aural drama when you plant the throttle that roadster fans yearn for, but the diesel isn't without its appeal on a sensible level. It can return 41.5 mpg, which is vastly superior to the 30mpg you can get from the next best 2.2-litre JTS petrol model. The V6 can manage 25mpg with the manual gearbox and there's only a slight economy penalty for choosing a Q4 all-wheel-drive model.
The Italians seem to instinctively know how to design a great-looking sportscar and the Alfa Spider that arrived in 2007 is another one. For many, that alone will be enough to have them writing out the cheque for a used model but buyers wanting a more rounded roadster might be less enamoured. This isn't a great driver's car, even if you go for the 3.2-litre Q4 model. It comes over quite wobbly on the UK's rough road surfaces and never displays the agility that a good roadster should. That said, it's a comfortable cruiser with a decent cabin environment, a strong range of engines and a roof arrangement that's hassle free. It's also readily available in red.