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New Car Test - Alfa Romeo Spider TwinSpark

by Julian Edgar

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The Alfa Romeo Spider and GTV are the first of the new range of Alfas introduced to Australia after a long absence from our market by the Fiat-owned company. The GTV and Spider are (respectively) closed and open versions of much the same car. In Australia the Spider is available with only the 2 litre four cylinder engine, while in other markets the car can be bought with a 2 litre V6 turbo or the GTV's 3 litre V6. So what's the Spider like?

Putting a Spider into your Australian driveway will set you back A$66,000. For your money you get a mid-sized, front wheel drive open sports car with most of the fruit supplied as standard. The Spider (available only with a 5-speed manual tranny) comes with dual funbags, 16 inch alloy wheels wearing exotic 205/50 Pirelli P-Zeros, central locking (operable from either door), front and rear foglights, and ABS. Inside the cabin you'll find leather seats, air, fast glass, twiddly mirrors, and a stereo AM/FM single CD with front splits and a small rear sub. Extra price options include a CD multi-stacker, satellite navigation, a Momo custom leather interior package and metallic paint.

The cabin is a comfortable place to be. It has excellent ventilation (yes, even with the top up!) and the air con is strong and effective. The seats - while very firm - proved to be supportive both when cornering hard and on long trips. The wheel is adjustable for both reach and rake and so a comfortable driving position can be easily found. However, no seat height adjustment is provided, a problem since headroom is restricted. Tall occupants may well have their head brushing the inside of the fabric roof, and even when it is retracted, the top of the windscreen is quite low, necessitating that the driver peer under it when watching traffic lights. The indicator stalk is on the left - the wrong side for a right-hand drive car.

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However, the blight on the interior is not the available room or the positions of the stalks. Instead it's the dashboard, which is a weird mishmash that would be more at home in an (albeit good quality) home-built kit-car! Alfa say that the inside is "is a mixture of modern Italian design... alongside retrospective styling cues". If that means that the instruments have a strong similarity to the early Seventies AlfaSud that may well be the case, but in a modern car you don't expect to be confronted with bare Allen-key bolts holding in the dash panel, nor with upper console gauges that point at your waist! Not only that, but directly in front of the driver are two deeply recessed binnacles holding the speedo and tacho. Unless your eyes are the same distance apart as the instruments - that's about 15cm - you need to move your head from side to side to see the complete dials!

Then there's the radio - an incredibly complex device using a large LCD screen and multiple menus. For example, changing from AM to FM requires no less than five separate steps! The CD slot is hidden behind the faceplate, which tilts forward to reveal a second poorly-finished panel. However the quality of the sound is quite good, with excellent imaging from the high-mounted tweeters and competent bass from the small sub which uses as its enclosure the small lockable compartment situated behind the seats. There is no back seat, the room being taken up by the space into which the roof retracts. And at 110 litres, the boot is amongst the smallest that you will find in any car. It also comes factory-filled with a space-saver spare wheel.

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The Spider's 1970cc four cylinder engine develops 114kW (153hp) at 6200 rpm and 186Nm at four grand. An interesting engine design, the DOHC, 4-valves-per-cylinder engine features twin balance shafts, two plugs per cylinder and variable camshaft timing. The head is alloy and the block cast iron. The spark plugs are not fired simultaneously as might be imagined. Instead, the second plug (offset within the chamber) fires 360 crankshaft degrees after the main, centrally-mounted plug. This spark at the end of the exhaust phase reduces the emissions output. The inlet camshaft phasing is controlled by the ECU, being altered by up to 25 degrees to give full overlap from as low as 1800 rpm. Ninety percent of peak torque is available from 2500 - 6200 rpm.

The Bosch Motronic M2.10.3 management system controls the sequential injection, ignition coils, knock control, EGR, camshaft timing and idle speed. Other tech highlights of the engine include hydraulic tappets, a water/oil heat exchanger, cast alloy sump and eight-weight steel crankshaft. Backing the mill is the 5 speed trans with a 3.562 non-LSD final drive. The gearing is short, with fifth a 0.946 ratio.

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The engine is an absolute honey. Superbly responsive, the flat torque curve means that there is always performance on tap. With 114kW and 1370kg to haul around, the Spider is no road burner (Alfa claim 0-100 km/h in 8.4 seconds, about a second quicker than we recorded) but performance in any situation is always competent. In fact it's often better than competent, the low gearing and creamy-smooth engine making the power just so useable, whether you're exiting a corner in second gear at the 7000 rpm redline or just cruising in fourth with the top down. During our test - which included 4000km of high speed, long distance driving - the Spider averaged 10.4 litres/100 km (~27 miles per Imperial gallon), a figure likely to be far thirstier than most owners will experience. This is one engine that shows that Alfa still knows how to make fours that are amongst the best in the world.

The Spider uses MacPherson struts at the front with lower wishbones and an anti-roll bar. Rear suspension is sophisticated, with the multi-link design anchored to a die-cast alloy sub-frame. The rear suspension incorporates some passive rear wheel steering and is designed to hold the wheels vertical in all cornering conditions. The front suspension uses just over one degree of negative camber, while the rear makes do with half of a degree. To the naked eye it looks to be more than that, though. Steering is by speed-sensitive rack and pinion with just 2.2 turns lock to lock. However this figure is a little deceptive because at 10.8 metres, the Spider has a large turning circle, slowing the actual steering response.

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On a twisty road the Spider is a damn good thing. The steering is precise and is totally free of torque steer. It also has excellent feedback, the feel becoming harsh only when the car is cornered hard over broken bitumen - in that situation the wheel can kick and jerk in your hands. The handling trait of the FWD car is understeer, but you need to be going bloody hard before it starts to happen! In fact, the car will initially start to understeer before then doggedly hanging on, even with increased cornering loads. Finally, when the front-end slide starts to become excessive, you can back off a little, and the rear end will gradually come out to balance the car. With power always on tap from the responsive engine, you can play tunes positioning the car on the road.

The Spider sits very flat when cornering, a characteristic that often provides for skatey handling in the wet. But if anything, the Alfa is even more impressive on a streaming wet road, the understeer/oversteer balance almost as good as in the dry. The P-Zeroes must take some credit for the handling prowess - those and the incredibly high standard tyre pressures of 39 psi (front) and 36 psi (rear). With these pressures and 50 series tyres, as expected there's some jiggliness to the ride. It's at its worst over small sudden bumps, while larger bumps are absorbed competently. It's not a car for a corrugated dirt road, though, where the suspension bottoms-out audibly.

As expected from a soft-top, body rigidity is not high when compared with a conventional coupe. In fact on Alfa's own figures, the Spider is 64 per cent less torsionally stiff than the GTV. The Spider uses a large balance weight beneath the rear floor to dial-out some of the body movement, but the scuttle still shakes and the steering wheel moves laterally over some bumps. The doors are very thick and heavy, and in addition to the normal lock, use a second locating pin, presumably to help tie the body together.

The brakes comprise 284mm (11.2 inch) ventilated discs on the front and 240mm (9.4 inch) solid discs at the back. These and the ABS work well, though when the ABS is activated in slow speed situations, the control action is a little gentle - the car feels as though it would stop quicker with less brake releases. In urban driving the pads growl audibly, but this disappears with highway kilometres.

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Raising and lowering of the roof is dead-easy. If the top is up, two mechanical catches that anchor the leading edge of the roof to the header rail need to be released. After that it's just a case of pressing a button and watching the roof fold away under its own metal, body-painted cover. The rear window is plastic and folds in half during the roof retraction. When the flexible plastic wears out it is easily replaced, being zipped and velcro'd into place. The cabin is well-sealed with the roof up, allowing fast cruising with a minimum of noise. Wind noise is present but it is more the general rush of air over the multi-layer roof rather than specific whistles. In the test car the roof had one annoying characteristic - at around 100 km/h the mechanism directly above the driver's head squeaked constantly.

The over-riding impression gained of the Spider is that it is simply a beautifully-integrated package. The engine is willing, the handling excellent, the car practical (tiny boot excepted). The light clutch, precise gearbox and steering, and powerful brakes mean that this is way beyond just a car for posing, for cruising the beachfront with the top down and the eye-catching styling making an impact on the sidewalk cappuccino drinkers. Of course, you can always do that too - and then go for a twisty road blast that raises goosebumps on your arms.......

www.alfaromeo.com.au

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