Return of a Classic?

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To celebrate the official return of the Spider to these shores, Alfa Romeo invited MOTOR SPORT to Scotland to drive their new baby. So what, you may say, Alfa Romeo Spiders are hardly new and it is not that unusual to see them about.

This new model, though, sees the old model successfully shaped to take the car into the last decade of the millenium without losing any of its former flair, and in fact looking a great deal prettier than the recent Kamm-tailed version with heavy American rear bumpers one usually sees. Its importation into Britain is also a direct response to the Mazda MX-5, and it is against that car it has to be measured.

While Peter Kinnaird, the Managing Director of Alfa Romeo (GB) Limited, is quite right when he states: “Unlike a number of soft top cars recently launched here, the Spider sports a heritage to be proud of . .” that heritage can be as much of a liability as an asset. How many times have you heard the phrase: “Everything about my Alfa is terrific until it goes wrong, but the problem is that it does so too often.”

It is this questionable quality control which has been the bane of Alfa Romeo throughout the marque’s life, but almost all the models that emanate from Milan have soul, which is more than can be said of the products of other manufacturers, particularly the Japanese.

In the MX-5, though, it has a tough nut to crack. To the Italian’s advantage, it has that lovely “classic” twin-cam engine. This 84 x 88.5mm, 1962cc engine, now fitted with three-way catalytic convertor with Lambda sensor and Bosch Motronic ML4.1 digital engine management system which regulates low rev response and broadens the torque curve, puts out 120 bhp at 5800 rpm and has a torque peak of 116 lb ft at 4200 rpm. Top speed is quoted at 119 mph and 0-60 mph is reached in a fairly leisurely 9.2 seconds. (The vital statistics of the MX-5, for those interested: 1588cc, 114 bhp at 6500 rpm, 100 lb ft at 5500 rpm, 121 mph max speed and 0-62 mph in 8.75 seconds). Architecturally — the Alfa: performance — Mazda.

The Spider is a comfortable car, the new seats are now mounted further back for greater legroom while they remain supportive. The ergonomics are still not up to scratch, two dials on the main console are virtually hidden from view while the push buttons on the centre console could be better located.

The gear lever remains at an odd angle sticking out horizontally from below the facia when in neutral rather than vertically as is conventional. The biggest handicap for British drivers, though, is the fact that the car only comes in left-hand drive, although Bell & Colvill Limited of West Horsley do convert this new model to right-hand drive alongside the 1600 and 2000i.

The hood is easy to erect, but the clips locating it to the windscreen were the devil’s own to push home on the test car. This reflects poorly in light of the Mazda operation.

A hard-top with rear screen heating comes as part of the standard equipment as does the power steering, electrically operated windows and door mirrors and a stereo radio-cassette player.

Externally the Spider looks far more refined with the rear end tidied up. Gone is the large black bumper and Kamm tail replaced by a re-shaped colour coded bumper and larger, horizontal light clusters. At the front the familiar Alfa Romeo radiator grille has been blended into the colour coded bumper. These changes, together with the Alfa Romeo Tipo 33 style alloy wheels and Pininfarina’s banishment of a rear spoiler, have greatly improved the look of the car.

On the road, the power steering, which comes as standard, is pleasantly weighted while the steering is more responsive thanks to the improved ratio.

Despite the unusual location of the gear lever, the five-speed box is user-friendly and anything less than a slick change has to be the fault of the driver rather than the car.

The suspension is fairly conventional with a coil-sprung live rear axle with trailing links and anti-roll bar and unequal length transverse control arms, lower wishbones, coil springs and damper and an anti-roll bar at the front. The limited slip differential is standard and the brakes, discs all round, are servo-assisted.

Priced at around £16,000, the Spider is nearly £2000 more than the MX-5. The Italian unquestionably has more class, but it lacks the peppiness of the Japanese motor. There is also still a question mark hanging over it with regard to quality control — where else does the driving mirror come away in your hand as you adjust it?

This last point, though, is unlikely to deter potential customers from choosing the car. The fact that it is only available in left-hand drive is more likely to be the determining factor. The trouble is that of the 8000 being made a year, the bulk go to the USA with the rest of the world, principally Europe, taking the crumbs. Of that, the British market is too small to warrant not just the cost of the conversion to right-hand drive but also the cost of the bureaucratic red tape needed to make it legal for Type Approval. Whilst it will undoubtedly give Mazda and its ilk a good run for their money in Europe, it has unfortunately more or less vacated the field in Britain.

WPK

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