Curbside Classic: 1996 Alfa Romeo Spider – Forbidden Italian Fruit

(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.