UK CAR Road Test

Alfa Romeo 166 2.5 V6


Why would anyone purchase a big Alfa? Historically, the last few big Alfa saloons have sunk down the sales chart like a Led Zeppelin and, as for resale, don’t even dare to ask. After putting up with their little foibles and convincing yourself that it really was a good old bus, its residual value would sink without trace, leaving you with a big hole in your pocket and a brave bargain hunter with a huge lump of classy, but flawed, car for Noddy money.

Alfa, like most European companies, have had their dodgy periods, the taint of water-soluble bodies took a long, long time to recede and even now Alfas are still looked at with some suspicion by many. But slowly and surely the image is changing.  Bodies now at least outlast the first owner. Sure, bits of dodgy trim have rattled around the previous couple of generations Alfas and the obligatory electrical gremlins are par for the course for all but the newest Italians.  But even the Italians have to keep up with the rest of the world. The cars have always been basically sound but nowadays they are actually decently built too. Or so we would hope. 

But it's still a big leap of faith. Competing against the 5 series BMW in the mine's-flasher-than-yours class of executive wagon is a really tough job. It’s a small niche in a small market. Audi, Lexus, Mercedes, Saab, Volvo et al all compete here but really only Alfa and BMW carry a badge with enough sporting intent to satisfy those execs entering a mid life crisis. 

The Alfa, like the BM, is aimed straight at those old enough to be able to squeeze one out of the company but not yet so domesticated as to settle for the Volvo estate. Space and practicality are needed to carry all of life’s accumulated baggage but let's dress it in a style and give it the verve which can impress the odd floozy or two on the business trips. Yes, it’s a mans car, it looks like a mans car, it feels like a mans car, preferably a man with his own hair and teeth, although probably a man with a slightly tight and ever-expanding waistband.

Following on the heels of the success of the 156 of recent years, Alfa have taken the style which has brought them new levels of success and sized it up.  BMW have been doing it for years but Alfa's style is just oh-so-much-more stylish and less heavy-handed.

It doesn’t quite carry the aesthetic purity of the 156 but it has a swoopy good-looking nature of its own with perhaps just a little hint of XEDOS, only way more elegant.

Can't say I was taken with the green paint job, it would look okay on an old Rover but surely an Alfa should carry something a little brighter, perhaps the previous owner was trying to hide his subconscious thoughts from his wife?

The bright red key is perfect for strategic placement on the bar, clicks off the alarm and opens the remote central locking of Alfa's secure, but expensive-if-you-lose-it scum deterrent system.  And you enter into the gloom of Sixties/Seventies sports car retro with a hint of Audi post modernist car art.

The interior is black, black and black, with just a hint of brushed alloy effect (aka plastic detailing) mostly surrounding the Cray super computer sitting in the centre of the console. The leather seats with their electrical adjustments are more sporty bucket than Chesterfield sofa. They look slim, they look simple, but they are comfortable.  Firm but without the wooden hardness of something like a Mercedes.

Arranged across the top of the centre console are three round clock-sized air vents mirroring the two at the flanks of the dash and harking back to the time when real cars had a plethora of instruments strung across the dash centre. Each eyeball vent is in itself a little work of art, pushing and twisting in space for perfect alignment in all directions. If VW Audi can stupidly advertise how high tech their cup holders are, Alfa could do the same with their air vents.  But at least it shows Alfa are now paying attention to all the little touchy feely bits that us nerds get so exited about but are really of little consequence. 

Firing the 2.5 V6 into life with baited breath and trembling hands I’m more than a little disappointed. The rumbling Alfa roar I was so anticipating does not transpire.  Euro noise Nazis have outlawed even the harmonic-trumpeting symphony of Alfa's venerable V6. And the beardies have had their way with emissions so much that all you get at startup is the faint distant gasp of the motor strumming into life and less than crisp response around tickover to quick stabs at the throttle. 

My size 10s then have to negotiate the pedal layout, you know what they say about men with big feet, well all Italians must have tiny ones if the spacing between the pedals is anything to go by. Despite woolly response low down and a rather heavy treacly clutch, gears are engaged and the big Alfa pulls away smoothly.

Visibility is reasonable all round but I can't see the front of the car as the bonnet swoops low to the front, the view out feels almost MPV like with so little bonnet in view and parking takes a little care.

The gearbox is firm but accurate and changes crisply despite the clutch action. The brakes are a surprise but a nice one, despite the current trend for brakes you only have to hover over to smoke the tyres, relying on the ABS to keep it together, the 156 has brakes you actually have to press to get decent deceleration - perfect for hammer-heading around.

The steering, whilst not in the class of a 5 series, is pleasant enough, with a lovely balance between lightness and feel and, with the idiot controls turned on, is a foible free, reliable friend. Even with the idiot controls turned off, there is still only a little driveline effect through the front wheel drive set-up and, without going for rear wheel drive, it's hard to see how far it could be improved, given the heavy V6 hanging out the front.  For what it is, it's just about quick and direct enough without inducing nervousness.  Perhaps a 4 cylinder might steer with a little more liveliness and aplomb but then you would lose the centrepiece of the car - the legendary Alfa 6.

Lots of makers churn out V6s of various aptitude, Alfa has always been up there with the best - reliable, powerful, smooth and a thing of beauty to behold. This one may only be the baby version but it seems perfectly balanced to the car, giving just about the right amount of donkeys to let you exploit the car to its full without having to worry too much about things getting out of hand. Trundle up to the changing lights in third at around 2000 revs, floor the loud pedal and just sit back as the Alfa slices round the tacho toward the red line in a linear push of seemingly endless power. There is little indication of how many revs you are pulling, just a slightly more insistent exhaust note as you pass 5000, then 6000 rpm.  It's so smooth it's almost too easy to bump into the rev limiter around 7000rpm when the electrics cut off the power in a rather sudden oops-I-think-I've-broken-it kind of manner. 

It really is a lovely motor, but so very hard to put into words just how nice it really is. It just feels so evolved, so honed to perfection, so well within itself, not just some rough old boat anchor endlessly tweaked and expanded, it’s a testament to the rightness of the original design, a triumph of engineering correctness over penny pinching cheapest-will-do mass production.

So, once again, Alfa produce an entertaining chassis with a fabulous engine.  Question is, is there anything to worry about?  Well, let's take a look at the electrics as that’s probably going to be where this car stands or falls.  First off, they all worked, it's T reg and if it were Japanese you would be bloody miffed if anything didn’t.  But, hey, this is an Alfa and it's been driven and in the rain and it's all still working. So things are definitely improving down in Alfa land, obviously the workers' midday drink is more bottled water than the Vino Alfa Collapso of yesteryear.


Equipment-wise this beauty has just about all you need and then some. Electric everything,  lots of leather including the wrap on the chunky steering wheel. Aircon of course but at the expense of my personal preference, a sun-roof. It's full of nice little touches and thoughts like the centre arm rest which folds and locks up out of the way ( it does obstruct the handbrake a little when down, though).

But that computer thing worries me intensely, both in its long term function cost of repair and, to be quite honest, design.   Check out how it cleverly integrates diagnostics, radio aircon, heater, sat nav, etc, etc into a single computerised LCD display.  See how it then stupidly has separate control buttons for virtually every function. Surely the idea is to have a mode and then one small set of buttons to control everything via the display? Other makers in the sector have gone that way.  Do I want to fiddle about finding a radio station whilst charging down the motorway using this interface?  Errmm, no thanks. Do I want to read a zillion page instruction book to turn the fan on?  No thanks.  Sorry guys, and it's not just Alfa, but I would rather just have a set of buttons/levers per gizmo.  And I’ll give the 50ghz in-car Pentium Pro a miss too, thanks very much, especially as I just know that in the days of the 500 or less computer system, this little gizmo is going to cost me and arm and a leg to fix when it all goes inevitably and horribly wrong.

Still, would I buy one of these and would I be happy with it?

Given that all makers are filling their cars with new fangled what's-a-me-thingy-me-bobs, I'm going to have to put up with that kind of stuff or drive a Lada for ever.  But if I was in the market for an exec cruiser, with a touch of Viagra included, I think I might just be swayed by that lovely badge and the possibility of boring my mates silly with long eulogies on the historical significance and superiority of the marque. So long as I've got hair, teeth and wishful daydreams.

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