(first posted 9/14/2012) Sadly, Alfa Romeo has been absent from the North American market since 1994. In the meantime, Alfa has been revitalizing its line up with rather lovely front-wheel drive saloons and sports cars. I haven’t been fortunate enough to see a sedan since I was in Europe over a decade ago; instead, I can offer you this mid-’90s Spider, courtesy of Canada’s 15-year import rules.
By the early 1990s, the classic Alfa Romeo Spider was, to put it rather charitably, a bit dated, with a basic design dating to 1966. Despite planned modernization aimed primarily at the North American market (including the addition of power steering, driver’s side airbag, air conditioning and fuel injection), it really was a rolling relic. In fact, European buyers could still get one fitted with Weber carburetors.
The revised full-width tail lights certainly looked modern (and 164-inspired), but the overall design was in fact more evolutionary than revolutionary. Think of an aged Hollywood starlet with one too many facelifts: There remains much essential beauty, but no longer enough to rate a poster on a teenager’s wall. What was needed was a clean sheet, up-to-date design, and in fact, Alfa had been working on one since 1987. After 1993 production wrapped up, Alfa sold 190 of the units in North America as 1994-model year Spider Commemorative Editions. The rest of the world went without a soft-top Alfa Romeo for 1994 due to a delayed introduction of a replacement model, which arrived the following year.
Debuting in 1995, the 916 series was known as the GTV (coupe) and Spider (convertible). Aesthetically, the new Spider didn’t seem to share anything with the old one besides the trademark grille and quad headlights–a look that evoked the GTVs of the ’60s and ’70s. Styling was rather wedge-like, with a low front kicking up to a higher-looking rear end.
Its extensively reworked Fiat-based platform features passive rear steering- enabled multilink rear suspension to provide Alfa Romeo-quality handling. McPherson struts handle suspension duties up front. Despite its front-wheel drive origins, the Spider is an impressive handler that upholds Alfa Romeo’s performance reputation. Naturally, the GTV version is structurally stiffer than its open-top sibling, but I think I’d accept the minor compromise in handling in order to have a topless Italian.
Engine choices were the twin spark fours in 1.8 and 2.0L versions, the 3.0-liter V6, and for Italy only, (and only in the tin-top GTV), a small, tax-dodge special 2.0-liter V6 turbo. The engines and gearboxes were shared with the 155-series sedans that had launched a few years earlier. I remember reviews of the time reporting that the four-cylinder car felt much more balanced and light on its tires than the V6, even though the bigger engine shifted front-weight balance by an insignificant two percent.
As expected, the V6 gave better straight line performance, but it suffered a bit from under steer and excessive tire wear. That said, it is certainly one of the best-looking engines around; while no ugly duckling, the four looks rather average in comparison.
Our example is a 1996 model. It has the 2.0-liter, 150-hp four-cylinder engine, indicating a 0-60 time of around nine seconds, and a top speed of 130 mph–somewhat comparable to a Miata of similar age. The Momo leather seats look rather inviting, as does the rest of the interior.
Hoping to shed its reputation for rusting, Alfa gave the Spider a fully galvanized body shell, along with front fenders made of PUR plastic. The hood is made of KMC, a composite material made from fiberglass, polyester and epoxy. Finally, an Alfa Romeo that’s not water-soluble!
While the classic Spider had an amazing, almost 30-year run in Europe, the 916 series Spider lasted until 2006–an impressive 11-year run despite only one refresh, in 2003. North America also missed out on its Brera replacement, but there’s renewed hope for a new drop-top Alfa being sold here, thanks to a recent Alfa Romeo/Mazda agreement to jointly develop an MX-5-based roadster. In the meantime, in Canada we can at least enjoy the occasional grey market import.
All I can say is “Gimme”!
nice writeup, thanks! i was wondering about these having been a huge fan of the earlier traditional spiders.
i’m probably too much of a traditionalist but a transverse mounted engine in a spider just seems so wrong. the diagonal line and big boot don’t do it for me either. at least it has a nice interior.
sorry, i’ll take a miata.
The GTV is a far more coherent design, in my opinion. I’ve always thought that the Audi TT, Fiat Coupé and the Alfa GTV marked the point at which Europe remembered how to make exciting-looking cars again, after too many years of generically boxy designs.
In fact, until recently I owned a 2.0 Twin Spark GTV. The engine was incredible: it absolutely came alive above 3,000 rpm, and I don’t think I’ve ever heard a standard inline four sound quite so good. Handling wise, the passive rear-wheel steering was eerily good at keeping the car pointed where you wanted it, though there was still a perceptible nose-heaviness that blunted the whole experience. Great for hustling over countryside A-roads, not so much on anything smaller.
The interior was entirely meh. Nice dials and driving position, but pointless rear seats (that clever rear suspension occupied a lot of space) and the front seats are prone to breaking very subtly so that the seat backs list to one side. Very slight, and yet very annoying. Also, the radio was too low; after years driving a Saab 900 with a radio right at the top of the dash, reaching – and looking – down past the gear lever seemed dangerously distracting.
Italian sports cars have a long history of pointless little rear seats. Fiat 124 Spyder is a well-known example. Was there some regulation favoring a technically four-passenger car?
I would think with the top down and a fine twin-cam engine singing along, using a radio becomes secondary. That’s been my experience with the Miata this summer, even with headrest speakers. (If it’s a daily driver most miles are top-up, then the radio does matter.)
Safe as milk, I’m with you on that diagonal slash on the side. It looked strange when the car debuted, but I thought give it time – and it still looks strange. Also, the rear end cut lines with the inset tail lights seems to pay homage to the original Toyota Celica.
Rumor say the next Alfa Spider will be based on the Miata, just like the Fiat 124 Spider. So maybe you can take both in the future
Sheer, unadulterated, lust.
Is there any way that we can get the US to adopt Canadian standards for bringing over different used cars? Short of shooting up the EPA?
Get a vacation chalet in BC. Or wait ten more years, it’s 25 in the US.
I like it from the front, but the side and rear views don’t do much for me. I have to agree with Safe – I don’t get the prominent upswept line. Also, the big butt is not my thing. Still, variety is the spice of life and I will vote with others that it is a shame we never got the opportunity to have them here. One may not have made it into my garage, but those who see it differently should have the chance.
I wish there were a way for all major car markets to come up with a common standard for safety and emissions. Then we would be back to the 1950s and before, and everyone’s cars could be sold anywhere. A few Alfa ragtops here, a few 300Cs in Milan. Everybody is happy.
The strange slacher lines on the side found their way on the contemporary Fiat Coupe. It didn’t look any better on them.
Still think they look strange.
So now Benjamin Braddock can cue up Simon & Garfunkel on his CD player?
If he ever graduates.
I know the 1,8 twin spark very well as my father owns a 156 with such engine, a really excellent, smooth powerplant, just a little lazier than you would expect under 3500rpms…I’ve never liked these Alfas, I’ve always found em’ a little awkward and bulky while the Fiat Coupè still is one of the best looking cars in 30 years IMHO…the Alfa sure was the best to drive anyway, mainly for the rear suspensions…they’re getting scarce right now, even if they’ve been in production for 10 years, I guess abusive drivers are the main reason for this
very stylish- probably alot got run hard….
There’s a yellow one running around Eugene, but I’ve failed to catch it, yet. Now that caught me off guard; very unexpected.
I have mixed feelings about these too. The front end is very dated now, and reminds me too much of the Acura Integra with the little quad headlights. When it came out, I was fairly impressed, but had a very difficult time wrapping my head around a fwd Alfa Spider. Still do.
I also spotted one of these earlier this year. It was near the United Nations on the Upper East Side of Manhattan and wearing DIPLOMAT plates. Most cars with those plates are native Town Cars or S-Classes, driven by chauffeurs, so somebody must really love this one to have gone through all the trouble of having it shipped over.
I was extremely surprised to say the least and stumbling across it really made my day. It was a 1.8TS model, not sure of the year… sorry for the crummy pics, I only had my rapidly aging cell phone on me:
…and the other side
I think the Acura Integra had real quad round headlamps. This Alfa has two rectangular headlamps disguised by four round openings in the plastic hood. (Something I just learned looking at the Twin Spark engine photo)
Wonder what that does for night vision?
“But there’s renewed hope for a new drop-top Alfa being sold here, thanks to a recent Alfa Romeo/Mazda agreement to jointly develop an MX-5-based roadster.” Will it be called the Alfa Romeo 4C?
I have to say the only view I like is that underhood of the V6 version otherwise I think this is just plain bad and I’d be embarased to have one seen in my driveway.
well, yes and no…with the exception of the the 8C (which really is an exception) since 1993 all Alfas are fwd, plus Alfa started to use it since 1971 with the Alfasud, which, besides the absymal build quality and catastrophic rust issues, was a pretty good compact car
“besides the absymal build quality and catastrophic rust issues, [the Alfasud] was a pretty good compact car”
Alfa in a nutshell, really. Beautiful but not practical. 🙁
I like this car, although, if I wanted a FWD roadster that would actually last, I’d probably go find a Honda S2000.
You wouldn’t find that mix of qualities in a S2000 since it is driven by the correct set of wheels, those under your butt not the ones out front that are supposed to steer. Even Honda isn’t stupid enough to do wrong wheel drive on a performance based roadster.
I stand corrected! I hadn’t realized that because (like any good Honda model) it was abandoned a few years ago before I could get interested in one.
I had a new 2004 S2000…meh… I found my wife’s ’94 Miata more fun to drive.
Very nice article. This isn’t my favorite Alfa but it still made me wish they hadn’t left the USA. I can’t wait until I can legally import a 159 or Brera. In a world of vanilla Toyota Camry clones an Alfa can still stir the soul and right now I wish I hadn’t sold my 1984 GTV-6 twenty-some years ago.
I like that you pointed out how this front end echoes the earlier GTVs like this GTV6. That was a wonderful car, Lily got one as her only car right around the time we met. (Too bad I didn’t fit under its roof.)
That slanted line up around the back looks meant to evoke a high-fashion jacket collar. Italian car styling in its ‘avant garde’ phase didn’t work for me.
This interior instantly struck me as just like my Miata. And I must agree, FWD is fine in sports coupes, not in traditional roadsters. But 1) those V6 headers are to die for, and 2) regardless of all that, it is an Alfa.
I am very fond of the looks of these (never having driven one). The GTV would be very tempting, particularly with the optional Momo interior package, and is supposedly a lot more solid-feeling than the Spider. This and the 156/159 were very attractive cars; I have never warmed to the latest Alfas at all.
In my opinion, ever since the SZ/RZ debuted Alfa-Romeo has straddled a narrow line between building stunningly gorgeous cars and cars that were too stylized for their own good. There are a lot of elements of this iteration of the Spider/GTV that I like a lot, but I’ve never really cared for the overall appearance. The details that are attractive on their own get lost in the big picture for me – much like the Fiat Coupe from the same era, a car whose lines were clearly echoed here.
Looking back, it’s easy to see how the Spider/GTV marked a clear transition between the boxy and angular Alfa’s spawned in the 1980’s and the dawn of their current styling themes that were birthed with the 156 and 166. I’m a huge fan of those cars, but I think the absolute pinnacle of Alfa’s recent designs were the 159 and Brera… I’m madly in love with both of them and it’s a crime they weren’t available in the US.
I agree with you on the Giulietta. I like it, but I’m not wild about it… and the 147 never did anything for me. They say that the 159 replacement (Giulia) will be sold in the United States. I haven’t seen any pictures of it yet, but I’ve got my fingers crossed hoping it’ll be every bit as sublime as it’s predecessor.
Compelling looks, especially the rear end. Clearly out of my league.
Sounds like girl-watching.
Contrary to my intense Lancia Gamma induced hatred of Italian cars, I grudgingly have to admit these are actually able to fulfill their function as moderately reliable transport, rather than beautiful garage ornaments. By the 1990s, Fiat had achieved the level of durability and reliability of Chrysler- meaning that the engineering was generally sound, and about 75% of the cars were very, very reliable. My friend who had a GTV with 120K miles did nothing but change the oil and other regular servicing for another 40K miles until he sold it when he moved to London. Such reliability is what made old Mercs and Volvos legendary, but was unheard of from an Italian car.
Now is the time to get one of these, as the aforementioned 25% of lemons have now been recycled into soup cans, and one with a full history is likely to be reliable for a long time to come. However I have to agree with Francesco- if I was to buy a 1990s Italian sports car, it would have to be the Fiat Barchetta, or even the Fiat Coupe, both of trade the badge for a level of styling harmony that only a Fiat 850 Spider or the orginal Duetto could manage.
You totally nailed it and I can understand your hatred if your experience with italian cars was based on the Gamma…that car was doomed from the start…such a shame ’cause the Gamma Coupe really was a beauty
A car you’d really want to love for its looks, but…..
Here’s a crude MS-PAINT rendition of how I think this car could have looked a lot better. It’s that weird upward sweep separating the body that ruins it for me…
That’s better, Sean, but the high body line behind the seats still looks awkward – like it ought to be mid-engine or something.
These cars are still fairly common in Britain and are really very cheap now, especially the 4 pots but it’s only a matter of time…. Electrical issues are common, a V6 caught fire outside my workshop last year. Unfortunately the fire crew pumped it full of powder and it was a right off. I guess the bad apples will be rooted out eventually! Styling wise I’m not a fan of convertibles- doesn’t help living in the only northern hemisphere country with a monsoon season…. IF I bought an Italian of comparable age it would be a Thema 8-32, yes it’s a Ferrari engine and it would severely compromise my bank account but that sound!
As for the Gamma, a strange car indeed! Putting a long stroke boxer 4 pot in a luxury car??? To attempt to compete with BMW and MB?? and then running the power steering off the cam shafts! The coupes styling really doesn’t cut it with me, in the same way the Lancia Trevi strikes an old note. The Gamma ‘Berlina’ saloon works better- yes it was a saloon, although it was designed to be a Hatchback. Apparently Italians didn’t take to hatchbacks as ‘draughts’ could prove uncomfortable for rear passengers!! The Italians take great care to avoid draughts even nowadays….all very strange.
I still reckon the Beta is one of the all-time best looking sedans.
As the former owner of a 1995 164 Q, I can tell you from personal experience that the 24V 3.0 V-6 was a grenade. Poor design meant the cam gears chewed teeth off the timing belt, resulting in jumped timing, bent valves, and very expensive engine rebuilds.
But Dear God, what a beautiful engine; and the sound…nirvana.
Looks like the front end of a last-gen Acura Integra grafted to the ass end of a Javelin with an Alfa grille, yet somehow it works. I’d take one.
Is there any truth to the rumor that these actually were engineered to pass US regs? I seem to remember reading back in the 90s that when Alfa was designing these in the early 90s that the intention was to sell them here, but the 164 sold so poorly in the US that Alfa left the market entirely.
Alfa has been saying that they would return to North America soon essentially right after they left; every other year or so since then it’s the same non-story. All we have to show for it is the 8C… “Impending” Giulia aside, make of that what you will. That said, I would not doubt that a bunch of money was wasted on attempting compliance with these Spiders, however…
They do sell the 4C here, and I can confirm it personally as I’ve sat in one in the showroom and seen several on the streets here in SoCal.
Anyway, the time I’m talking about is the early 90s, when these would have been designed and Alfa was still in the US – they pulled out in 1995, right before these came out.
Yes some are US certified EPA and DOT I do have one
Ron I just happened to stumble across you note. I desparately want to buy one now. Could you perhaps help me to find one of these US EPA and DOt cert gtv’s or spiders with 2.0 ts?? thank you so very much in advance!
My cousin commutes in a 2.5 Spider in the UK its his work wet weather shopping ride fine weather sees him on a selection of motorbikes he has stashed away but by all reports the Alfa is reliable commuter car.
This is one of those cars whose styling I’ve tried to like, but have difficulty doing so. Something about the rear end just bothers me between the lack of overhang and the upswept bumper, somewhat (I hate to say this) like a 1986-88 Toronado.
I don’t have any doubts about it being a blast to drive, though!
Hideous from all angles. Hopefully the Miata-based version will be stronger. I love the new 124…
Echoing a number of the other comments, successful front and back, not so sure about that side.
I’ve given up hoping for a full Alfa return here. Just don’t think it will happen other than the 4C and 8C.