Alfa Spider: The revival starts here
Published 06/03/2007 | 15:22
The new Spider is a classy pleasure to drive. But will it stay the course, asks Sean O'Grady
There's good news and bad news for Alfa fans. It was delivered to the UK's finest motoring journos at the launch of the new Alfa Spider in Morocco, by Antonio Baravalle, the Alfa CEO.
Alfa Romeo is making fine cars, they're better than they used to be and safer and more reliable than you might think. The gorgeous looking and sounding new Alfa Spider is a case in point.
Unfortunately, finding an Alfa showroom will be more difficult until the company gets its act together. Alfa thinks part of the reason for its relatively subdued sales performance in Britain is that some dealers "weren't a very good match with the brand", so more than half have been sacked. The number of Alfa sales agents is scheduled to drop from 70 to 50, and in the transition you may find your local Alfa dealer has disappeared.
Well, something had to give, and the dealers it was. Although Alfas are much better than they were - more durable, less temperamental, safer - according to most of the consumer surveys they're still a long way short of where they need to be if they are to go bumper to bumper with the likes of Lexus, BMW and Audi.
In fact, they can often be found at the bottom of the list, snuggling up to Land Rover for warmth. However, as Alfa management in Britain improves its customer service and after-sales operation, owning an Alfa ought to become as enjoyable as driving one, the dealers should be helpful and competent, and if that transpires, Alfa's unofficial target of 30,000 sales in the UK per annum - up from about 6,500 units now - should be achievable.
There are new models coming; the Junior to take on the Mini Cooper, an SUV and a "flagship" 169 executive saloon. The 8C Competizione, one of the most stunning creations to come from anywhere in a decade, is sold out. If those cars are anything like as satisfying as the new Alfa Spider, they should help revive Alfa in Britain, where it is in a uniquely weak position.
We buy fewer Alfas, per head, than anyone else in Europe, despite the affection the brand (usually) inspires: the British like them but won't buy them.
Given the size and affluence of the UK car-buying public, this hurts Alfa's pocket as well as its pride. You, the Alfa buyer, should be the beneficiary of the company's clear determination to make you happy. It has raised service standards for dealers and improved spare parts availability. You now get a "like for like" courtesy car, and proper coffee. You'll be treated as well as you would if you'd bought a Lexus, so they say. Then again, you may think you've heard all those Alfa turnaround stories before....
You won't get bored driving an Alfa Spider. I had the pleasure of punting the top-end 3.2-litre V6 with four-wheel drive around the tricky roads of Morocco and it felt happy and secure. My life, I felt, was safe in its hands, though I didn't think it felt as grippy as some VW/Audi systems.
Still, it kept me out of trouble and ditches (or maybe that was the Hand of Fatima charm I kept about my person). The roads in Morocco are tricky: anything that can move does and in a mysterious way. Alfa didn't design this car to avoid camels, goats, tortoises, donkeys and begging children, but it does a pretty good job of avoiding them. There are many reasons to avoid Morocco as a holiday: a stolen mobile phone, cash card and Independent identity card (why?) being three in my case.
However, if you can put up with the hassle and ever-present danger of rip-off or theft, Morocco makes for a "different" motoring experience. The overmanned police force are erratically present, usually busying themselves with pointless road blocks and harrying tourists for the £20 it will take to bribe them to bugger off. but the further away you get from the main towns you can put your foot down and get on with things. With the roof down you can hear what a magnificent job the Alfa people have done with what you might call the external sound system.
Hacks on the Moroccan Spider launch were given CDs of the soundtrack to The Graduate - incongruous but appropriate, since Dustin Hoffman drove an earlier incarnation of Alfa convertible in the classic film. However, even Simon and Garfunkel couldn't quite compete with the V6 symphony from 20 Spider press cars echoing around the Maghreb.
This Spider looks the part, with its familiar Alfa styling cues, but I'm not sure it's a great leap forward. I thought the old car's dramatic, wedgy styling was really very special. The new car is not as avant garde, but very much in the Alfa idiom. It is a convertible version of the Brera Coup� and, as such, very acceptable. The Brera/Spider pair are easily more dashing than the new Audi TT/TT Roadster, their principal rivals, while they enjoy a small lead over the BMW Z4 Convertible and Coup�.
The interior is also much more traditionally sporting than those of its rivals, although the aluminium-effect centre panel in the dash can dazzle in bright sunshine. Yet far too many people buy far too many of these German brands almost as a default choice, and you can't blame them. If you're going to blow £32,000 on a sexy convertible, you don't want any trouble with it and you'd like to see some cash back after three or five years. I'd be tempted by a Honda S2000 roadster, an underrated and probably peerlessly reliable model. Like the BMW Z4, it's also rear-wheel drive, while most Alfa versions have power to the front wheels only.
No faults arose in the Alfas during our short test in Morocco, under relatively tough conditions, but the question, as ever, is what state this Spider will be in at 60,000 or 160,000 miles. If Alfa wants to reunite me with RJ56 NKW (in Monte Carlo blue) when it hits that mileage for my appraisal or, better still, allow me to personally chaperone the vehicle to that sort of age, I'd be only too happy to declare for its durability as well as its driveability and certify the Alfa turnaround well and truly complete. The offer's there....