GRADUATING WITH HONOURS
Milan’s rakish roadster makes a stylish and engaging alternative to an MX-5 or MGB. We see how it fares out on the open road
We’ve all been there – don’t deny it. You stumble, half-asleep, into a kitchen aglow with early morning sunlight, open the fridge and discover the four slices of pizza that you didn’t finish off the night before. It’s a curious breakfast that shouldn’t really work, but it does – it’s always delicious. Yesterday’s treat still cuts it today, although there’s a part of you that would rather not admit it. Which is probably how you would have felt back in 1990 if you’d foregone the Mazda MX-5 and M100-gen Lotus Elan in favour of Alfa Romeo’s third-generation Spider.
It’s easy to dismiss the S3 as a dated design struggling to do Alfa’s bidding in the face of newer, slicker rivals, but there’s nothing stale about the way its wonderful twin cam engine fizzes enthusiastically once you’re on the move. Snick the stubby gearlever – which juts out of the centre console near-horizontally – into third, depress the throttle and listen as the 2.0-litre four starts strutting its stuff. Keep your foot buried, and it clears its throat above 4000rpm before gradually giving it the full Pavarotti. It’s addictive stuff.
Acceleration is brisk rather than explosive, but constantly to goad the engine into deploying all of its 130bhp is to miss the point entirely.
The real joy of the Spider is when you slice it through a series of sweeping corners. Only then do the beautifully balanced feel from the three-spoke Nardi steering wheel and the subtle vibrations of the coil-sprung suspension combine with the tyres to translate what’s happening at ground level into something you can play with as you power into the bends.
The result is an organic sense of fun that makes the Spider feel positively alive. It’s not as alert as an early Mazda MX-5 and there’s body roll aplenty if you carry too much speed into a tight corner, but it’s also a comfortable companion that’s happy to sacrifice some outright cornering immediacy to allow you to savour the experience. The ride is superb for what is effectively a two-seater adrenaline junkie too; it lets you know about road imperfections, but never allows them to hammer uncomfortably through the ribbed contours of those beautifully trimmed seats – and thence the seat of your pants.
Then there’s the driving position. Being an Italian car, it’s slightly offset, but this seems to involve you in its old-school character rather than detract from the driving experience.
In fact, its entire ambience is a peculiar mishmash of two different eras. The MGBesque chrome quarter lights, swathes of black vinyl trim and delicately thin A-pillars are entirely in keeping with the 1960s vibe of this aptly-named Graduate model. But the integrated plastic instrument binnacle and double deck of round plastic switches on the centre console are definitely from a time when Dustin Hoffman was starring in Rain Man rather than The Graduate. By far the worst offender is the horrid-looking digital clock beneath the gearlever –it sticks out like a satellite dish on the Colosseum and really does its best to ruin the throwback fun factor.
Thankfully, however, it fails completely. In fact, it’s almost impossible not to be won over by the Spider’s infectiously energetic engine, feel some handling, cossetting ride and pinsharp good looks. Critics and aficionados alike maintain that the boat-tail original is better looking, but this later car’s Kamm-tail styling, bigger rear lights and lashings of plastic trim can’t mask Pininfarina’s glorious original proportions completely.
The Alfa Spider epitomises wholesome, affordable – and, yes, slightly eccentric – sports car fun that you can’t help but love.
Yesterday’s treat tastes just as good today.
WHAT TO PAY // CONCOURS £9K-11K // GOOD £5-7.5K // USABLE £4-6K // PROJECT £1500-3K BUY MORE ALFAS THIS WEEKEND! This Alfa Spider has already been sold, but there are three other Alfas being auctioned this Saturday (11 February) at Mathewson’s sale in Thornton-le-Dale, North Yorkshire.
www.mathewsons.co.uk 01751 474455 Classic Pinifarina lines still evident on more plasticky S3.