Road Impressions

Alfa Romeo 33 Green Cloverleaf

Alfa Romeo have altered their onetime policy of attempting to make inroads into the mass market in Britain, via the smaller engined versions of the 33 and the Arna, the Nissan-bodied and Sud-engined compact. The latter is no longer available in the UK although production has re-started in Italy, and the company is reverting to the niche it knows best, that of the unashamedly sporting motorcar. This big Six luxury saloon has been discontinued (though new examples are currently available for less than £8,000 — a real bargain given the equipment levels and that wonderful V6 motor), the 2-litre twincam GTE has similarly been long rumoured to disappear in favour of the GTV6 in this country, since the larger version outsells it by a substantial margin, and only the V6 version of the 90 (the new mediumsized saloon) will be sold in Britain.

Within the 33 range there have been changes, too. The attractive If conventional hatchback which has replaced the much-loved Alfasud offers more room and a tidier interior, together with most of the pleasant characteristics of that agile chassis with its boxer engine, and in this range too the less sporting cars have been weeded out, leaving only three models — 1.3S, 1.5S, and Green Cloverleaf. The "S" versions are more powerful for this year, sporting a new twin-choke carburetter set-up which pushes the 1,300 cc unit up to the power of last year's 1500 (86 bhp) and the 1.5 up to 95 bhp, with improved torque.

The green Cloverleaf badge denotes the fastest of each range, and the quickest 33 is equipped with the 1 5-litre engine of the Sprint coupe and the old Sud Ti, producing 105 bhp. Most Italian cars, and certainly all Alfas, have a pleasing rasp to the exhaust note, but that of the test car was obscured by a rather tinny vibration which was not what I remember about the boxer unit. Nor was the steering response anything like as crisp as other 33s I have driven, hampered by an enormous steering wheel and relatively low gearing, the car seemed to require a lot of effort to thread through back-street short-cuts, and to react overmuch to the throttle. I was so sure that this was not right that I jumped out to check the front tyre pressures after my first journey, but they proved correct.

Although the little Alfa was reluctant to turn in to a bend, it proved stable and grippy once set-up on the chosen radius, and showed good traction on a day of pouring rain, holding course even through snatched gear-changes in mid-bend. These are necessary because the engine has to be revved hard to perform properly, and while the change feels rubbery at lesser speeds, once on the boil the box and light clutch will swap gears as quickly as the lever can be pulled through the long gate.

The suspension of this relatively light car — McPherson struts ahead, rigid axle, trailing arms and coil springs behind — deals with most potholes rather well, at the expense of a somewhat joggly ride with only one person aboard: noise levels and overall refinement are acceptable, mechanical and tyre noise being apparent though not objectionable at motorway cruising speeds.

Inside, the Alfa 33 boasts a very stylish fascia layout, with a neat instrument binnacle which adjusts for tilt with the steering wheel to maintain a clear view of the easily-read dials, while a tall central unit contains three widely-adjustable air-vents and the pushbuttons for foglights, heated rear window and the electric windows which are standard. The radio is next down, and below this are the heater controls, with separate hot and cold air-blend levers to give instant temperature variation, and a noisy two-speed fan. Two outside vents introduce fresh air into the roomy cabin, and the rest of the dash area is made up of several useful trays and a shelf big enough to hold a briefcase. The doors too have elaborate pockets, including a penholder, the sort of nice touch which costs little but adds a good deal to the habitability. Head and leg-room are good, and the driving position quite comfortable, except that a smaller wheel would be very welcome both for handling and posture.

A detachable shelf covers up the boot area when required, and a 60:40 seat split is always useful, though stretching across to operate both releases at the same time is awkward. What's more, it is not quite possible to drop the seats while leaning through the hatch if the detachable sun-roof cover is stowed away — it slides behind the seats and is held by two rubber straps which spring the seats up again as soon as one lets go. The optional sun-roof itself has a screw-tilt mechanism, and central locking is included.

Alloy wheels of distinctive design and a shallow rear lower spoiler to complement the deep front one set the Green Cloverleaf apart from its brethren, and it comes with 185/60 Pirelli P6 tyres. Ergonomic drawbacks are the hidden choke-control (under the steering column and very stiff) and the fact that the hatch can only be released from inside by a lever beside the driver's seat. Although the loadspace is not flat with the seats down, it coped easily with a full-sized bicycle, minus its front wheel, and space for rear passengers is good too. A rear wash-wipe system is included.

To be honest. I was a bit disappointed with the performance of this particular Green Cloverleaf: it did not feel confident about changing direction, and the engine was only getting into its stride by the red line. The claimed top speed (I was not able to take performance figures) is 116 mph, but the car felt most comfortable at a rather lowly 60-65 mph on motorways. Country roads It tackled with more gusto, but the slow steering took the edge off these too. It is practical, and offers a good deal of bhp/ £ especially if you value a sporting name under you, and for £6,850 gives 0-60 mph acceleration in around 9.7 sec in a comfortable and well-equipped package. But this one at least did not feel like the GTi, rival many claim it to be. — G.C.

Alfa Romeo Postscript

Just as we went to press, the rumours concerning the future of Alfa Romeo GB Ltd were explained in an announcement from TKM plc. TKM or Tozer will now have control of management and marketing of Alfa in this country and have appointed Laurence Kemmish as Chief Executive of AR(GB) Ltd. Mr Kemmish was closely involved with the growth of the BMW marque in Britain.

Tozer plan to strengthen the dealer network and to shift the emphasis back to high-performance.