The shifter of the ‘86 Alfa Romeo Spider is as delicate and dainty as the car’s appearance would suggest. It must be rowed through the car’s five forward gears gently, with the same deliberate precision that you might move a chess piece. The throws are longer than most other cars I’m used to, to the point where the shifter seems to posses an upper neutral and a lower neutral. The position of the shifter, halfway up the dashboard like it is on a minivan, may seem counterintuitive for those used to shifting down by their hip, but in reality, it’s an ingenious way of keeping your hands close to the wheel.
Unlike every Spider before it, the Series 4 Alfa Romeo Spider was available with an automatic transmission. It shifts surprisingly quickly and smoothly for a transmission made almost 30 years ago by the Italians, which could be because it’s actually a German unit. Yes, just 26 years ago, ZF, now famous for the quick-shifting 8-speed auto used in basically every current luxury car, supplied one of the great European sports cars with a 3-speed slushbox. From what I’ve heard, only about 150 cars were sold so equipped, but if anyone knows otherwise feel free to enlighten me. Ours is one of those alleged 150, and while I love driving it, I know now definitively that the experience is improved with the ability to select your own gears.
Once you have carefully, meticulously slotted into gear, the Series 3 loves to rev. You get the most out of this car by burying your foot and letting the engine buzz until it sounds like the bees are going to burst free from the bonnet and swarm you. With only 125hp and slightly less torque, this approach will entertain without causing you to inadvertently stray over the speed limit. Of course, the same can be said for the automatic. Interestingly, while it is more exciting, the manual’s need for easy shifting combined with the auto box’s surprisingly swift changes mean that the manual S3 doesn’t feel all that much quicker off the line than the S4, despite making basically the same power and torque. The 5-speed shines in driving enjoyment, however, it does have the practical application of being much happier at highway speeds. With only 3 gears, driving the automatic ‘91 at 75-80mph feels like it hasn’t got much left to give. The tachometer is pegged, and the car vibrates to a degree. According to David, the owner of the S3 I drove, his car will cruise very happily and comfortably in 5th at 80mph, and a bit faster if needed. Neither of these sports cars are built for speed, but the S3 handles highways better than the newer, automatic S4.
Beyond the transmission, the differences are obvious in the S3's lack of power steering. Being so light makes turning the wheels while stopped possible, but not easy at all compared to even an old power unit. Once you’re going more than 20mph, you can turn with ease, but of course the wheels are constantly letting you know what’s going on and, on occasion, which direction they’d prefer to be going. With the S4, you can still toss it around and get plenty of feel, but nowhere near what you get through the tiny airbag-less wheel of the manual S3.
The remaining differences, at least for the purposes of a 20 minute drive, boil down to aesthetics The S3 has the ugly black plastic bumper front and rear, along with that little ducktail. I much prefer the more integrated, color matched bumpers and smooth tail of the S4. Inside, the S3 is slightly more plain and spartan, with a more old-school set of controls for the radio and A/C than the S4. The control stalks on the steering wheel have the same layout in both cars, but they are square in the S3 and round in the S4.
While I don’t necessarily believe that manual transmissions are always preferable (I’d hate to DD one and I think that GT-style performance cars don’t need one), I would certainly prefer it if my purpose-built sports car had a manual. The appearance and manual steering of the S3 are two things that I can live without. Bottom line, I still really like the S3, but the S4 is still my ideal Alfa, albeit with a stick shift.