Withdrawal Pains

The last time Americans couldn't get Fiat and Alfa spiders, we could blame Mussolini. So now, when they're better than ever, we're shut out again


The job would probably cause withdrawal pains, but what the hell—it was a C-note a day and expenses. I took the overnight ferry from Sicily north to Genoa, then a rainy bus ride to Milan, where I picked up a car. I drove north into the dismal night. Hours passed. It was drizzling by the time the road dropped down to a spooky medieval stone village squatting on a lip of land at the edge of Lake Maggiore, a 40-mile-long lake that is about two miles wide and winds its way onto the doorsteps of the Alps. I could see lights from a tiny island on the lake, and farther along, a half-acre island where the remains of a 15th-century castle stood skeleton-like. I kept thinking of the bones of all the legions of soldiers deposited at the bottom of that black lake down through the ages, still providing calcium to deep-feeding trout.

I parked the car on the empty boulevard and got out slowly. Nobody in sight. I lit up a Galois cigarette, took a deep drag and was reminded how much fun it was as a kid to lean over a 40-gallon barrel of burning bicycle tires and inhale. I pulled up the collar of my Bugle Boy imitation hoodlum denim jacket and for luck, felt the cold steel inside the jacket. And then I went looking for whatever was waiting for me in that ancient, dark place.

I ducked across the main drag and headed uphill through a narrow cobbled alleyway, rain seeping down the walls like squid ink. Nice image, huh? Alleyway crossed alleyway, and soon I was lost, breathing hard, and my squeaking Nikes had attracted two cats who were following me, tongues out, ears up.

I turned a corner and saw a faint light coming from a shop window. A couple of jaboneys leaned against the doorway, like they were waiting for someone to organize a Frank Zappa lookalike contest. But something was wrong. Then it hit me: they had their baseball hats on backward! One of them was peeling a plum with a switchblade. I paused in front of the light. The guy with the shiv moved closer. Then he dissed me. "Bone-a Sarah?" he leered.

Good thing Susan Brownmiller wasn't with me—she'd've relocated his prostate with her right Birkenstock. "Maybe later," I sneered back. To show him what kind of guy he was dealing with, I blew my nose in the street without a handkerchief.

The joint turned out to be a gin mill. I could tell by the beer sign over the door that read, "Aperto." There were six people in the joint and a piano player in a dinner jacket. Above the bar, a TV set flickered without the sound: O.J. was still staring at the ceiling.

The waitress came over. Nice moustache. That put me in the mood for three fingers of Mezcal, which will get your mind off women maybe forever, but instead I ordered a Punt es Mes, something you want to pronounce carefully to an Italian woman with a moustache. She came back with a sissy glass full of red stuff that tasted like radish juice and Karo syrup you run through Little Al's oil filter after 200 laps at Indy. Drink enough of them and maybe the moustache disappears.

Pretty soon I was staring at a row of empty sissy glasses in front of me. It looked like the two goons outside were going to pass up cramming for their SATs tonight. All of a sudden the piano player began a song that made the hair on my neck stand up: "Ju mos remember zes, a kees is juist a kees . . ."

Gimme a break. But just then the door opened and she walked in. Of all the gin mills from Palermo to Geneva, she had to choose this one. It was Esther "Tippy" Fendelbaum from Columbus, Ohio. Miss Tease. After all these years, she was still wearing her favorite Sandra Dee angora sweater, one size too small as usual, and the saddle shoes with the pink socks and the barrette in her mousey brown hair. And underneath that sweater you just knew she still had on that official boy-stopper of the '50s, this incredible defensive bra superstructure of wire and whale bone and aluminum tubing and oystershell reinforcement.

"Well," she said in that same prissy sing-song voice of hers, "looky here—if it isn't Mr. Smartypants himself!"

The phone rang and I bolted upright in bed, soaked in sweat. It was 6 a.m. Cheez, what a nightmare!

On the phone was our own frantic Tom Cosgrove, looking for a gofer to move three cars around the Hotel Simplon at Lake Maggiore while he shot them.

The cars were Alfa Romeo's new Spider and Fiat's Barchetta, a pair of Italian front-drive two-seaters that will require a passport and an Alitalia ticket for you to, at a minimum, even look at. Three of us came here to drive them around Lake Maggiore. The third car was a weathervane we'd use to measure the Italians—a Mazda MX-5, our beloved Miata.

But yesterday's highlight had been a steady downpour, and our drive had to be delayed. Now we had just this last day to get the job done.

At 7 a.m. under the portico, I had to shove away a pack of pink-cheeked German tourists from the Alfa. A guy named Enrico Fumia dreamed up this body while he was at Pininfarina, which is where Michelangelo would be working if he were around today and interested in money. It took longer to turn out this car than to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, maybe 10 years. They finally finished it at about the exact minute Alfa Romeo, which is owned by Fiat, which owns Italy but not Sicily, kissed off its American audience, which had dwindled to about the number of people that fit into the studio of Geraldo's show. Fiat kissed us off even before that. But somebody has got his cap on backward, 'cause they could sell more of these Alfas than bottles of olive oil in West L.A. This new Alfa is so creased-suit perfect it looks like one of those sublime watches God only allows Warren Beatty to have.

The face of this Alfa has the strong jawline and look of a bird of prey, maybe a falcon. A pair of subtle creases in the sheetmetal begin just below the side mirrors, then drop sharply and more deeply across the hood, meeting at a V where the trademark Alfa grille sits, like nostrils, and flanked on both sides by a pair of small, intense, and recessed eyes—headlights—that complete the hawk's face. The hood opens up big like a clamshell. Very cool. Look for it in Quentin Tarantino's next comedy.

The real trick is the matching sculpted cuts in the sheetmetal that slice rearward, starting at the upper-front wheel wells and cutting a dramatic arc upward to the rear lid, which hides the convertible top. The tail is a broad, dropaway wedge with a low shelf of taillights; it stands higher than the hood, and the whole car seems to lean forward, like a lineman in a three-point stance, poised to punish. The effect is an awesome raked stance, no door handles (there are thumb buttons), no ding strips, no Mickey Mouse add-ons. We're gonna hear it from those old Alfisti farts in their elbow-patched tweed jackets, but kids, it makes the former Spider look like something from Margaret Thatcher's sang-froid wardrobe.

The interior wins the Academy Award for combining Italian style and American spaciousness. You are continually reminded that all your limbs have been paroled from sports-car prison, free here to move in all directions. Odd Italian seat positions, something the Brits used to compare to buses, are now excellent. In comparison, the Mazda feels tight as a King Oscar can. The Alfa's seats are Recaro-shaped, bolstered and air-vented, firm without rock-hard areas. The dash setup, with just a tach and speedo looking back at you under a single module hood of leather (the wheel tilts, too), works elegantly with the chic console. The whole interior package, right down to the armrest stitching, is evidence of why the Italians rule in men's fashion and things made of leather. This is an Armani suit on wheels. The duds conceal a strut-and-control-arm suspension up front, and a multilink independent rear suspension on its own subframe.

Under the hood is a DOHC 16-valve 2.0-liter "Twin Spark" four-cylinder worth 148 horses at 6200 rpm, peak torque of 137 pound-feet at 4000 rpm, and a 6500-rpm redline. In concert with variable intake-valve timing and a Bosch Motronic engine-management unit, the engine uses two differently sized platinum plugs per cylinder, touted as providing faster, more efficient combustion. A 189-hp 3.0-liter V-6 is the only engine option in the Spider. The GTV hardtop model—GTV for Gran Tourismo Velocit—offers a 2.0-liter turbocharged and intercooled V-6 putting out 200 hp. In Italy, the Twin Spark-powered Spider is $27,378 and the equivalent GTV is $26,402. The V-6 Spider and the turbo V-6 hardtop both cost $31,890.

There were fewer tourists breathing heavy around the Fiat Barchetta. Maybe it was the color: a carnival-like burnt orange, a bad choice considering its sexy, petite body. Pick another color—red or blue—and it's a fashion candidate for the cover of Elle.

The elbow-patched crowd will want to lead you down memory lane, pointing out all the historic Fiat spider "styling cues" that go back to the invention of spaghetti, but don't bother taking notes: in "affordable" Italian sports cars, this is The Big New, the end of Fiat's pain-in-the-ass past.

Barchetta means "cute little boat." Better would be "flashy roadgoing jet ski," but there's no single Italian word for that. It fulfills the rough-and-tumble demands of the traditionalists—a tight little two-seater with a good welterweight engine (128 horses here, the same as the Miata) that does not represent the investment of a home at Kennebunkport. At first sight, it looks larger than the Miata, but it's not—it's the wavy fenders and glitzy nose, with a ridge flowing down both flanks. The headlights have an amphibian encased look, and they don't mess up the works by popping up. The tail has a bit of swoop and slick unframed, rectangular and unequal-sized lights.

If the Alfa's an Armani, the Barchetta's a Swatch. Visual tricks abound. The door handle is a recessed strip of aluminum that pops up by pressing a button at its head. The dash and wheel (airbag inside) are a shiny gray, sharply contrasting with black numerals on white-faced dials and orange bits here and there. Oval body paneling is used on the inside door panels too, as if the outside has come inside. There are raised perforated grips on the wheel just made for hands.

Fiat has recently turned out a whole line of new engines. This is one of them: a DOHC, 16-valve 1.7-liter four putting out 128 hp at 6300 rpm and 121 pound-feet of torque at 4300 rpm (the Miata rates 110 pound-feet at 5000 rpm and the same horsepower). The Barchetta's suspension is from the Punto hatchback, meaning struts and control arms up front and simple trailing arms in the rear.

So now the sun was out. Both Italian soft tops go down manually and simply, secured under a flip-up, flap-down hard panel that preserves the integrity of the design, which, believe us, is probably 89 percent of the reason for buying them. Nail-biting performance, as we would learn, is worth a solid B, but both get an A for originality.

The two-lane road that snakes around Lake Maggiore passes through postcard villages of stone and stucco, the occasional small hotel, the elegantly manicured tree-lined waterfront, the umbrella-lined cafe. The town prompting the dark dream was Verbania, and beyond it on the way to Locarno in Switzerland are villages with names that sound like exotic appetizers: Feriolo and Oggebbio, Cannobio, and Brissago. It's a place made magic by its utter absence of fast-food joints, billboards, shouting commercialism. The entire ride felt as though we were inside some secret resort. The narrow lake is surrounded by seemingly sculpted mountains and walled but somehow modest homes. The road, however, is viewed by many natives as a kind of Laguna Seca. I watched a guy pass five cars in one shot, the last in a blind corner.

Alfa says its Twin-Spark four will get to 60 mph in 8.2 seconds, and run to 130 mph. Once on the road, what was weird was how unlike an Alfa sports car it felt: there was just no pushing and shoving and yelling going on. It pulled away politely but briskly, without any muffler theatrics. There's a pair of counterrotating balance shafts in there, making it silent at idle (and damn quiet at 90 mph with the top up). This is a topless luxury car, not a sports-car hot dog. It weighs nearly 700 pounds more than the Mazda or Fiat, and it possesses hands-off-the-wheel straight-line stability and barely a twitch of torque-steer, even with a bad-boy start.

Not wanting to create an international scene, we played catch at about 60 mph. The Alfa just flowed through corners at that speed, no body roll, no leaning tower of pizza. It dealt with bumps and dips without any pounding. (This is how Warren Beatty lives, I thought. There's a light cowl shake on washboards, but Warren avoids those.) It feels quicker than the Miata, though the meat in the power band is up above 4000 rpm. The steering is power-assisted, unlike the Mazda's, but it's quite firm and responsive. You can let your guard down here more than you can in a Miata. Breezing past Italian pedestrians doing full body turns to stare, we recall an Autocar writer noting that this Alfa "flatters its occupants." How true.

You sense the Barchetta's friendlier price ($20,609 in Italy) when you step into it after the Alfa, but it is light-years from the rickety-rackety 124 Spider in every department. Like the Alfa, the Barchetta's priority is comfort and pizzazz and it has little of the Miata's info bombardment running up from the tires and into your hands in a hairy corner. Cosgrove, even though he's an art director, still prefers the roughhouse simplicity of the Miata.

Best of all about the Barchetta, it is not underpowered. Fiat says it will hustle to 60 mph in 8.6 seconds and has the wind to go to 124 mph. Our last Miata ran to 60 in 8.8 seconds and bid adieu at 118. In a straight-line charge through the gears, the Barchetta feels very Miata-like, maybe a hair quicker, with an engine note like Crystal Gayle's hair dryer. If you blow past the 7000-rpm redline playing with the slotty gearshift, the ignition shutoff is gentle. The sophisticated driver who could care less about interiors is going to hunker down with the Miata. Certainly, the comparison favors the Miata in fast jackknife turns and 180s; the MX-5 gets it done with an edge to the job. The Barchetta has power steering, our European Miata didn't; the Barchetta is front-drive, the Miata rear-drive. The Miata is relatively noisy inside and out, the Fiat is soft-spoken.

For an Italian spider, the Fiat's ride is Nineties-soft, and over hard knocks, it will leave fewer marks on your bottom for your significant other to inquire about. At the very bottom of its travel, like the Spider, it tends to rebound sharply—abruptly and noticeably, like Dennis Rodman. The body must be rigid, because if there was a rattle, we didn't hear it. How times change. The Fiat's throttle response needs work, and the brakes don't grab hard until the pedal's deep into the floor.

Walking away, you think in some ways the Mazda might outlive them and us. But that's just sentimentality. It's the tight fit inside, the rawness of the interior and its simple seats, and the general noisy hullabaloo that are running contrary to the future that makes the MX-5 feel out of touch. But it's still a performer, and a beauty in profile.

At Cannero Riviera, a white-haired woman in front of me slowed for some reason. Impatient, I pulled out to pass—and everyone passes in all conditions, over broken lines, single lines, double lines, barbed-wire barricades—and was greeted by three policemen, one of them standing in the right lane, waving a weird flagging paddle at me. This is how you get a ticket at Lake Maggiore—not from a squad car, but from an elaborately dressed, calm cop on the side of the road. The paddle suggested I was either going to be spanked or sent off to jail.

His name was Fernando Fusaro, and he laughed and posed for pictures, and he talked in broken English/Italian with Marty Padgett, and his mannerisms reminded me of the actor Danny Aiello. He asked if he could buy one of the pictures, reaching into his pocket. Oh, no, no, we wouldn't think of it—we'll send you the whole magazine with you in it! Grazie! Grazie!

Then, of course, he wrote me a ticket for passing over a single line, worth 54,000 lire. About 35 bucks.

Alfa Romeo Spider
Vehicle type: front-engine, front-wheel-drive,
2-passenger, 2-door roadster
Price (Italy): $27,378
Engine type: DOHC 16-valve 4-in-line,
iron block and aluminum head,
Bosch Motronic M2.10.3 engine-control
system with port fuel injection
Displacement120 cu in, 1969cc
Power (SAE net)148 bhp @ 6200 rpm
Torque (SAE net)137 lb-ft @ 4000 rpm
Wheelbase100.0 in
Length168.7 in
Curb weight3020 lb
Manufacturer's performance ratings:
Zero to 60 mph8.2 sec
Top speed (drag limited)130 mph
Fuel economy:
European city cycle23 mpg
Steady 56 mph38 mpg
Steady 75 mph30 mpg

Fiat Barchetta
Vehicle type: front-engine, front-wheel-drive,
2-passenger, 2-door roadster
Price (Italy): $20,609
Engine type: DOHC 16-valve 4-in-line,
iron block and aluminum head,
Hitachi engine-control system with port fuel injection
Displacement107 cu in, 1747cc
Power (SAE net)128 bhp @ 6300 rpm
Torque (SAE net)121 lb-ft @ 4300 rpm
Wheelbase89.6 in
Length154.2 in
Curb weight2350 lb
Manufacturer's performance ratings:
Zero to 60 mph8.6 sec
Top speed (drag limited)124 mph
Fuel economy:
European city cycle29 mpg
Steady 56 mph46 mpg
Steady 75 mph36 mpg
Mazda MX-5 Miata
Vehicle type: front-engine, rear-wheel-drive,
2-passenger, 2-door roadster
Price (U.S.): $18,245
Engine type: DOHC 16-valve 4-in-line,
iron block and alu minum head,
Mazda engine-control system with port fuel injection
Displacement112 cu in, 1839cc
Power (SAE net)128 bhp @ 6500 rpm
Torque (SAE net)110 lb-ft @ 5000 rpm
Wheelbase89.2 in
Length155.4 in
Curb weight2330 lb
Performance ratings
(C/D, November 1993 test):
Zero to 60 mph8.8 sec
Zero to 100 mph28.0 sec
Street start, 5 to 60 mph9.3 sec
Standing 1/4-mile16.8 sec @ 82 mph
Top speed (drag limited)118 mph
Braking, 70-0 mph169 ft
Roadholding, 300-ft-dia skidpad0.83 g
EPA fuel economy, city driving22 mpg