Convertibles can disappoint when compared to their coupé cousins, but not this Alfa Romeo 8C Spider – it has performance as well as looks
By Andrew Frankel
There are few rarer breeds of car than convertibles that transpire to be better to drive than their tin-topped brethren. This was not always the case: back in the days when car bodies were exactly that – bodies with no structural significance bolted onto ladder frame chassis – it mattered not at all in engineering terms whether that body was open, closed or even present. Before the war it was commonplace for manufacturers to test cars on the road without any body at all before sending them off to one of the coachbuilding houses.
But in these modern times of monocoque construction, the bigger the aperture you make in the car’s structure, the more wobbly that structure will be, and there’s no bigger hole you can make than chopping off a car’s roof.
Putting some of that strength back by way of added reinforcement results in cars that are invariably heavier and still not as rigid as their engineers would like, which is why, almost uniformly, they don’t drive as well as the coupés on which they are based.
But of course some manufacturers are better than others at this dark and delicate art, and when I think of those convertibles I’ve driven that seemed structurally least sound of all, the one thing that links almost all of them is that they came from Italy.
Two were Maseratis: the first was the Biturbo-based Spider of the early 1990s which was one of that rare breed of car that was so bad it was actually quite fun because you were never quite sure what it would do next. On a wet and bumpy road it was genuinely hilarious. A decade or so later Maserati had raised its game substantially so that when it launched the Spider version of the Maserati Coupé the result was just very disappointing. I drove it as part of a five-car test and can remember giving up trying to maintain the pace of the rest of the group when I looked down and saw the steering column shaking so much the trident in the centre of the wheel was a blur. It came fifth.
Alfa Romeos have not been much better. The first of the front-drive Spiders shuddered its way from place to place, while the only truly surprising thing about the current Brera Spider is that Alfa Romeo clearly thinks it’s still fine in the 21st century to sell a £30,000 convertible with significant levels of scuttle shake.
All of which brought me to the door of the new 8C Spider not sure whether I really wanted to open it or not. It looked so lovely just standing there, baking in the Italian sunshine. Having been broadly enthused by the 8C coupé when I first drove it last year, did I really want to discover yet another perfectly good Italian sports car that had been sizeably spoiled just so passers-by could gawp more readily at its occupants?
Then again, this was a front-engined, rear-drive, carbon-fibre-bodied supercar powered by a 450bhp V8 that, shorn of the insulating qualities of the roof, should sound louder and therefore better than ever. Can’t leave that in the car park, can you?
And now I’m glad I didn’t. Usually you don’t need more than a few yards in a new convertible to discover if its construction has been unacceptably compromised. A drain, a manhole cover or even just a coarse or uneven surface will usually show the symptoms. Whether its the shake from a wheel, a shimmy from the windscreen, a rattle from a door, a jolt from
the steering column or any combination of the above, the signs are hard to miss.
Unless, of course, they’re not there. The 8C Spider is not as rigid as its coupé sister, for that would be impossible, but it’s stiff enough for it not to matter, and that’s what matters most.
The result is not one of the world’s great cars, just one of the most desirable. There is nothing it does so much better than any other roadster similar money (a knee-trembling £170,000) might buy, except make you feel good about having it at your command. As with all the best Alfas over the years, what it does is of little consequence relative to the way that it does it.
The looks you can see for yourself, but unless you’re one of the lucky 35 in the UK or 500 around the world with an order form, you’ll have to take it from me that the sound from that V8 motor, which has been specially tuned to make the most of its new, open-air auditorium, stays with you not hours after you’ve parted company, but days. This engine is built by Maserati and used in all its products, but never in a higher state of tune than this, never with a sharper, louder yet more melodious timbre.
Better still, it suffers from no apparent bodily weakness thanks to a body at least twice as torsionally stiff as Alfa’s other Spider, the drop-top Brera. Best of all, this structural integrity has been achieved without firing the 8C’s weight through the roof. By using carbon-ceramic brakes instead of steel and a very simple Z-frame hood that needs to be attached by hand to the trailing edge of the windscreen, Alfa has kept its weight gain to 90kg or just six per cent.
Alfa says it’s 0.3sec slower to 60mph (4.5sec) as a result, but I doubt the gap is either that large or possible to detect without resorting to stop watches. What matters is that its performance more than matches the promise of those looks.
As, heaven be praised, does its handling. And it is here, in this most unlikely arena, that the Spider not only matches the standards of the 8C coupé, but exceeds them. Thanks to very careful suspension tuning leading to slightly firmer spring and rollbar rates but softer damping, Alfa has been able to use the lessons learned from the original 8C programme
to create a convertible with a better ride, less understeer, crisper steering and more progressive manners on the limit. That roof and the bodily reinforcements also create a perfectly balanced weight distribution. Put another way, this is a car that will drift for Italy, something I never felt inclined to say about the coupé.
Being an Alfa, it still retains the capacity to annoy. And in the sometimes snatched shifts its steering wheel paddles produce, the dead feel of those ceramic brakes, the laughable boot, the lack of storage space inside and the fact you have to fit cheap plastic panels to conceal the folded hood sticks, the Spider provides much cause for speculation that, were Alfa building it as a series production car rather than a 500-off limited run, it would have done it rather differently. But none of this will be of concern to Alfa Romeo. Even at that price and in these times, they’ve all been gobbled up by fans who will see in its beauty, its power and its convertible roof the Alfa Romeo of their dreams. And they will not be wrong to have done so, either.