New cars: Alfa Romeo 164

On the quiet

The European Type 4 saloon family will be completed in September when the Alfa Romeo 164, a big front-drive model sharing its chassis design with the Saab 9000, the Lancia Thema and the Fiat Croma, makes its public debut at Frankfurt.

Power units will include the 148bhp 2-litre Twin Spark and the 192bhp 3-litre V6 (the two units earmarked for the British market), a 1.8-litre turbo developing 175bhp (for the Italian market), and a 117bhp 2.5-litre turbo diesel.

It looks, at last, as though the Italian make has come out of its bewildered state and made a determined effort to recapture the magic which used to be associated with its badge. Styling, by Pininfarina, is perhaps the best yet seen on this co-operative chassis; the instruments are clear and handsome; the driving position is exemplary; the ride comfort is superb, and performance excellent in all versions, the 2-litre and 3-litre models being particularly vivacious and satisfying. Four laps of a 12-mile circuit centred on Alfa Romeo’s Balocco test track near Milan is an admittedly brief introduction to the three leading models, but it was long enough to form an extremely favourable impression. Full-scale road tests will have to wait until the 164’s public debut, but Alfa invited a very limited number of European publications, including Motor Sport, to become acquainted with a car which is likely to be the most significant of the autumn announcements.

The presence of Vittorio Ghidella, chairman of the Fiat Group, lent weight to the introduction, and he made some interesting statements about the company which Fiat has controlled since January 1.

That Alfa Romeo will be re-established is beyond doubt, the plan to capture 1% of the European market suggesting 120,000 cars annually. In addition, Alfa Romeo has an eventual target of 60,000 car sales in America, and each new model introduced from now on will be targeted for the States. New models will include a two-door coupe version of the 164, a higher-performance 24-valve version of the V6 engine, and later a new sportscar and a front-drive replacement for the type 75.

Fiat will concentrate on volume production, Lancia on Iuxury and Alfa Romeo on high performance, though certainly not lacking in luxury. Ghidella is rather modest in confirming that Lancia would aim at Mercedes’ customers and Alfa Romeo at BMW’s, saying that “those are fine makes, with a high reputation”, but that is certainly the general direction.

Alfa Romeo is also working on its own four-wheel drive system, different from Lancia’s, which is likely to be seen when new versions, with more than 200bhp, appear.

Although the 164 seems to put its power down very well, film of the car cornering on the Balocco track with smoke pouring from its front tyres does underline the fact that only so much power can be applied to the steered wheels. Can a high-performing saloon be entirely satisfactory in front-drive form?

“Most people like front-wheel drive for its safety, stability and ease of driving,” says Ghidella. “We think we will need four-wheel drive for more powerful versions, but at the moment there are new problems to solve.”

Fiat did not have any control over the 164’s design and development, but there is no doubt that it would have been front-drive anyway. Alfa Romeo has made some fairly dramatic losses in the past few years and, with a total production of under 170,000 cars in 1986, could not possibly have developed its own top-line saloon without some form of cooperation . . and the Type 4 chassis cannot very easily be adapted to rear-drive. Now three of the four versions, all except Saab’s, are made by the Fiat Group, and the economies of scale are easy to imagine.

All versions of the 164 feature transverse power units which are tilted forwards to allow a low bonnet line, and the Cd is good at 0.305. The front and rear screens are bonded in place, the wipers semi-concealed when parked, and the doors have the characteristic Type 4 wrap-over at the top. A leading feature of the 164 is the prominent Alfa Romeo heart-shaped grille at the front, vital for model identification when the Type 4’s overall shapes have so much in common.

MacPherson struts are used for the front and rear suspensions, the rear having the usual semi-trailing arm wheel location, and Bosch ABS assists the braking for the four-wheel disc brakes. The steering system is power-assisted rack and pinion, and the steering column is adjustable for both height and reach, using one lock lever under the shrouding.

The V6 has air conditioning as standard equipment, and if there is one hangover from Alfa Romeo’s less distinguished period, it’s that there are no fewer than 22 rocker and push button switches around the fascia and centre tunnel.

First impressions are of a spacious and comfortable interior, with well-cushioned seats which have all the adjustment needed to accommodate tall and short occupants; the pedals, too, are well located and there is a wide footrest on the wheel arch.

Second impressions are of good acceleration, the V6 model having a delightful and characteristic hard-edged growl which would, for many people, justify the choice of a 164 over any of its rivals. The ride is surprisingly supple and noise levels very low, almost in the Jaguar class, though there is a small penalty in roll when turning into corners at speed. The Alfa’s springing does allow it to tilt a few degrees entering a corner, but the roll is controlled and is quite acceptable for a luxury saloon.

Of the models which will come to Britain in the summer of 1988, the 164 2-litre has a top speed of 130mph, and will accelerate to 62mph in a claimed 9.2 seconds, while the 3-litre has a top speed of 143mph and accelerates to 62mph in 7.7 seconds. They will both be regarded as top-performance models with a high degree of Iuxury, and are expected to reach the British market fully equipped, at prices which will substantially undercut those of German manufacturers.

No one is claiming Alfa Romeo’s haul back to respectability will be easy, least of all Signor Ghidella, but the 164 is the first of a new generation which cannot fail to impress potential buyers. If it builds a good reputation, and succeeding models recapture some of the glamour, Alfa Romeo should be on the way back by 1990. MLC