2009 Alfa Romeo Spider 2.2 Selespeed Review
By James Wong
It’s no coincidence that the first car I would be driving from Alfa Romeo would be the Spider. Of all of the cars in its range, I was seduced mostly by the Spider, following behind in a close second place by the Brera. Often, we might refer to cars as ‘sexy’ or ‘gorgeous’. Well, this Spider is a bombshell.
The particular example we had the privilege to sample is in a rather unflattering silver colour, not helped by its adventurous interior colours of brown and petrol blue. Still, the car looks amazing either way, and despite stepping to it after previewing the 8C, the car didn’t feel out of place. In fact, I think the Spider could hold ranks pretty well even amongst supercars. The triple circular headlamps, the razor-sharp front end, the elegant door handles and the well-tailored rear end (I say tailored because it really looks like a suit) signing off with Spider in cursive is just perfect.
What I didn’t look forward to, however, was the car’s Selespeed gearbox. Having an infamous reputation for being jerky and dim-witted, I had low expectations for it but what compounded the situation was a 2.2L petrol engine which probably doesn’t offer enough poke either. Nonetheless, its output of 185bhp and 230Nm sounded promising. After learning the car’s controls, I popped the roof down.
The folding roof is a complicated piece of engineering and I am glad that the Italians did not build the Spider with a metal folding roof. The cloth roof folds quicker, is lighter and is more appropriate for sports cars wanting to keep their weight down and balance in check. In the Spider however, the folding process is cumbersome and takes about 25 seconds – not cool when you want to open up at the traffic lights and then realising you don’t have enough time. When you’re moving, the car won’t allow you to operate the roof either. And while you’re folding, you’d have to keep your finger on the folding button, which can get a bit tiring – if you let go, the process stops halfway.
That said, the roof when folded, or up, works just like it should, and when up offers good refinement for highway cruising. When put down, the driver and passenger are subject to some wind turbulence in the cabin, which gets more severe above 80km/h. I would expect a modern cabriolet to be serene inside with the rood up or down up to at least 100km/h, but you’d have to forgive the Italians…
Starting the car up, the engine sounded unspectacular and after learning how to work the Selespeed gearstick, I moved off. Immediately, one could feel the jerkiness of the gearbox on Auto mode. Tested vis-a-vis a dual-clutch gearbox, the Selespeed felt positively archaic. First and second gears had the most severe lurching, often making the occupants of the car move forward and back involuntarily. Initial impressions put this gearbox as a far worser counterpart of Maserati’s Cambiocorsa gearbox (I sampled this in the Quattroporte Sport GT).
After a few minutes on Auto mode, I went to Manual mode which improved things a little bit as one could control the gearshifts. However, it took some time to finally learn the gearbox and I finally I got it – before shifting, lift your foot off the accelerator. Once it changes gear, continue accelerating again. This made the shifts a lot smoother, but still perceptible and clunky. Throughout the test drive, the gearbox was a constant irritant. There was an instant when the car almost died while making a U-turn; it was as if the gearbox didn’t know what the car was doing. Also, while I had my rest stops, I could always smell clutch burn from the car. Maybe it was just me, not the car, but it is certain that the Spider (in this guise, at least) is not for everyone.
Getting the gearbox out of the way, the car felt immensely normal. Perhaps after admiring its looks, you would expect a stunning drive as well. But I regret to inform you that the drive – in downtown traffic anyway – is as plain as any car would be. The engine didn’t sound very nice even when pushed; perhaps the only highlight is how the gearbox would blip the downshifts on Sport mode. The steering is numb but heavy – you’d have to work at it and yet you can’t really feel the front end from the wheel. The seats are comfortable enough, and there is ample cabin space for 2, but the interior wasn’t an especially good place to be either, with the blazing sun shining down at us and with the temperature hovering around 35°C (95°F). The air-conditioning could barely cope, even at full load. With clothes sticking to our backs and our skins getting tanned, we decided to keep the roof up. Despite being black, the insulation material in the roof meant that the cabin was keep rather cool, and with air-conditioning circulating inside the car, it was more than bearable.
We drove to a suburban area which was much more quiet, with much better tarmac, and we could feel the car more intimately there. The immediate speed you may be looking for is certainly lacking in the Spider 2.2, but the low-slung body (hence lower centre of gravity) meant that corners were taken with relative ease. The car showed commendable neutrality around bends, never really feeling fazed, and I found myself wishing there was more power to exploit the wonderful chassis. Despite suffering from some scuttle shake and vibration, the car took well to the corners, perhaps only upset by the overly soft suspension which introduced pronounced body roll when you want to go a step further.
Sport Mode did not give any appreciable difference to throttle response or to the suspension, although the gearbox tended to hold the gears longer and blip on downshifts. I had it on most of the way as it made the gearbox less hesitant in its gearshifts. With some hard driving, the car started to show some of its merits. The gearbox warrants the driver to drive hard, as driving it hard would make it smoother. Putting my foot down just halfway made the gearbox hold gears to about 5,000rpm. It just wants to go all out all the time, which is fine on the track but maybe not on the roads. Especially not for the Spider which potential buyers would use for cruising. The engine felt like an eager revver, although it may not sound as good as it should. It can hold a 4,000rpm cruise easily, never feeling stressed or stretched, as well as it can at 2,500rpm. You have a feeling when you drive this car that the engine likes to be pushed too. Unfortunately, its redline at about 6,500rpm is far too low for any sporty driving.
The interior has seats which has the Alfa Romeo badge stitched to the headrests, a nice touch. Like the 159, the Spider also has a trio of gauges on the centre console, showing fuel level, oil temperature and coolant temperature. It’s interesting to note that Alfa Romeo decided to put the readouts in Italian. So for the fuel gauge, it reads ‘Benzina’. Good to see Alfa Romeo being stubborn about the right things. The instrument panel has a refreshing white backlighting to it, and most of the buttons in red, and everything is pretty easy to use. The signal stalk felt a bit flimsy, the Sport button felt a bit wobbly, and the onboard trip computer also requires some getting used to. The leather used is nothing to write home about, but everything feels well put-together.
Boot space is always appreciated in a convertible, and in this car it doesn’t disappoint. There is a surprisingly good space even with the roof down. One thing that puzzled three men was figuring out how to open the hood. We wanted to take photos of the engine bay, but alas, after 10 minutes of prying open the hood, it refused to budge. It is mostly likely due to a faulty latch that didn’t disengage. No surprises there.
Driving back the car in the evening, this time with the top down, I quite enjoyed the feeling. Wind-in-your-hair is a rare thing these days, as most people (especially with our tropical climate here in Singapore) prefer to drive with the top up. And when sampled like it was supposed to be, it is clear that the Spider is meant to be a lifestyle product. A mediocre drive, a decent handler but a stunning convertible that will wow almost anyone on the street. I kept getting stares from pedestrians as they admired the lines of the car.
The Spider is definitely a flawed product. But in many ways it also requires the owner to enjoy the car along with its faults – it may not drive too nicely, it may not make you smile with its exhaust note, but it is definitely something one can fall in love with over time, its seduction turning into an affair that may last for years to come. Good designs age well, and may very well be timeless, and I am willing to place bets that the Spider would still look good in generations to come. If you are seriously considering this car, I would recommend the 3.2 V6 model with Q4 (Alfa speak for all wheel drive), with either a manual gearbox or a torque converter automatic. Now, that’s one car I don’t mind driving myself.
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