Caught in the Spider's web

Alfa Romeos? All style and no content. Well, that's what John Fordham thought until he tried their latest sportster
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The Independent Culture
One of the first cars I ever drove for a motoring column, around the turn of the decade, was an Alfa Romeo saloon - red, of course. And perhaps it was a salutary warning that cars were always going to be flawed and treacherous partners to share a fantasy life with. It was to my great surprise that I disliked it so much. Alfa Romeo!

But the car that arrived seemed an apology for an Alfa, with a plasticky interior, perversely- designed handbrake, boxy shape, and only a plaintive crackle in the exhaust note to hint at past glories. Give or take a few triumphs, like its wonderful V6 engine, that was more or less the Alfa story through the Eighties and into the Nineties - until the emergence of the bold and delectable Spider.

The best-looking of the recent flood of small roadsters for my money, it has a superbly responsive engine - and, though in its soft-top version a little over-inclined to body-flexing, the handling is reassuring and great fun. From the ski-slope mid-lines running, from the high-set back end to the tiny, torch-like headlamps, from the curving sides to the triangular grille, it's a scheme that testifies to just how much sculptural artistry there is in the best automotive design. Some prefer the cleaner, more integrated impression of the hard-top GTV, but the roadster version gets by just fine by me.

If the Alfa Spider needed to be good enough to restore some lost years in the Alfa Romeo story, it also needed to be good enough to handle some of the hottest competition for some time in this sector of the market. The Spider is up against the BMW Z3 and the Rover MGF in its own price bracket, the still-vivacious Mazda MX-5 that sent the whole roadster show back on the road a decade ago, and costlier exotica like the Porsche Boxster, Mercedes SLK and Lotus Elise. If the Alfa's charisma ended when it left the kerbside, the car would be no more than a fashion accessory. It's much more than that.

If there's a mechanical drawback, it is that the car is heavy for its type, giving the four-cylinder twin-spark engine a lot of work to do - but the more powerful V6, now fitted to new GTVs in Italy, is too much for a convertible body. But if the Alfa isn't as quick as some rivals, you'd have to be a deranged defender of gung-ho sports car values to make that a serious point against it. The gearshift is deft, the power at low revs almost instantly available, and the handling delightful on good road surfaces and highly acceptable on poor ones.

Motorway cruises are enhanced by its comfortable solidity, and only the scuttle shake that dogs the convertible counts as a point against it. If stylish, two's-company motoring is for you - and you have pounds 23,000 lying under the bed, the Alfa could sing a pretty seductive song.

AUTO BIOGRAPHIES

ALFA ROMEO SPIDER (T-SPARK): pounds 23,000

GOING PLACES

Fine, responsive and exuberant engine, quick and sporty gearshift, performance subjectively better than on paper: 0-60mph in approximately 9.5 seconds, 50-70mph overtaking speed around 13 seconds in top.

SAFETY FIRST/HANGING OUT

Very sensitive handling, quickly responsive to subtle adjustments, but generally good steering feel marred by shake on bad roads; driver/passenger airbags, anti-lock brakes, rugged body construction for this class.

CREATURE COMFORTS

Quite spacious, non-cocoon like interior feel for a roadster, supportive seats, extensively adjustable steering position, though materials and interior finish a little mundane; electric windows and mirrors, alarm/immobiliser, remote central locking, no electric hood.

TURKEY QUOTIENT

Scuttle shake on poor road surfaces, expensive against some major rivals.

STAR QUALITY

Alfa cachet, beautiful styling, great engine.

AND ON MY RIGHT

BMW Z3 (pounds 21,365): stylish to some, sheep in wolf's clothing to others, plenty of BMW feel on the road though.

Rover MGF VVC (pounds 19,795): very pretty, sharp handling, comfortable.

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