New cars: Alfa Romeo 75

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Alfas with brio

Now a fully-fledged part of the Fiat Group, Alfa Romeo has a brighter and more secure future than ever before. Complete autonomy on engines is a particular aspect of the arrangement which will delight devotees of the marque, and two announcements in February underline Alfa Romeo’s expertise in this field.

For now, both the 3-litre V6 and the 2-litre twin-plug four-cylinder engines are exclusively installed in the 75 model, but they will be strong features of the type 164 which is to be announced in September.

Since the demise of the Alfasud, Alfa Romeo’s British market share has sunk abysmally to 2,233 units in 1986. The new TKM concession, based in Dover, now has the job of lifting the make off the floor, much as the Heron Group’s Lancar subsidiary has had to turn Lancia around. From that base it would be almost impossible not to succeed.

How successful the recovery will be remains to be seen. There is no ‘little Alfa’, like the Lancia Y10, to boost the registration figures, and the styling of the mainstream 33 and 75 models is not to everyone’s liking. But there is tremendous optimism in Milan for the type 164 (which will have a name or a new number before its debut at the Frankfurt Show), based on its Pininfarina styling and sheer driver-appeal.

If you want an Italian word to fit Alfa’s revised 75 models, it is “brio”. The engines, though quite different in design and configuration, are extremely powerful for their capacity and have their own characteristic noises, a snarl from the 2-litre and a zing from the 3-litre. Self-control will be required of the driver in speed-limited areas, for both these models are quite exhilarating.

They will be available on the British market in June or July, the 2-litre at just under £11,000 and the 3-litre Cloverleaf V6 at around £13,500. In terms of equipment and quality they will offer marvellous value for money, but Maurice Rourke, managing director of Alfa Romeo (Great Britain) Ltd acknowledges there is a lot of work to do on the marques image, acceptability, and retained values.

The 3-litre V6 has been anticipated for a couple of years, and develops a lusty 188bhp at 5800rpm. Both the bore and stroke have been increased, to 93 x 72.6mm for a capacity of 2959cc (the 2.5-litre engine, which continues in production, has a bore and stroke of 88 x 68.3mm). As before, it is fitted with the Bosch L-Jetronic injection system. The claimed performance figures are very satisfactory, with acceleration from rest to 62.5mph in 7.3sec and a top speed of 136mph.

The Alfa Romeo 75 Twin Spark 2.0, to give it its official name, is quite a masterpiece in power and torque. The aluminium block is little changed and the 1962cc capacity retained, but the twin overhead camshaft alloy head is entirely new. Each chain-driven camshaft drives a row of inlet or exhaust valves (two valves per cylinder, not four) with two plugs, each fed by its own distributor, located vertically in each combustion chamber.

The pistons are virtually flat-topped, apart from small valve indents, and the chambers are less domed than before. The valves, though, are inclined at an angle of 46°, instead of 80°, for improved combustion and compactness.

An interesting feature of the 2-litre is the Variable Inlet Valve Timing development, already used previously in the Alfetta. The positioning of the inlet camshaft, and hence the valve timing, is varied by oil pressure and electrical means at different engine speeds, allowing good low-speed torque (actually 130 lb ft at 3000rpm) and good characteristics at the top end.

The 2-litre engine is the first in Italy to have the full Bosch Motronic management system, and the combination of all these advanced features produces an exceptionally high power output of 148bhp at 5800rpm.

In the days of old-fashioned twin-choke carburettors that sort of output from a 2-litre Alfa Romeo could have been expected to result in peaky performance and flat-spots measured in chasms, yet the twin-spark engine is a revelation, as smooth and responsive as any customer could wish for.

Of the two, the 2-litre is the better balanced car, with fine handling and taut responses. The suspension system has been improved with stiffer springs and softer damper settings; there is a 25% limited slip differential, and front and rear anti-roll bars have been increased in diameter. The de Dion suspended rear transaxle system has undergone some refinement too, and a new type of single disc and `heavy duty’ clutch is fitted, with improved clamping pressure yet lighter in weight to reduce the inertial forces.

The gearchange is certainly improved, and is probably as good now as it can be with the clutch at the back. But it is marginally less efficient than the best competing designs, having a long, rubbery action on the lever, and is not especially fast.

These high-performing Alfa 75s are distinguished by side-skirt kits, extended arches to accommodate the wider Speedline/Alfa wheels (from the 1.8 turbo), and by polyurethane aerodynamic aids around the bootlid. The overall effect lacks synthesis (it could be said, more rudely, that the 75 is a hotchpotch of clashing lines) and visually, the newcomers don’t immediately appeal.

Driving is another thing, though, and the super engines, coupled to close ratio gear boxes, can be guaranteed to please sporty owners. The interiors are ornate, again fussy, with new orange instruments which are round instead of quadrant shaped. The velour seats are comfortable and well shaped, but still lack sufficient rearward adjustment.

In the foreseeable future, Alfa Romeo’s distinct styling and engine ranges are assured – just as Lancia has been allowed to develop its cars distinct from Fiat, without badge-engineering.

The combine will have an annual output of over 600,000 cars by 1991, more than Mercedes-Benz or BMW currently produce. Lancia will concentrate on high quality cars, Alfa Romeo on “sporty” cars, a plan which may also produce a new Spyder model. To mop up some of Alfa’s prodigious spare production capacity, Lancia Themas will also be built at Alfa’s Arese plant near Milan, and the Y10 at the Pomigliano plant near Naples.

One major decision which has yet to be taken concerns the future of the Nissan-Alfa Romeo agreement. A new letter of intent was signed by the companies last year for further co-operation, despite the marked lack of success of the Nissan Cherry Europe and the unloved Alfa Arna, now out of production.

A Nissan off-road vehicle might be produced at the modern Avellino plant in the south . . . but Fiat is historically hostile to Japanese penetration, and chief executive Vittorio Ghidella is believed to be unravelling the agreement as best he can. MLC