The problem with most head-turning red Italian sports cars is that they cost more money than most mere mortals will earn in a lifetime.
Most, but not all. One sports car that is affordable is the restyled Alfa Romeo Spider, which carries an entry price of about $20,000.
To be honest, I never could understand the appeal of these cars. The Spider is not particularly fast, smooth or roomy. It hasn’t changed much – at least underneath the skin – since being introduced in 1966 as the Duetto. And it certainly can’t be considered practical for the family man or woman.
The car is loaded with quirks. For instance, the shifter is not on the floor. It’s poking out of the lower portion of the dash. The oil pressure and battery gauges can’t be seen because they are blocked out by the rim of the steering wheel.
And yet, given this utter weirdness, I’d be inclined to choose the Alfa over just about every other convertible I’ve driven this year.
Here’s why: Sitting behind the wheel and looking over the sloping hood at the rounded tops of the fenders is intoxicating. The only car I ever liked more from the same angle is the classic Triumph TR6. The Spider’s timeless styling conveys a real sense of value. It makes the owner feel as if he or she is driving something much more expensive.
The DOHC, 2.0-liter, fuel-injected four-cylinder feels pretty uninspired until it reaches about 3,000 rpm. And third gear is the one that delivers the best performance. Many cars today have engines that run with the smoothness of a sewing machine. Not the Alfa. You can feel nearly every revolution of the engine when it idles. The exhaust has a deep tone that almost turns into a growl at high rpms. It sounds and feels just like a sports car should.
With 120 horsepower on tap, performance is spritely. The company, however, does not quote 0-to-60 mph times. And even if it did, it wouldn’t matter because the Alfa is not built to screech away from stop lights. In fact, the car loses its composure pretty quickly when called upon for high speed maneuvers.
Anyway, you don’t buy a Spider for that. It’s far too graceful a machine. It’s built for long and winding roads.
The awkward position of the shifter takes some getting used to. There doesn’t seem to be any practical reason to place it in the dash just below the radio other than to underscore the fact that the Spider is no ordinary car. The shifter works well, though, moving through the quadrant with precision and ease.
However, the clutch pedal was a bit bothersome. Unless the pedal was pressed all the way down, the transmission snapped as the gears were changed. The test car had only 109 miles when I picked it up. It may have needed a minor adjustment, as most new cars do.
The test car got excellent gas mileage. City driving yielded nearly 26 miles per gallon and highway driving was close to 31.
STEERING, HANDLING, BRAK ING
Purists might disagree with this move, but Alfa added power steering to the Spider this year. The power steering works well, conveys a good feel for the road and enhances driving ease in tight situations.
The well-equipped Spider Veloce model I drove sported big 15-inch wheels with P195/60HR15 tires. That much rubber on the road gives the car a very stable ride, even under hard braking.
The four-wheel, power disc brakes work well with the big tires. The combination of fast reflexes, crisp steering and excellent braking make for spirited driving.
FIT, FINISH, CONTROLS
The Spider is obviously assembled with care. In lowering and raising the top and installing the tonneau cover, I noticed all the little trim pieces were attached firmly. Only over the bumpiest of brick roads did I hear a rattle. And that came from the air conditioning vents on the top of the dash. As soon as I opened them, the noise disappeared.
The Veloce model feat red a superb AM/FM stereo cassette player, electrically operated windows and mirrors and a good air conditioning system. Because the car is small, all controls are easy to reach. It takes some time getting used to the stalk-mounted controls for the lights and windshield wipers but once learned, they are easy to use.
The leather bucket seats get high marks for comfort. On a Sunday afternoon trek through Mount Dora in search of antiques, the Alfa was comfortable and behaved impeccably.
There’s a reason the Spider has outlived all the competition from the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s: It’s a fine car that’s a blast to drive and a pleasure to look at. It is the last of affordable European sports cars.