DRIVEN: ALFA ROMEO SPIDER 1750 TBI
An attractive Italian joins the Open Season fun. Is it more than just a pretty face?
One of the first things they teach you in how-to-be-a-motoring-journalist school is that car styling is a deeply subjective matter - that one person's Fern Cotton is another man's Lisa Riley. Thus, while you might see a serious reviewer describe a car as 'striking', 'graceful', 'aggressive' or perhaps 'anonymous', you'll rarely see them declaring a car to be pretty or ugly without some sort of beauty-is-in-the-eye-of-the-beholder caveat.
Alfa Romeo has a chequered history when it comes to car styling, but its open-top offerings have almost always managed to avoid the ugly stick, preferring instead the gentle caress of the beautiful branch.
What makes the Spider's prettiness a little surprising is that it was actually kind of designed by committee - albeit a committee of deeply stylish Italians. The front half is taken from the Italdesign-penned Brera, while the rest is the work of Alfa Centro Stile and Pininfarina - which builds the car.
The backsliding starts the moment you hop in. The cabin's driver-focused design is initially visually appealing, but you quickly realise that, although the layout is logical, the quality of the materials isn't up to scratch. It would be just-about acceptable in a £15k hatchback; for a £27k soft-top it's simply not good enough.
The ribbed leather seats also look just right, but you can't get them low enough and they feel oddly hard.
Things go from bad to worse on the move, as even smooth roads set off a shimmy through the Spider's body. The odd wobble is of course the inevitable consequence of chopping a whole load of steel from a car's structure, but this kind of wobble would be unacceptable in a four-seat convertible designed in the late 1990s, let alone a two-seat design that's less than half a decade old.
Which kind of leaves us desperately casting around for other good things to say. The hood, at least, is good; it stows away neatly and the cabin is reasonably cosy with it up. The driver and passenger will also find themselves in an impressively quiet and unruffled environment with the roof down, too.
There's some more relief in the form of the engine. Alfa had the good sense last year to fit its latest 1742cc turbocharged motor to the Spider and Brera and, with 197bhp and a decent 236lb ft from just 1400rpm, the Spider can haul itself along at a respectable lick; Alfa's claims of 0-62mph in 7.8secs and a maximum of 146mph seem eminently believable.
The Spider 1750 TBi also commits the rather less forgivable sin (for an Alfa Romeo) of not being characterful enough. Instead of growling or barking in the way that one feels a sporting Alfa ought to, the 1742cc turbocharged motor is refined enough, but a bit buzzy, much in the manner of a washing machine on spin.
So while we reckon the Spider works as a piece of automotive sculpture, by almost every single objective measure - and by some subjective ones (that lack of engine-noise soul) - the Spider falls pretty flat.
This year is your last chance to get hold of the current Spider, because it, along with its Brera cousin, will die before 2011 is out. And despite this one's manifest shortcomings, there's still a lot of love in this office for the idea of a Spider. A pretty Italian convertible with an Alfa badge will always win over penty of petrolheads (or, to be more accurate, hearts). Let's just hope that the next time Alfa has a go at one it does a better job...