Passion deserves to outweigh rationality, says Ryan Baptiste of the best Alfas for years.
This was the opportunity Pininfarina would be ill-advised to waste. Despite the prettiness of Alfa Romeo’s 164 and the sporting success of the 155, cars of real soul the kind that make us rejoice at the very sight of them have been but a twinkle in the hearts and minds of their creators for years.
Once Alfa had decided it needed cars like this once more and had given the green light for the replacement Spider and a new GTV, there must have been tears of by in the studios of the great design house.
The opportunity has not been wasted, that’s for sure. Both Spider and GTV are a stunning visual cacophony of lines: angles and graceful curves compete to draw the eye. Passionately conceived, these machines demand your attention. That’s not to say that the styling is everyone’s cup of tea, but you’d have to be made of wood not to be moved in some way, or to at least appreciate the sheer joy the body stylists must have had.
True, there are many elements of these designs which are not new they have popped up on several design exercises in recent years, notably the Audi Quartz but aren’t the most mouthwatering recipes concocted with a blend of simple ingredients and effective restraint? Bearing in mind the car’s profile, Pininfarina could have had a field day with ‘scaltergun’ design.
Mercifully, that is not its style.
That word ‘practicality’ has been conveniently brushed under the carpet, both spider and coupe have ridiculously tiny boots and rear accommodation, but isn’t this the very essence of the purity of pleasurable motoring? If anything, Alfa has conceded too much, some might be tempted to use the GTV as a four-seater. That would be a mistake, even with short trips in mind. I still break into a cold sweat trying to fathom out how or indeed why, I managed a trip to Cornwall and back from London, with three adults. Maybe I dreamt it. These cars are (and should be) for the driver to relish, and for a single passenger to admire.
Whether you are seduced or not by the looks, the specification of GTV and Spider should endear them to all but diehards who cannot live without drive to the rear wheels. Take a 150bhp two -litre Twin Spark 16-valve engine with the finest voice available below six cylinders. Attach it to a slick close-ratio five-speed ‘box and mount it transversely in the front between struts, coils and wishbones hang a sophisticated multi-link suspension from the rear of a rigid (al least in the case of the GTV) bodyshell, and give it communicative steering with only just over two turns lock to lock, and you could have a recipe for something quite delicious. Some manufacturers overcook or underdo the formula, but Alfa have got it Perfettamente al dente.
Admirably. Alfa has avoided an all too predictable swoopiness of interior contours, and the cabin looks the part of a no-nonsense sportster. Its sober binnacled instruments and ergonomically sound fittings are a pleasure to use, and unlike any Alfa that has gone before, the highlight is the driving position. Despite having no seat height adjustment you can unless your body is of extreme dimensions, get comfortable at the very least and conceivably even find a perfect driving position. And that’s something which has traditionally been almost impossible in an Alfa – you simply got used to them – eventually. Steering adjustment for both height and reach means that on fast bends you can now bury your backside into the seat and steer precisely with forearms rather than hang on for dear life by your finger tips. An exaggeration, perhaps, but you get the point no more “knees spread, arms stretched”.
To drive either of these Alfas is to drive something different. As is to be expected, the Spider is the lesser driving machine. You ‘sacrifice ride quality for public attention, but that doesn’t matter -from the outside no-one can tell your fillings are about to fall out with the scuttle shake. Besides, if you are of such persuasion, to allow everyone the clearest possible view you’ll be driving at walking pace hood lowered under neat cover, while simultaneously straining to hear their ‘oohs’ and ‘wows’ above the Twin Spark’s subdued symphony.
Drive it faster and it is still surprisingly entertaining. It turns in well enough and really hangs on, cornering flatly and moving precisely where you point it. That it is front wheel drive matters little; traits such as understeer and inside wheelspin are not too intrusive until you get rough with it. But you are much more likely to do this in the GTV which simply begs to be revved, accelerated, cornered and braked as hard as is humanly possible. Its that great. Just tum off the stereo and go! It may not traverse the country as quickly as some (after all 0-60mph in eight seconds and 130 or so maximum is nothing to write home about) but it will satisfy you more than most and for a front-wheeldrive car the fun will be unsurpassed.
Only serious ruts, which are telescoped by kickback through the steering wheel, upset the GTVs composure: otherwise directional stability is sound and very adjustable with little effort.
And while the suspension is common to both cars, the coupe’s rigid body allows the damping to work properly, banishing the intermittent crashiness caused when the Spider flexes over bumps. Neither car is a long-distance tourer; their close ratio gearboxes are ideal for winding routes but are not set up for long-legged cruising, and beautiful though the eight-plug engine sounds, maxing it on the continent for any length of time would surely become tiresome. Alfa’s lovely three-litre V6 would overcome this.
All the worthwhile competitors for the £20,000 GTV are more expensive except for the Fiat Coupe, which is almost identical in price, and spirit. The most serious, the BMW 323i, is a more practical bet, but even in bright colours appears grey and lacking soul in comparison. Life may be tougher for the £22.000 Spider, however there’s the cheaper and very competent MGF, the soon-to-arrive BMW Z3, and there’s always the Toyota Celica cabrio at a staggering £5000 more, if you’re as misled as your wallet is large. But then again, the others may look nice, but the Alfa is simply gorgeous.
The GTV and Spider are wonderful in most departments and annoyingly flawed in others, but if you take them for what they are the most desirable, well built and least idiosyncratic Alfas for years your heart will tell you that there is no competition.