When Alfa Romeo reenters the North American market in 2009, it will do so with a range of new cars. But the model that will resonate most passionately with Americans will be the reintroduction of the Alfa Spider. The Duetto Spider, you might remember, was the gorgeous little roadster immortalized by Dustin Hoffman in the 1967 film The Graduate.
The Spider that's coming in a couple of years is not that aging temptress, the Mrs. Robinson of the road. Rather, it's a new, front-wheel-drive model (with all-wheel drive as an option) recently unveiled in Europe. Furthermore, it will get a styling and mechanical makeover before the ships leave Italy for North America.
Styling changes for 2009 will be mild, because critics and customers agree that there isn't much that's wrong with the look of the latest Spider. Alfa's styling, which lost its way in the '90s (the same time that Alfa deserted the U.S. market, selling as many cars in 1995 as Toyota sold every five hours), is back in razor-sharp form. The Spider, along with the 159 sedan and the Brera sport coupe, is part of the most attractive family of cars now on sale in Europe.
Although it looks as spirited and alluring as the Lambretta-riding Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday, the looks are deceptive. To overcome previous criticisms of Alfa's frangibility and poor quality, the Spider now has a substance and solidity unknown in previous models. Unfortunately, more beef means less brio.
The current Spider handles well enough, rides well, steers nicely, and performs decently. But that eager throttle response, that Ferrari-at-Monaco agility, that ability to dance on its toes has been lost. Rather than an intuitive lightweight, it feels like a ponderous heavyweight. In short, the poor Spider is just too meaty. Fully armed with all-wheel drive and a V-6, it weighs 3725 pounds.
This matters little on California boulevards or on the interstate. In fact, it won't matter too much on most American roads at all. Yet the zing and zest and sporting gusto that keen-driving Americans expect of the very best Italian sports cars are absent. It's more bland Bolognese than spicy puttanesca.
Alfa is aware of the issue, and solutions are at hand. When the 2009 U.S.-bound vehicle is unveiled, weight will have been pared. One reason is that the engines will be new. The current gasoline engines are products of a joint venture, children of the short-lived General Motors/Fiat Group marriage. The V-6 used in today's Spider is primarily manufactured in a GM Holden factory in Australia before being shipped to Italy, where Alfa innards and electronics are added. It's a good engine but is neither as sonorous nor as spirited as the glorious Alfa V-6 that went before (the most tuneful non-V-12 in the world). The 2009 Spider gets a V-6 that's promised to be as gloriously Italian as a Ferrari Formula 1 powerplant or as Pavarotti singing at La Scala.
In many ways, the latest Spider impresses. Build quality is good and about as similar to the pretty and fragile Spider of distant memory as Florence's flawless Duomo is to Pisa's less-than-perfect bell tower. The interior is nicely finished. The car is fast and stable on long drives, handles well in V-6 Q4 (four-wheel drive) form, is comfortable and roomy, and feels as if it's built to last. Shed weight and boost power--and that's precisely what will happen--and we have the prospect of a mouth-wateringly tempting convertible, a "junior Ferrari" to kick-start Alfa's journey to win over the American market.
Fiat Group boss Sergio Marchionne comments that many people love Alfas but few--only about 160,000 worldwide last year--buy them. "Alfa seems to remind people of their dating days: there's lots of romance but little commitment," says the Italian-Canadian. The next generation of cars should add rationality to the romance, as Alfa seeks to become a genuine alternative to the all-conquering German prestige brands.