||The Alfa Revival - where would you say Alfa's niche is?
Maker of sporting cars? Upmarket saloons? Italian exotica?
For many years they seemed to occupy the slightly upmarket sporting
saloon and coupe area which is now almost the exclusive preserve of BMW. It seemed
to many that even Fiat didn't know exactly where the Alfa Romeo market
Fiat appeared overwhelmed by its marques, it may have been easy for it to define where Fiat and Ferrari badges were marketed but it didn't seem to know what to do with Alfa and Lancia and in many market sectors the two were left fighting it out with each other. Obviously, this doesn't make economic sense even to Fiat and, whilst Lancia was eventually dropped from the UK market, Alfa was left to soldier on. Unfortunately, its image and market was badly damaged along with the other Italian marques in the 70s and 80s, when its badly made and water soluble cars came under ever increasing pressure in the up-market sectors from solidly built German machinery and the management appeared to want to move the Alfa Romeo badge ever more downmarket (not unlike Rover).
The reputation of Alfa, built upon its pre-war Grand Prix cars,
a string of post-war exotica and a generation of sporting coupes and saloons
quickly as an Alfasud's red paintwork. Enthusiastic drivers who loved the
sporting nature of Alfas may have been prepared to put up with sometimes
iffy mechanical reliability and passed off dodgy electrics as fixable
quirks but when your chassis disappears down the grid every time it rains
your enthusiasm soon wanes.
For me, Alfa's real market is the sports car or the sports coupe. Cars like the Duetto Spider, Alfetta GTV, GT Junior and Alfasud Cloverleaf are what spring to mind when I visualise Alfa Romeos. However, time moves on and even the Italians learn some lessons, like how to build cars without it being pre-rusted in the factory. With their new-found abilities the Italians are making serious inroads back into the British market. The latest step from Alfa is to bring gloriously-styled sporting saloons like the 156 to market. This motor, though, would never have been taken seriously if Alfa hadn't paved the way with the less excitingly styled but dynamically able 145, 146 and 155. These were important cars for Alfa which had the job of rebuilding its tarnished image. For now at least, (Coupe and Spider aside) Alfa is presently the maker of upmarket sporting saloons aimed directly to compete with BMW. The Italians even delayed the UK launch of its new diesels so as not to confuse the public of Alfa's new image.
So far so good.
Well, this particular 146 has at least managed to survive three years unscathed. It's aggressive bodywork is yet untouched by the dreaded tin worm, bubbling dull paint or any other such ills. The fact that it has survived for 3 years and still looks mint is encouraging and with over 60k on the clock its not a molly-coddled unused example either. The styling of this car may not be to everyone's taste (mine included); the tall roof line, high boot and chisel-nose is a little dated but with the deeply integrated front spoiler and boot mounted rear spoiler it still has a slightly menacing presence.
The smiling trademark Alfa grille is still there, though it would
probably be the smile of a shark as the car races up behind you.
The alloy wheels are quite smart, though they seem a little like a toe test for the items currently on the 156.
Remote central locking lets you in, the very expensive chipped key system (don't lose it for God's sake!) offers excellent security. The interior is rather sombre, with its black on black with black highlights, but that's probably better than some jazzy snappy pattern that looks the biz today but will be an eyesore tomorrow. The seats are slim and firm but quite comfortable so more lateral bolstering wouldn't go amiss but you can live without it. The black embossed Alfa logos on the black seats are a classy touch, though. The expected Italian monkey position didn't materialise but problems were still there. At the bottom of height adjustment the seat felt way too high for me, giving the feeling of being in a supercharged Transit van and I could only fit in by pushing all the way back to the last stop. Okay, I am not a natural giant at 5ft 10", but surely there must be some people taller than me and, unless they have strangely shaped, short stumpy legs, they are just not going to fit. The left foot rest compounds this by being far too far backwards as well.
The dashboard does not exactly fill you with awe either.
So, okay, the designers made an effort to make it look a little different but it doesn't gel into a homogenous whole. Instead it looks like a mishmash of ill-fitting hard and cheap plastic parts.
They look hard and brittle but are still pristine so they are probably of better quality construction than finish. The huge cutaway on the passenger side may pretend at lots of space but nobody's really fooled by such tricks and it doesn't work with a black interior anyway.
At least the other side contains a full complement of instruments in the driver binnacle, including rev counter redlined at 7000 rpm. The kind of driver that Alfas are aimed at will tell you that interior trim and other such niceties are mere baubles, trinkets to entertain the drivers of lesser cars that can't match the dynamics of an Alfa. Trouble is, the days of Italian sporting invincibility have long gone so now other makers can and do offer a lively driving experience matched to a quality interior ambience. The report card for this Italian therefore reads 'must try harder'.
The engine fires up on the first turn of the key and then proceeds to sit their growling at you, proving that even the technological might of computer electronics haven't yet calmed the Alfa soul; the animal may be caged by fuel injection and catalytic converters but is not yet tamed. Pottering through traffic isn't an easy task; it's as unpleasant as any manual and the rasping exhaust constantly reminds you that this is the place you don't want to be. The clutch is a little sharp on the uptake but nothing a couple of days' familiarity wouldn't fix. The brakes, though working fine when pressed, had a long spongy travel; it may be a service issue with this particular vehicle so we will let that one go for now at least. Around town, the motor's surprisingly strong torque low down means that you don't have to rev the nuts off it to make surprisingly quick headway.
Get on to the open road, though, and the Alfa's character begins to shine through. Quite simply, the faster you press the accelerator the faster you go, 4 to 5000 revs is enough to see off all but the most determined of traffic and you still haven't hit the power band yet.
The motor grunts round to 7000rpm but it's the way that
it does so that opens your eyes. It always maintains that hard, gruff edge
but it never feels rough or unrefined. All that top end power is fine but
it's the way the Alfa performs lower down that is its real strength. The massively
wide power band means you're not constantly hunting for a new gear and it
allows you to drive round corners on the throttle safely, making small adjustments
to line with your right foot. In some ways it's the ultimate street
sleeper. Your average spotty youth thinks the performance car world is made up exclusively
of 316, 318 , RS, XR, GTE, GTI, etc. The Alfa badge cuts no ice with the younger
end of the market and even the spoilers are de rigueur on Jap jeeps, diesel
hatchbacks and shopping trolleys. That's not to say that the handling needs
much help, mind. The suspension is not overly harsh on normal roads though
it does grate a bit over cobbles and bomb-crater back streets. The tall
body does roll a little into the first part of a bend but then it steadies,
seemingly determined not to roll any further. The sharp steering allows quick
directional changes; the car's good, basic balance allows neutral cornering
and the chubby tyres grip confidently.
It all adds up to a chassis that corners hard and can be flicked across to a new lane with confidence. When the roads are quiet and bendy you forget about the ropey interior and start to enjoy the drive that is quintessentially Alfa Romeo. Despite the power, the fuel figures are reasonable but then they are taken at steady speeds. In theory the engine's healthy low and mid-level output can give reasonable returns for those with a light foot. However, the number of people who will be tee total and abstemious enough to achieve such a thing will be quite low. Blame the engine which will constantly goad you on to prod the throttle once more with that massive power band that will let you hold one or even two gears lower than is needed whilst supplying you with the most melodious 4 cylinder sound track available on the street..
The Final Reckoning - would I have one? Hmmm - well, maybe. Much as I love Spiders and GTVs I'm not sure the 146 is the car for me. But that's not through any fault of the car. It's just that it's probably a little too small for my needs. Roll on the 155 test or the 156 or the 16......................
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