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...

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  • dwilkie 11 Jan 2011

    Pretty much exactly what we thought when my friend had one as a courtesy car.

    It looked ACHINGLY beautiful, then you'd drive it and we'd agree it was a bit cack. Then you'd park it, get out, look over your shoulder and fall in love with it all over again.

    It was a 2.4 JTD which didn't help - the sound didn't fit the car at all, but again you'd forget the second you looked back at it.

    I could easily be swayed into accidentally purchasing one, then keeping it forever as I fell in and out of love with it several times a day!

  • ANS2vrs370 11 Jan 2011

    I had this engine in a 159 when my DD was in for repair great engine and car but the fuel consumption was terrible when compared to BMW and VW offerings for the same power. The 370Z was better.....

    Cracking looking soft top though.

  • Chris_w666 11 Jan 2011

    I think it is one of the few cars I would be happy to own based on looks, but the inside feels slightly less well put together than the Fiat Bravo.

  • M666 EVO 11 Jan 2011

    I would put up with Natalie Portman if she burped and swore all the time...

    Is that the same sort if thing??

  • dwilkie 11 Jan 2011

    M666 EVO said:
    I would put up with Natalie Portman if she burped and swore all the time...

    Is that the same sort if thing??
    That's possibly most accurate analogy I've ever heard.

    You mean kinda like this? (NSFW)

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