By Alisdair Suttie 30 May 2012
Wednesday 30 May, 2012. Fleet Voice Column.
The automotive world is full of weird and wonderful alliance, some that work and some that have flopped. Most recently, we’ve seen the Chinese coming into agreements with a number of Western companies that work mutually to give stability to the more established partner and easy access to technology for the emerging Chinese brands.
One of the alliances we didn’t spot so readily was Alfa Romeo and Mazda hooking up to agree partnership on a new roadster. This car will be the next generation MX-5, so we can be all but certain it will be an entertaining, lightweight two-seater open-top with all the fun of the flair.
Mazda has been brilliant at refining the MX-5 concept with successive generations, retaining the spirit of the much vaunted original while yielding to safety and emissions regulations. It’s also answered customers’ demands for more comfort and practicality without compromising on that most core of attributes: superb driving dynamics.
Yes, there are those that moan the latest MX-5 is too heavy and is diluted compared to the original, but then there are always doom and gloom merchants. What they fail to understand is the changes the modern world imposes on car design, so the MX-5 is as close in spirit and design to the first generation model as it’s possible to get.
This is surely why Alfa Romeo has been keen to get involved with Mazda. Here is a ready-made opportunity to add a ‘right fit’ roadster model to its line-up and garner plenty of sales in the process.
In a statement announcing the co-operation on the new car, Alfa and Mazda said: ‘The two variants will each be powered by specific proprietary engines unique to each brand.’
That is as much a relief to read as it is key to the success of both cars. Where Mazda has built the MX-5’s reputation not only on affordable fun, it's also based on fun that will never let you down and be unerringly reliable.
Not wishing to resort to old clichés about Italian cars’ reliability, what we can say is any Alfa Romeo iteration of an MX-5-based roadster must have a spirited twin cam four-cylinder engine that thrives on revs. It must also have an exhaust note that leaves you in no doubt about what’s under the bonnet and what badge is on the bonnet.
Given Alfa Romeo is gearing up to build its new 4C coupe with a 1750 turbo engine packing around 240bhp, it seems reasonable to assume this engine will feature in its forthcoming roadster model, albeit in detuned form.
This would be an ideal unit for a new Alfa roadster, which surely the marketing department would be mad not to call it a Giulia Spider in honour of previous compact two-seater soft-tops from Alfa. Who can forget Edward Fox trotting about Europe as international assassin in ‘The Day of the Jackal’?
Alfa fans may be wondering what the outcome will be from a tie-up with Mazda, especially as the cars will all be built at Mazda’s Hiroshima plant in Japan. Let’s face, Alfa’s other model co-operation with a Japanese firm resulted in the Arna that was based on the Nissan Cherry. Angular, ugly and with all the desirability of smallpox, this car was the nadir for Alfa.
With the new MX-5 arrangement, I think we can safely say Alfa is heading for nirvana. Not only will it have a sensation coupe with great performance and handling in the 4C, and one that will have a reasonably affordable price tag, Alfa will be right back in the centre of its heartland from its heyday.
They may not have been the best selling roadsters in the world, but the Alfa Spider in all its shapes has always been sexy, cool and just damned good looking. Even when the 1970s Spider staggered on into the ’80s and ’90s when decency dictated it should have been honourably retired, it still looked great.
Anyone who thinks good looks are not enough to sell a roadster, have a look at the current crop of convertibles and two-seat open roof cars. Most are not as good to drive as their hard-top sister models or offer only a mildly interesting drive.
The MX-5 shoves all of this to one side and majors on pert good looks coupled to equally pert driving responses. This is exactly what Alfa needs as a shot in the arm to its sales in Europe and also just what it needs if it wants to head back to the USA with confidence of selling enough cars to justify this long delayed push.
Cracking the States
A lot like pop stars and rock bands, you cannot really call yourself a real success until you’ve cracked the USA. With this 4C coupe and this new roadster, I firmly believe Alfa will waltz right back into the hearts of America. After all, Dustin Hoffman gave the world one of the most iconic movie moments with an Alfa Spider when he snaffled Katharine Ross from the church and made off in his bright red Alfa.
If that end scene didn’t put thousands of sales on Alfa’s books, I’ll eat my titfer.
All Alfa Romeo needs to do now is make sure the car is a real looker and, on current form, that seems assured. A classy, distinctive grille similar to the one seen on the Giulietta and Mito models will give Alfa’s new roadster a distinct face. The Alfa four-pot engine will give it performance and character separate from the MX-5, and a well judged movie tie-in is surely only a signature away.
All of this bodes well for the new Alfa Roadster and also for the MX-5, which is sure to carry on unaffected by an Italian cousin. After all, the MX-5 has become a firmly established favourite among sports car fans and many of them stem from the company car buyers who find this tempting little roadster on their car lists.
When the sun is out, the weather is warm and you have to pick your next set of company wheels, it’s easy to be seduced by the MX-5 as Dustin Hoffman was by Anne Bancroft. The only difference is the MX-5 will be a mush more stable partner for the long term.
Some partnerships end up as dalliances, the Mazda-Alfa deal is set to be a much more solid alliance.