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Along Came A Spider . . . Or Two

When the lovely people at Alfa Romeo UK agreed to lend me a £60,000, factory-fresh 4C Spider for the week I was (obviously) overjoyed. So, when my brother offered me a comparison drive of his 18-year-old Alfa Spider Twin Spark – which cost him just over a grand – I was, well . . . less overjoyed.

But then it got me thinking about just how much extra you get for your £58,520 and whether these two distant cousins can be compared at all – or are they so far removed in every respect as to make a comparison irrelevant?

A quick “Top Trumps” dual would suggest the cars are poles apart: The 4C Spider is a thoroughly-modern, rear-wheel drive, scaled-down supercar based around a carbon-fibre tub that you would normally only find in exotics such as the McLaren 720S and Lamborghini Huracan; while the teenage, front-wheel-drive 916-series Spider is based on the old Fiat Tipo platform.

A win for the 4C Spider then.

The 4C Spider’s 0-60mph time is just 4.5 seconds and it will top out at 160mph, while the 916 Spider will be along in a further 3.9 seconds and then give up the chase at 131mph.

Hand that card over bro.

There is one surprising statistic though; the 916 Spider’s engine has a larger displacement than the 4C’s at 1970cc as opposed to 1742cc, thus highlighting the immense difference between today’s engine technology and that available back in 1995 when the 916-series Spider first appeared.

Only if you had opted for the mighty 3.0-litre, 24-valve, V6 engine designed by Giuseppe Busso would you have gotten anywhere near the 240bhp available from the tiny, all-aluminium, 4-cylinder 1750cc engine which sits just behind you in the 4C Spider. And even then you would’ve found yourself 20bhp short.

This Top Trumps approach doesn’t tell the whole story though when comparing these two Italian icons because the “feel-good” factor plays such an important part too and that can’t be quantified as easily as engine size or performance. Let’s be realistic here – there is no one out there agonising over whether to spend £1,300 or £59,820 on a 2-seater, Italian sports car.

 

So, emotionally, what do you get for your money? Well, there is no doubt that both cars are extremely attractive and both are a rare sight on our roads which gives them some exclusivity – two things that will appeal to our emotions straight away.

The 4C Spider turns more heads though – and this isn’t just because folk can hear it coming from quite a way off. It is much more exotic looking than the 916 Spider and, especially from the rear, is easily mistaken for a mega-expensive Italian marque with its beautifully contoured engine cover and low-slung double chrome exhaust outlets.

Conceived as the successor to Alfa’s historic 33 Stradale, the design cues are obvious – especially the low-slung nose and the air-intakes arching up and out from just behind the doors. So, considering the 33 Stradale is recognised to be one of the most beautiful cars of all-time, you can’t expect to go unnoticed.

The Pininfarina-designed 916 Spider, on the other hand, can be described much more readily as “pretty” – but that’s not to say it is any more feminine in its persona than the 4C; just less aggressive.

This modern classic will garner second looks for novelty value alone and that never-to-be-repeated full-length rear light cluster which will polarise people in their views of whether the design is ultra-modern or incredibly dated. But at least people will be interested enough to have an opinion at all. Stop people in the street to ask their opinion on the new Fiesta’s rear-end and they’ll already be late for an appointment . . .

But while the 4C Spider has the bigger wow-factor when it comes to looks, the 916 Spider does have a visual trick up its sleeve that the 4C Spider lacks – and that is the ability to transform itself more completely by simply dropping the canvas roof.

While the 916 Spider has a full-size canvas roof with integrated rear window, the 4C Spider has a narrow strip of double-insulated canvas that wouldn’t look amiss wrapped around Tyson Fury – if you stuck a ridiculous-sized buckle on it.

The 4C Spider is definitely more targa-top than true soft-top and this means that you don’t get that same sense of open-top motoring that you get in the 916 Spider.

Waking up to a sunny day may get the juices flowing of the 916 Spider owner as they anticipate the transformation of their daily-driver into an open-topped, attention-grabbing, Italian beauty – whereas the 4C Spider driver may not be really, well . . . bothered. Especially as the 4C Spider’s “belt” is so awkward to remove by hand anyway and even more awkward to replace – part of the price you pay for Alfa’s obsession with weight (or lack of it) when it comes to the 4C.

But of course, it will be removed. Why pay the extra £7,000 over the 4C Coupe if you can’t be bothered taking the roof off every now and again?

Which reminds me of something else the two cars have in common – their coupe siblings are both marginally better looking. Okay, in the 916’s case, the coupe is significantly better looking. There, I’ve said it.

Overall though, both Spiders will attract admiring glances but it’s the 4C that get the most lingering (and longing) looks. Don’t expect to park up without at least one person approaching you to ask more about your Ferrari. It happened to me twice and I only had it for a week.

Stepping into each car for the first time is also quite an emotion-driven experience – especially for an Alfisti like me. I’ve gotten into a few 916-series GTVs and Spiders over the years and they kinda feel like an old friend now with my only complaint being with the Phase 1 models which are a little dull looking on the dash front. The splash of silver trim introduced with the Phase 2 model lifts the interior no end.

Thankfully, my brother’s Spider is a Phase 2 and to say it is eighteen years old the Momo tan leather interior has stood the test of time remarkably well with only the few scuffs on the tan carpets and the shiny leather of the steering wheel giving away this Spider’s age.

But once in, the 916 Spider feels pretty much perfect – and the Alfa styling cues are all there; the deep, hooded speedo and rev-counter behind the wheel and 3 secondary dials in the central dash angled toward the driver while the pedals are a little off-set but nowhere near enough to cause a problem.

It’s definitely a nice place to be and getting in and out is no problem at all. The 916 Spider isn’t particularly low and the sills are not so wide as to cause a problem.

Not so with the 4C Spider which you have to drop into over a wide carbon-fibre sill that will instantly transfer any dirt it has acquired straight onto your trouser leg. It’s nowhere near as awkward as a Lotus Elise but it does take a little practice.

Once ensconced you’ll notice a few of things which are obviously different to the 916 Spider and a couple of things that are, surprisingly, not.

First off the 4C doesn’t feel as plush inside as the 916. It has no carpets, just a couple of 4C-logoed mats. To the side you’ll mostly be looking at naked carbon-fibre that makes up the monocoque tub you’re sat in, but this isn’t a bad thing as it has an air of the super-car about it.

The “stripped-bare” look continues with the heating dials that appear to have been taken from a 1984 Datsun Cherry – replete with a slider for re-circulated air. Remember those?

The hooded full-digital instrument panel is bang up to date though and looks terrific with your speed shown centrally in large bold figures with the rev counter surrounding. Depending on which of the 4 modes you’ve chosen from the DNA selector decides what else you see. For example, in Dynamic mode you get to see oil temperature and turbo-boost (bar) while in Race mode there is a G-meter graphic. Natural and All-Weather modes show trip information such as average mpg or speed, etc.

There is no gearstick, of course, just 4 pushbuttons to interact with the TCT transmission – Forward, Reverse, Neutral and Auto/Manual. The DNA selector toggle sits just behind and falls easily to hand.

To select the fourth option of Race mode simply hold the toggle in the Dynamic position for about 8 seconds and that TFT dash changes to an ominous red background with the words “Race Mode Selected” appearing in the centre. You have been warned . . .

The black leather with yellow stitching on my car looked very good indeed and was continued around the seats, through the door cards and along the top of the driver-focused dash but disappointingly not on the handbrake lever or steering wheel.

The steering wheel does have something in common with that fitted to the 916 Spider – they are both unadorned with buttons; which may not surprise on an 18-year-old car but is a bit of a shocker on a modern, £60,000 sports car. The shape is different though with the 4C’s wheel being flat-bottomed which not only looks sportier but also helps when getting in and out of the car.

It also has rather neat paddle-shifters which are easy to reach and not obtrusive at all when reaching for the stalks – unlike those on the new Alfa Giulia.

The other thing that is surprisingly similar between the two cars is the radio. They are both single-DIN units with awkwardly tiny buttons. Okay, you may expect this for a car from the last century but on the 4C? Surely the least you would expect is a small touch-screen infotainment system?

Well, if you’re thinking along those lines then you obviously haven’t been listening – so I’ll say it again: The Alfa 4C is all about weight-saving. Power-to-weight ratio figures must have been all-consuming for Alfa’s engineers, hence the carbon-fibre tub, composite body panels, thinner glass, manual roof, lack of sound insulation – and no infotainment system. It does have air-con though – I expect the American market is responsible for that inclusion.

However, tucked beneath where you expect the glove box to be (there isn’t one) you’ll find USB and Aux-in leads so at least you can plug  your smartphone in and of course there is full Bluetooth functionality from the Alpine headunit.

So, which is the better car to drive? Well, that will depend on a few things; is it a trip to the shops or a trip to the track? How far are we travelling and do we need luggage? Also, do we expect to hold a conversation while travelling?

As you might expect, the 4C Spider is not the most practical of cars and I would find it impossible to live with on a daily basis – but it is an absolute hoot to drive. It’s a stripped-out, back-to-basics riot of noise and horizon-gathering that will, at first, make you think “Yea, this is what driving should be like. Who needs anything else?”

From the moment you turn the key (yes, key) and that 4-pot engine burbles into life you’ll already be smiling. Pull away and you’re instantly reminded that the engine is just inches from the back of your head as even at 30mph it is LOUD. At speeds above 50mph you can understand why the 4C can be optioned with no radio at all – there’s really not much point and I suspect Bluetooth conversations would involve the words “what?” and “pardon?” quite a lot.

The TCT gearbox feels up to the job in auto mode but perhaps not quite as quick as you would like when using the paddles but either way the 4C Spider doesn’t hang around. Weighing just 940kg it manages a power-to-weight ratio of around 295bhp per tonne – which is more than a Ferrari 458.

Thankfully, the 4-piston Brembo callipers up front, mated to 305×28 discs are good enough to transform you into Marty Feldman in an instant, being able to halt the 4C in just 36 metres from a speed of 60 mph.

Seek out a quiet, twisty A-road and you’ll instantly know you brought the right car as the 4C is more playful than a ball-pool full of puppies.

To say the driving experience is “engaging” is like describing Charlie Sheen as “a bit of a lad” – if you don’t keep a firm grip on things you can very quickly find yourself being led astray and the main culprit is the un-assisted steering which will track every rut, camber and imperfection it can find and try to take you off for an “adventure”.

While this constant battle with the steering wheel may sound like the 4C is simply trying to prove just how much of a visceral, driver-focused sports car it is, you may grow tired of it because unpredictability – just like in any relationship – becomes a physical and mental strain that you can probably do without.

If, however, you like to date a “wrong ‘un” then the 4C will certainly thrill you. It’s by no means a dangerous car to drive (if you have your wits about you) and you won’t find a more satisfying driving experience once you become used to its foibles but it all comes down to how badly you want that experience. To fall head-over-heels for the 4C you’ll need regular dirty weekends with it – or “Track Days” as they are more commonly known . . .

Get the 4C onto a smoother surface – like a race track – and the problem almost disappears. However, I did notice on the motorway there was a slight shimmy from the wheel every time I changed lanes. The 4C really doesn’t like a sudden change of road surface.

But, again, it’s easy to miss the point of the 4C Spider; I’ve read numerous comparisons with the Porsche 718 Boxster S and, having driven both cars, I think the comparison has come about simply because the two cars share similar prices and performance. However, the Boxster is an altogether more refined experience because it is a 2-seater GT and is designed as such with a quieter cabin, more creature comforts and more practicality too – you can’t even open the bonnet on the 4C, never mind use it for luggage.

No, the 4C Spider shouldn’t even be considered as an alternative. It has more in common with the likes of the Caterham 7 and Lotus Exige than it has with any Grand Tourer.

And while we’re on the subject of unfair comparisons – how does the 916 Spider drive?

Well, much more like a long-term partner – reassuringly predictable, easier to live with on a day-to-day basis and thrilling enough to keep you interested without ever getting WTF crazy.

The 2.0-litre Twin Spark engine spins up easily and without drama – the exhaust note is rather subdued but out on the road it sounds perfectly respectable for an Italian 2-seater tourer, having more of a “snort” than a “grunt” when pushed.

If you want more drama then a top-quality stainless steel exhaust systems from the likes of Alfaholics will provide better performance as well as a better soundtrack but expect to pay around £1,300 – or about as much again as the cost of my brother’s entire car . . .

On the road this 18-year-old car has a couple of rattles – mainly from the hood mechanism – but nothing to cause concern. It turns out that the previous owner had polycarbon bushes fitted to both the front and rear suspension as well as the anti-roll bars so the expected squeaks and thumps never materialized. It appears to be a well-sorted Spider for the money.

The quick-steering rack is one of the main reasons the 916 Spider and GTV drive so well and anyone who has driven an Alfa from the last 20 years or so will feel instantly at home with the way the 916 Spider gets down the road – which for a front-wheel drive sports car is surprisingly well.

Passive rear-wheel steering from the trick (but complicated) rear suspension helps make the case for the 916 Spider and unless you’ve stepped straight out of something like the 4C you won’t be underwhelmed at all – it’s a great drive and only if you push it to silly lengths on twisty A-roads will you manage to invoke some mild understeer.

Sure, a similar-aged MX-5 is more playful but it can’t match the Alfa’s Twin Spark engine for sweetness nor can it match the Alfa’s overall sense of occasion – the Jap car will blend into the background whilst the Italian one just loves attention.

The 916 isn’t stupidly impractical either. Having the roof down doesn’t lose you any space and the boot can take a couple of soft sports bags. There is quite a large shelf behind the seats where you could put another bag which, I was surprised to find, opens to reveal more storage space. It’s worth noting that my brother’s car has a manual roof so there is no space taken up by a motor.

All that space adds up to considerably more than the 4C can manage. Its boot holds just 110 litres and is even less when the roof is off as this is where Mr. Fury’s belt is stored.

Running costs? Well, the lightweight, small-engined 4C Spider trounces the 916 here with its Euro 6 environmental classification. It has CO2 emissions of just 157g/km and is capable of 56.5mpg on the extra-urban cycle. I managed almost 40mpg in mixed-road driving for a week and I wasn’t tootling. The 4C Spider really does deliver super-car performance for family-hatch running costs.

The Euro 3 916 Spider, on the other hand, has CO2 emissions of 220g/km and you’ll be lucky to get 30mpg from it.

Which is it to be then; the thrilling bit-on-the-side or the classy, predictable long-termer?

Rather unsurprisingly I recommend you have your cake and eat it. After all, if you can afford the £60,000 for a 4C Spider then a second-hand 916 Spider probably isn’t out of reach and is certainly usable every day – unless, perhaps, you have a family.

There is no doubt the 4C is a remarkable car and much more of a statement of intent than the 916 Spider and GTV ever were.

Alfa pushed the envelope with the design of the 916 but they re-defined the envelope altogether with the 4C – and not just with its stunning design and race-car inspired engineering but with the use of exotic materials and the sheer bloody-mindedness of creating a lightweight sports car which puts the driver firmly at its centre.

So, take my advice and be happily married during the week – but leave weekends for simply being engaged. Thrillingly so.

 

Alfa Romeo 916 Spider:

Engine: 4-cyl in-line 1970cc

Max Power: 150bhp @ 6200rpm

Max Torque: 137lb ft @ 4000rpm

Transmission: 5-speed manual FWD

Tyres: 195/60 R15

Kerb Weight: 1327kg

Power/Weight: 115bhp/ton

0-6mph: 8.4 secs

Top Speed: 131 mph

CO2: 220g/km

Combined MPG: 30

Price new: £23,558

 

Alfa Romeo 4C Spider:

Engine: 4-cyl turbo 1750cc

Max Power: 240bhp @ 6000rpm

Max Torque: 258lb ft @ 2200 – 4250rpm

Transmission: Alfa TCT auto

Tyres: 205/45 R17 front, 235/40 R18 rear

Kerb Weight: 940kg

Power/Weight: 259bhp/ton

0-60mph: 4.5 secs

Top Speed: 160 mph

CO2: 157g/km

Combined MPG: 41.5

Price new: £59,820

***END***

STEVE BERRY

25th November, 2017

3,233 words

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