Driven: Alfa Romeo Spider 1750 TBi


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.


Sometimes, however, beauty is a car's trump card. So it is with the Alfa Romeo Spider. Because looking good is the one thing it does better than anything else, and subjectivity can go hang; I would be willing to put actual money (not something a motoring journalist does lightly, believe me) on the fact that the vast majority of people reading this will agree that the Spider is a damn fine-looking car.

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.


The latest model, which has been with us since 2007, is no exception. Its elegant proportions look spot-on from more or less any angle, it blends sharp creases with voluptuous curves with almost contemptuous ease, and it seems perfectly to tread the thin line between prettiness and aggression.

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.


Sadly, the Spider's exquisite styling is about the only aspect of the car about which we can be unreservedly complementary, because even the most cursory investigation reveals the car to be more or less dreadful in every other respect.

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.


The effect is to entirely spoil what would otherwise be a reasonable driving position - the pedals are well placed and the steering wheel seems right, but nobody in the PH office could get the seat to where they felt it ought to be. The awkward driving position is also not helped by the gearbox, whose knobbly action seems awkwardly long in throw; a slick rifle-bolt affair it ain't.

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.


What's more, the result of the floppy chassis is inherently hamstrung handling as the suspension tries to deal with wobbles from both the road and the car. The only saving grace, chassis-wise, is a pleasantly incisive turn-in from the typically quick-acting Alfa steering.

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.


But with the Spider it seems that every silver lining must come with a cloud, and having all that torque available so early rather easily overwhelms the front tyres. The result that any enthusiastic getaway is likely to be accompanied by a furiously flashing traction control light.

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.


Everybody who tried it at PHHQ wanted to like it, too, but the Spider quashed our various enthusiasms one by one: Editor Chris-R (a tall fellow, admittedly) failed to fit into it properly; I felt deeply let down by the lack of a decent engine note; publishing boss Stuart was genuinely shocked by the wobbliness of it on even billiard table-like black stuff. It even broke down on Garlick - a wobbly jubilee-style clip allowing a hose to come loose and causing the car to spit its coolant over the road (not a major mechanical outage, but that sort of thing ought not to happen on such a theoretically cutting-edge engine).

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...

Comments (71) Join the discussion on the forum

  • jamieboy 26 Mar 2011

    Howrare said:
    The GT was based on a 156 platform that harks back to the mid 90's. Saying that, having driven all the models being talked about in this thread, I'd still take a GT V6 over any of the 159 based products. The Spider V6 I drove to AutoItalia in 2007 was stunning. Stunning to look at, and always drew a crowd whenever it was parked up. But a stunning let down performance wise. Heavy, slow, unresponsive, and that "new" GM V6 was totally souless. I'll forgive an Alfa a fair few things. I've owned a few. My GTV TS wasn't quick, but it was sharp handling, made a great noise, and never felt boring.

    The current models have never had the sales success of the 156 and 147. They undercut the competition price wise, looked stunning (and still do to my eyes) had character and were sharp to drive. No wonder they sold well, they were a real alternative in so many ways. Cheaper and more interesting than the premium brands, and more upmarket than the likes of Ford, and Vauxhall. They took sales from both markets. Today Alfa has lost the plot. The 159 family is just plain dull to drive. The Mito is hideous. In the same way a Mk1 Cayene looks shocking for being a 911 stretched over a Toureg, the Mito is an attempt to drag an 8C over a Grande Punto. The Guilette is a butter car. Nice bum, but'er face! The local hairdresser has one, and always parks it front on to the shop. The new concept 4C spider doesn't do it for me either. The Duoettotante was really were I would like them to go style wise, and a return to a lighter, sharper driving range of cars. Alfa are so fixated with competing with the Germans, when they should be getting back to being something different, and exciting.

    As for the fella in this thread who has an MX-5 and is thinking of chopping it for a Spider... REALLY? I've had 2 MX-5s and would buy another in a heart beat. You’d swap pin sharp handling, involvement, and all the fun just for a pretty face? For the money you'd spend you could go Boxster, almost new S2000, 350Z... the list of far superior metal goes on and on. If it has to be an Alfa then a 916 V6 Spider would be a far better drive, and they’re not great to start with.

    I love Alfa, always have, but they have to sort themselves out. I think the best thing would be for Fiat to get shot, and for something similar to what has happened to SAAB to take place. I hope it gets better soon.
    Not sure what you've done there, but I didn't say any of that. smile

  • Howrare 26 Mar 2011

    robsco said:
    jamieboy said:
    Guvernator said:
    The Mito has got fair reviews but certainly not enough to put it at the top of the class. The 159 and GT platforms are at least 5 years old and due for replacement soon. They've also stopped making the Brera and Spyder.
    The GT was based on a 156 platform that harks back to the mid 90's. Saying that, having driven all the models being talked about in this thread, I'd still take a GT V6 over any of the 159 based products. The Spider V6 I drove to AutoItalia in 2007 was stunning. Stunning to look at, and always drew a crowd whenever it was parked up. But a stunning let down performance wise. Heavy, slow, unresponsive, and that "new" GM V6 was totally souless. I'll forgive an Alfa a fair few things. I've owned a few. My GTV TS wasn't quick, but it was sharp handling, made a great noise, and never felt boring.

    The current models have never had the sales success of the 156 and 147. They undercut the competition price wise, looked stunning (and still do to my eyes) had character and were sharp to drive. No wonder they sold well, they were a real alternative in so many ways. Cheaper and more interesting than the premium brands, and more upmarket than the likes of Ford, and Vauxhall. They took sales from both markets. Today Alfa has lost the plot. The 159 family is just plain dull to drive. The Mito is hideous. In the same way a Mk1 Cayene looks shocking for being a 911 stretched over a Toureg, the Mito is an attempt to drag an 8C over a Grande Punto. The Guilette is a butter car. Nice bum, but'er face! The local hairdresser has one, and always parks it front on to the shop. The new concept 4C spider doesn't do it for me either. The Duoettotante was really were I would like them to go style wise, and a return to a lighter, sharper driving range of cars. Alfa are so fixated with competing with the Germans, when they should be getting back to being something different, and exciting.

    As for the fella in this thread who has an MX-5 and is thinking of chopping it for a Spider... REALLY? I've had 2 MX-5s and would buy another in a heart beat. You’d swap pin sharp handling, involvement, and all the fun just for a pretty face? For the money you'd spend you could go Boxster, almost new S2000, 350Z... the list of far superior metal goes on and on. If it has to be an Alfa then a 916 V6 Spider would be a far better drive, and they’re not great to start with.

    I love Alfa, always have, but they have to sort themselves out. I think the best thing would be for Fiat to get shot, and for something similar to what has happened to SAAB to take place. I hope it gets better soon.


  • robsco 18 Jan 2011

    jamieboy said:
    Guvernator said:
    The Mito has got fair reviews but certainly not enough to put it at the top of the class. The 159 and GT platforms are at least 5 years old and due for replacement soon. They've also stopped making the Brera and Spyder.
    I don't put much faith in other people's opinions, but the MiTo came top in the What Car reader's awards this year. It's not going to worry Porsche, but that's not its target market.

    Also, Spider.
    159 4th out of 15 I believe, in the executive class? Nestling amongst the German brands if I recall correctly.

  • jamieboy 18 Jan 2011

    Guvernator said:
    The Mito has got fair reviews but certainly not enough to put it at the top of the class. The 159 and GT platforms are at least 5 years old and due for replacement soon. They've also stopped making the Brera and Spyder.
    I don't put much faith in other people's opinions, but the MiTo came top in the What Car reader's awards this year. It's not going to worry Porsche, but that's not its target market.

    Also, Spider.

  • Guvernator 18 Jan 2011

    robsco said:
    Living off past glories is a little harsh. Alfa have a strong line up at the moment, their strongest for a long time. The Mito has received a lot of praise, cracking up to date engines and good build quality. The 159 is an excellent steer and looks simply divine with another line up of good engines (1750TBi to replace the old 2.2, excellent range of diesels). The GT's only real weak point IMHO its interior, which, being based on the 147, doesn't seem to have the same robustness as the 159/Brera etc.

    Interesting that you mention the Giulietta's looks. They might not be to your taste, but there's no denying that it seems to be a great car (though I've not driven one). It was only just pipped by the Golf in a recent road test, which is an honourable result. They also have the new Spider in the pipeline of course, if the Duettotanta concept was anything to go by. If the pricing is keen and they get the chassis right, Alfa should have a field day.
    The Mito has got fair reviews but certainly not enough to put it at the top of the class. The 159 and GT platforms are at least 5 years old and due for replacement soon. They've also stopped making the Brera and Spyder.

    I agree the new multiair engines are technically brilliant and very efficient, however they aren't very exciting which is what Alfa were famous for. I remember going weak at the knees on hearing and seeing some of the older V6 engines, can't imagine that happening now. Don't misunderstand me, I'm not on an Alfa downer, I'm very keen to see what they do with their next saloon, coupe and Spyder cars. The Spyder concept is certainly fantastic looking, I just hope they manage to add back some of the Alfa magic into the handling and engines departments.

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